Niki Leondakis
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Niki Leondakis

Carolyn Jung / April 2011

Food Arts presents the April 2011 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Niki Leondakis, president and chief operating officer of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, the San Francisco--based chain that helped pioneer the concept of boutique hotels. Known for its distinctive properties, the number of which has nearly doubled nationwide in the past decade, Kimpton now manages 51 hotels, 54 restaurants, and about 7,100 employees across the country.

Since Bill Kimpton founded the company in 1981, it has been named twice in Fortune magazine's list of best places to work. Kimpton's restaurants break the mold with their chef-driven menus focused on local ingredients, and its rooms delight with wild zebra-print robes, Etch A Sketches stocked in honor bars, and even pet goldfish available upon request.

Leondakis, who joined Kimpton in 1993 as director of restaurant operations, says she couldn't be prouder to carry the torch for a company that was among the first to be not only environmentally aware with extensive recycling programs and green certification but also socially conscious. Kimpton started the San Francisco chapter of Dress for Success, an international nonprofit that provides job interview suits and career counseling for low-income women, and Leondakis now serves as its worldwide board chair. She also started a mentor program within the company to groom top employees as well as a diversity initiative to help create a workplace that embraces individuality.

Leondakis, 50, who married Bob Puccini of the San Francisco—based Puccini Group restaurant design firm a decade ago in Bali, has crisscrossed the globe and is on the road 80 percent of the time now. But when she was growing up in West Springfield, Massachusetts, travel was a luxury. In fact, the only place she would visit regularly as a child was the island of Crete, where her parents had a second home. As a girl, she dreamed about owning her own chain of restaurants. After graduating from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she was accepted into the Marriott's manager training program. That, along with her stint at Ritz-Carlton as a food and beverage director, piqued her interest in the hospitality side. As the daughter of an artist and an avid art student herself since attending art school when she was 11, Leondakis gravitated toward boutique hotels because she enjoyed working with designers to create just the right graphics, tabletops, and decor for each property. Even now, she still travels to see the model rooms conceived for every hotel and restaurant.

In the future, she says, Kimpton expects to add as many as five hotels a year and to expand overseas. But one thing won't change. "Our true point of distinction is that the customer feels genuine care," she says. "We want them to have a unique experience and know that they won't get this anywhere else."