Maria Alston is a remarkable veteran leader with franchisee Summit Restaurant Group who has gone above and beyond to create a culture of belonging in her organization’s restaurants. She is heavily involved in her community and has been incredibly brave in recent years, sharing her personal story of how racial injustice has impacted her work family as well as her personal family.
She is authentic, vulnerable, courageous, and truly knows how to create an environment where customers and team members alike, feel like they belong … and feel like they’re part of the Pizza Hut® restaurant family. Her team says that she is resourceful, is approachable and that she loves what she does. She truly empowers her team to create and foster real connections with each other.
That’s why she was recently awarded the Pizza Hut Proud Award, presented by Pizza Hut, LLC U.S. Chief People Officer Jamie Harrison and Chief Operations Officer Chequan Lewis, pictured above to the left and right of Alston. And, that’s why Pizza Hut, LLC wants to share more about Maria!
Maria, how do you create a culture of belonging at your restaurants?
I am not afraid to share myself with my team. They are truly my family, and they know I would do anything for them just like they do for me. My team shares each other’s best and worst times in life – graduations, marriages, baby showers, birthdays, illnesses and funerals. We have always celebrated and cried together.
I started my first semester at Excelsior University this summer in hopes of receiving my degree in business. My goal is to show my team that working at a Pizza Hut® restaurant can make other things possible and help us become our best.
A few years ago, during a local protest, one of the restaurants you manage was damaged and you helped rally the community to come together. What other community happenings are you involved in?
I don’t do this alone or by myself. I have a great group of managers who make this all happen. The restaurants I manage are near a military base. Not only is there a close relationship with the military families, but my team members know the families by name. Recently, restaurant teams near the military base attended a ceremony to remember fallen service members and provided food for the families.
My restaurant managers and teams donate clothes, adopt families during the holidays, and donate food weekly through the Harvest Program to Brother Beno’s foundation which feeds families in need of a warm meal. The team also works with Teri Inc., a non-profit organization that provides training to individuals with autism and other disabilities, by training individuals to help give them a sense of responsibility.
How do you think the Pizza Hut Brand has progressed since the protests and what do you think is the next step?
I believe speaking up, listening, and showing support to our people was a huge first step. In a time of feeling helpless, afraid, and uncertain, I can’t begin to explain how empowering it was to have the president of Pizza Hut, LLC at the time, Kevin Hochman, say that Pizza Hut stands against racism, oppression, violence, hatred or intolerance towards Black people.
A lot of businesses were closing their doors and upset that people were protesting on their street. Summit Restaurant Group’ COO and CPO supported us by allowing its employees to miss work to protest and offer water and pizza to protesters. Summit Restaurant Group was not afraid of backlash because its people come first.
The next step is to continue to embrace and highlight Summit Restaurant Group’ employees for who they truly are. Continue to stand for and take pride in people of different genders, religions, sexual orientations, abilities, and ethnicities. Continue listening, speaking out and making changes as we continue to educate ourselves. But more than anything, Summit Restaurant Group trains its leaders to build relationships. Exclusion doesn’t always happen on purpose; too often people are simply not self-aware of their actions and the repercussions.
What did it mean to you to be recognized with the Pizza Hut Proud award?
I can’t put that feeling in words. I never intended to do any of this for recognition but for the sense of purpose and fulfillment, and hopefully to inspire others to speak up and be proud of who they are. My team inspires me because they are all very different and we all have been through so much. These struggles remind us that true leadership is about how we make others feel. Speaking up can make a huge difference to an individual or a whole community. I was just thrilled to feel heard and understood and to know that pizza is just a small part of who we are.