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Hill Diner has something to boast about – in addition to its famous banana cream pie.
This year, the diner’s co-owners, Denise Lane and Lori Novak, received the highest honor restaurant owners can achieve in New Mexico: New Mexico Restaurant Association’s award for Restaurateur of the Year.
“It was quite a shock,” Novak said. “We were pretty much speechless.”
“And for us, that’s pretty unusual,” Lane added.
The award, given at the Hospitality Industry Awards dinner held recently at the Embassy Suites in Albuquerque, recognizes not only the quality of the recipients’ restaurant, but also their work in the community, dedication to their staff and their longtime service in the industry.
Lane said she feels compelled, as a successful business owner, to give back to the community that’s supported her all these years. Nevertheless, she said at first she was surprised to win the award.
But when she thought about what the award represented, she realized, “We’re really vested in the community ee We are good corporate citizens. We deserve this award.”
Lane and Novak have shown their dedication over and over again. Lane has been in the business for 33 years, managing several restaurants in Texas before opening Hill Diner in 1986.
She hired Novak in 1990 as a waitress, but Novak quickly moved through the ranks to manager. The two opened a barbecue joint together, Hot Shots, and Novak ran both restaurants.
In 2006, Novak received another promotion, this time to co-owner of the Hill Diner.
The restaurant went through a complete remodel that year and has since seen a 50-percent growth in business, according to the restaurateurs’ award application, which the New Mexico Restaurant Association sent to the women upon their nomination.
Though owning a restaurant means an endless amount of work, Lane and Novak have both stayed active outside Hill Diner as well.
Lane has served on the Los Alamos County Council; the Planning and Zoning Commission; the Energy Communities Alliance in Washington, D.C.; and the Los Alamos Commerce and Development Corporation, as president and presently as a member of the board of directors.
She was a graduate of Leadership Los Alamos, campaign chair for the United Way of Northern New Mexico in 2006 and president of the Los Alamos Association of Realtors in 2007, and she currently serves on the 60th Anniversary of Los Alamos committee.
Novak works with both the New Mexico High School Rodeo Association and the Junior High Rodeo Association. She also serves on the Pion Elementary PTO, the Los Alamos Housing Authority Board and the Los Alamos Association of Realtors, as secretary and treasurer.
Lane and Novak team up to use their business to help the community. According to their award application, more than 40 percent of their staff is comprised of high school students, and “we like to demonstrate civic leadership to our young employees by actively involving the restaurant in fundraising events.”
In addition to sponsoring youth sports and rodeo, Hill Diner annually hosts United Way of Northern New Mexico’s primary fundraising event: a Teen Hamburger Night wherein “celebrities” – like the high school principal and the chief of police – serve the food, and all the profits go to the United Way. This year, the restaurant also hosted a Red Cross Night, where 10 percent of its sales went to the Red Cross.
But one of Lane and Novak’s favorite traditions involves preparing about 120 Christmas dinners the weekend before Christmas to deliver to housebound senior citizens. The holiday meals program has been running strong for seven years, and like so many aspects of the duo’s business, just keeps growing.
Lane and Novak completely share credit for their success with their staff of more than 50 employees, and Lane said the best part of receiving the restaurateur award was seeing the excitement of the young managers who accompanied the co-owners to the ceremony.
“It’s an award for all of them,” she said.