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FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar at Radisson Blu Mall of America

The salad and sandwich combo at Firelake Grill House & Cocktail Bar in Minnesota, where proceeds from dishes regularly go to charity.

Charitable Strategies

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By Bryan Reesman June 2015

Restaurants have a long history of charitable giving, and are inundated with requests for contributions. The challenge is finding the right fit for the brand and getting the word out in a way that maximizes efforts. Some restaurants choose to partner with local charities, some with national, and many will support both types. The best results stem from good intentions, promotional savvy, and creative fundraising.

Supporting good causes also reflects well on the hosts: A 2013 Cone Communications/Echo Global CSR Study found that when corporations support social and environmental issues, consumers are highly likely to be more loyal to them.

Finding the Right Partner

George McKerrow is CEO and co-founder of Ted’s Montana Grill as well as chair of the No Kid Hungry Dine Out Advisory Council. Ted’s Montana Grill began working with No Kid Hungry’s Share Our Strength campaign in 2008, a natural fit for the restaurant that has long championed children’s causes.

“Starting in 2010, we figured out the program resonated best with a weeklong or month-long campaign to benefit our guests, our team members, and the communities in which we do business,” McKerrow explains. He adds that while the No Kid Hungry campaign typically resonates with the largest and more chain-oriented companies, “we’ve always worked with the chef-driven aspect, and this was to bring the mainstream of restaurants to play and really make a difference.”

The Melting Pot, part of Front Burner Brands, has partnered with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital since 2003. It started small,” says Bob Johnston, CEO of Front Burner Brands. “I went to St. Jude and it was pretty clear during my [first] visit that we found the right charitable partner. There are many commonalities between the way they choose to operate and the things that are important to them and to us.”

Larger or national charities can separate themselves from the pack in the way they get their message out, which adds value back to those who contribute.

“There are those who’ve learned to maximize social media and have an advertisement campaign behind it so that awareness of the event starts five or six weeks in advance,” says Executive Chef Paul Lynch of the two-unit FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar in Minnesota. “It makes it much easier for us to participate and do good if that organization can create 50,000 impressions over the next two weeks or two million impressions over the next six weeks. You have justification to move some media dollars from one pocket to another.”

Naturally there must be a balance between charitable awareness and brand awareness when qualifying local or national partners.

“If you’re talking about payoff in terms of exposure for the brand, clearly partnering with a charity that has a national preference and a high brand awareness, which St. Jude does, is probably going to result in more attention for your brand,” Johnston says. “Is there a benefit to national charity? Yes, but we also want to support local charities. The really cool thing about the partnership with St. Jude is by supporting them we are helping our local communities ... [since] they treat patients from all over the country.”

Supporting both national and local charities was on the mind of executives at Level Two, a restaurant located inside the Hyatt Chicago Magnificent Mile. Give Kids The World is the national partner, while Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital directly impacts the communities surrounding the hotel. During the two-week Chicago Restaurant Week celebration in 2014 and 2015, Level Two donated 50 percent of its $22 prix fixe menu to the hospital. Diners also had the option of rounding up their bills, which yields meaningful amounts, says Doug Dean, general manager of the Hyatt Chicago Magnificent Mile. “We see more of the tangible benefit of our efforts with a local charity,” Dean says. “I think the real benefit is interacting with families whose lives we touch. It brings it to a more meaningful level for the staff.”

Divvying up Donations

Restaurants that fundraise for charitable causes have endless means of determining how to raise the money. Common methods include giving diners a coupon for a future visit if they donate, donating a percentage from each meal back to the beneficiary, or inviting guests to round up their bills, as Level Two does.

Last fall, The Melting Pot raised more than $600,000 for St. Jude through a two-month campaign. Guests who donated $10 were given a credit for $20 off a future purchase of $50 or more. The restaurant has raised more than $9 million during its relationship with St. Jude.

Similarly, when Ted’s Montana Grill raised money for the No Kid Hungry campaign last fall, customers who made a $5 contribution received a $5 voucher. “Our same-store sales in September with the No Kid Hungry campaign were 9.4 percent positive,” McKerrow says. “In October, when we claimed the bounce backs, we were again at 9.4 percent same-store sales increase. I don’t want to attribute 100 percent of that to the activation of the No Kid Hungry campaign, but a great deal of it [could correlate to the campaign]. It’s a very effective way [of fundraising], and last year we raised $210,000 in 44 restaurants.”

Spreading the Word

Getting the charitable word out to customers is integral to success. “Developing a script and effectively communicating the benefit is really important to the success of our initiative,” Dean at the Hyatt Chicago says, “and it’s not as complicated when you think about rounding up a bill in the restaurant or bar. It’s a similar type of operational execution that we’ve gotten much better at.”

In some cases, team members will feel connected to a cause that directly affects family or friends. Other times, connecting workers to their mission can be very effective. The Melting Pot sends 20 employees annually to St. Jude in Memphis, Tennessee, to show them what their work really means. “Many [organizations] will bring upper management, but we prefer to bring the team members who are interacting with guests because that’s where the magic happens and that’s where the story is told,” Johnston says.

FireLake Grill House & Cocktail Bar has worked with the No Kid Hungry campaign, The Aliveness Project, and Breaking Free, which fights human trafficking. “It’s a symbiotic relationship—we will only be as healthy a business as the community is healthy,” says Chef Lynch. “[You] cannot have a close connection to your community, to the world around you, and not care about what’s going on in the community.