Jim Pardini, a prominent Fresno restaurateur and catering owner, is this year’s winner of the Leon S. Peters Award for community and business leadership.
The Fresno Chamber of Commerce surprised Pardini with the announcement of its top business honor Tuesday at a gathering at Pardini’s Banquets and Catering in northwest Fresno.
“Oh my God,” Pardini exclaimed when he entered the banquet room to be greeted by chamber dignitaries and past Peters award recipients. “I’m really speechless, and that’s rare for me.” Pardini was lured into the banquet room by lighting company owner James Ashjian under the pretense of evaluating new light fixtures for the business.
The award is akin to a lifetime achievement award in Fresno’s business community and has been presented each year since 1984. It is named for longtime businessman, civic leader and philanthropist Leon S. Peters, the son of Armenian immigrants who rose to business success as the owner of Valley Foundry & Machine Works. The award criteria recognize a recipient’s business accomplishments as well as personal and public service to the community.
Pardini will be formally presented with the award, a bronze medallion, at the chamber’s Valley Business Awards luncheon in February.
“This is doubt the highest honor I’ve ever received in my life,” Pardini said. “I’ve received a lot of awards, industry awards and things like that, but to receive this award is phenomenal.”
“I’ve catered the award for years and years, since its inception. And I’ve always admired all the people who have received this award,” he added. “They are kind of a group of people that I’ve not only known, but worked for and I know their work ethic and what they’ve done for the community. … Never in my wildest dreams did I think this day would come.”
Pardini, 71, began working in the restaurant industry when he was 13 years old, washing dishes the restaurant operated by his father, Albert, at the old Cedar Lanes bowling alley. After completing high school and college, he went to work for his dad. “I had other aspirations for other things, but my dad convinced me that there was future for me in this business, so I went with it,” he said.
He tended bar at the old Palm Lakes Golf Course and at the Hi-Life restaurant that his father owned until selling out in 1968 to launch the first Pardini’s Restaurant in the Sunnyside area of southeast Fresno the following year. When Albert Pardini opened the second Pardini’s location on West Shaw Avenue in northwest Fresno in 1971, Jim Pardini became manager of the Sunnyside restaurant. He moved to the Shaw restaurant when the family sold the Sunnyside site in 1976. When his dad retired in 1981 and sold the Shaw Avenue Pardini’s, Jim Pardini launched Pardini’s Catering.
Over the intervening years, Pardini opened and operated other restaurants in Fresno, including Tony Roma’s and Rubio’s. He was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the Best of the Valley restaurant awards.
He has built a significant community service legacy as well, contributing time and funds to support a range of charitable foundations and organizations from health care to the Fresno County Public Library. But Pardini said his heart is with organizations that help Fresno’s children and teens. “I’ve been involved with the Boys & Girls Clubs and heavily involved with Big Brothers/Big Sisters,” he said. “I like youth-oriented charitable programs; that’s where I’ve put most of my energy.”
Stan Oken, owner of Wonder Valley Resort east of Fresno, was among the past Peters award recipients who congratulated Pardini after the announcement. “He really bailed me out about 15 years ago when we had a fire at Wonder Valley,” Oken said. “We had about 150 people up there, and our kitchen was shut down by the fire. … By that night, Jim had sent two portable kitchens up there and we used those all summer to keep going. That’s just the kind of guy he is.”
Other past honorees include Wawona Frozen Foods president/CEO William Smittcamp, former Fresno Bee president/publisher Ray Steele Jr., former Fresno County Superintendent of Schools Peter Mehas, International English Institute founder Anne Speake, longtime business leader and former Fresno City Councilman Joe Williams, retired Fresno County Superior Court Judge Robert Oliver, Ruiz Foods founder Fred Ruiz, and longtime auto dealership owner James Hallowell.