FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (Nov. 15, 2012) -- At 11:30 a.m. on Nov. 8, just 15 minutes before the lunch crowd was set to enter the Freedom Inn Dining Facility, three judges in long white coats paced through the building taking notes, checking food temperatures and taking photos of the meals.

The three men, on their fifth of seven stops around the world, were critiquing every aspect of the Freedom Inn's operation with a rigorous list of objectives. The results would ultimately decide the winner of the 45th annual Philip A. Connelly Award, which recognizes excellence in food service, for the civilian garrison category.

"There's hundreds of Army food service operations in the world, and this is one of seven that rose to the top to compete for the best," said Ron Coneybeer, a Connelly Award judge. "I'd rank it against any civilian food service operation off the post. They do an awesome, awesome job."

The facility had been preparing for the competition since Oct. 18, with practice lunches served every Thursday.

On Nov. 8, when the judges arrived for their critiquing of the facility, the staff didn't miss a beat, said Melba Taylor, contract manager for the Maryland Business Enterprise Program at the Freedom Inn.

"I think we did great," she said. "We kind of know. Operationally we did well; the meal looked great."

The Freedom Inn is representing the Installation Management Command's Northeast Region in the Connelly Award. Out of more than 120 civilian-operated facilities in the Army, only seven were selected to compete in the prestigious competition.

Competitors include: U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr, Germany; DFAC 50, Fort McCoy, Wis.; Presidio of Monterey, Calif.: Army Drill Sergeant School, Fort Jackson, S.C.; and Casey Main Dining Facility, Camp Casey, Korea.

Chief Warrant Officer 5 Princio Texidor, a judge with the competition, told Freedom Inn employees that just being selected for the final judging sets them above the rest of the Army.

"You are the top seven, that says a lot," he said. "Just being in the top seven, you guys are winners. You are the cream of the crop, you are the best."

The judges, however, were looking for "the best best" out of the seven facilities, Texidor said.

Each facility is judged on a variety of categories that include food safety, supervision, serving, and food preparation and quality. The dinning halls start the competition with 1,000 points, with deductions taken for mistakes during the judging.

After their visit last week to the Freedom Inn, all three judges said they were impressed with the facility.

"I expected nothing less than what I saw," Coneybeer said. "It's a professional operation. It has a great feel as soon as you walk through the door, filled with a lot of dedicated, passionate people. And it shows in the food and it shows in the operation and it translates into great food for the service."

Judges have two more stops to make on their tour.

Winners will be announced within the next two months. The winner will be presented with the award in Dallas in mid-April.

Taylor is confident they will be there.

"We feel good about it," she said. "I think we will go to Dallas."