Charitable giving helps restaurants forge connections, give back

For many consumers, choosing a restaurant isn’t just about the food, the ambiance or the value -- it’s about values. Diners want to know that they’re patronizing places that share their values and give back to causes they care about. Forging customer connections by giving back to the community is a core value for many restaurants -- 94% of restaurants make charitable contributions, which add up to about $3 billion a year, according to data from the National Restaurant Association.

“Consumers want to support brands that have values similar to their own. They want to see their values reflected by the brands with whom they do business,” said Stephen Loftis, vice president of marketing for Firebirds Wood Fired Grill.

“At Firebirds, for example, we are doing our part to give back to those in our communities by partnering with Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, and our guests, in turn, see and respect that effort, thus deepening the relationship Firebirds has with the community. A restaurant’s success is ensured by building long-lasting relationships with guests.”

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Firedbirds hosts ALSF events at all its locations. (Photo: Firebirds Wood Fired Grill)

The partnership with ALSF began “in fall 2012, as it was a natural fit to align our brand with the foundation. We felt it was a great way to weave ourselves into the fabric of our community and give back to those that support our mission,” Loftis said.

The Charlotte, N.C.-based company hosts Alex’s Lemonade Days each June at all its locations where all the proceeds from its lemonade stands go toward fighting childhood cancer, and Firebirds is a sponsor of ALSF’s annual Lemon Ball. This year, the company will host the first ever ALSF Golf Tournament in Charlotte, Loftis said.

ALSF started in 2000 when 4-year-old Alexandra “Alex” Scott opened a front yard lemonade stand to raise money for the hospital that was treating her for neuroblastoma. In addition to Firebirds, the charity’s restaurant sponsors include Applebee’s, Auntie Anne’s and Rita’s Italian Ice. By making its partnership with ALSF a highly visible part of its brand, Firebirds is able to generate maximum awareness for the cause and raise money all year long, not just at special events. The restaurant donates $1.25 from each glass of lemonade glass sold at its restaurants to ALSF, and customers can also donate online. Through this combination of efforts, Firebirds has raised more than $1 million for ALSF to date.

While partnering with one charitable organization -- especially one as widely known as ALSF -- can be a winning strategy for restaurants and charities alike, some restaurant brands choose to let store operators choose individual charities. This approach allows companies to spread donations out to various causes, and choose organizations that have special significance to their local customers.

Jersey Mike’s Subs uses this approach with its annual Month of Giving, which is now in its eighth year. The idea for the fundraising event was born in 2010, when 11 Jersey Mike’s Dallas/Fort Worth locations partnered with Wipe Out Kids’ Cancer on a month-long program, raising $50,000 for the charity, said Hoyt Jones, president of Jersey Mike’s Franchise Systems.

“It was such a success that the next year, we decided to take the program national and Month of Giving was born,” Jones said. “We’ve come a long way in the last eight years. Last year, with the help of our generous customers, Jersey Mike’s raised more than $5.5 million for local charities nationwide.”

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Jersey Mike's Subs kicks of Month of Giving in Dallas with Wipe Out Kids' Cancer (Photo: Jersey Mike's Subs)

The Month of Giving runs all through March, and the last Wednesday of the month is designated the Day of Giving, when Jersey Mike’s owners across the country give 100% of sales to their charity partners. Of the $5.5 million raised last year, $4.6 million came in on the Day of Giving, Jones said, adding, “we hope to break that record this year.”

This year, Jersey Mike’s locations are partnering with more than 170 charities across the country, from children’s hospitals to food banks. “In each market, restaurant owners select charities that make a big difference when it comes to supporting local neighborhoods and building a stronger community,” Jones said.

“Because our franchisees are the ones who select their local causes, they are passionate about helping these groups in their local communities and feel invested in their success.”

This idea of partnering with charities based on what causes are important to the local community led to the launch of GroupRaise. The startup launched in 2011 with a goal of connecting restaurants with charitable organizations to raise funding for their causes and help restaurants increase foot traffic.

Seeing local restaurants around his Houston, Texas, hometown that wanted to partner with charities but didn’t have a way to make the connection inspired Chief Executive Officer Devin Baptiste to launch GroupRaise. The first event the company facilitated was a fundraiser for a local high school marching band with 20% of sales going to the band. “On the night of the event, the restaurant expected only like 30 people to show up, and 300 people came,” Baptiste said.

Today, GroupRaise has upwards of 8,000 restaurant partners donating to some 25,000 charities  in more than 150 cities, and has raised more than $1 million in funding to help it grow. Restaurants that work with GroupRaise range from small independent eateries to national chains that include California Pizza Kitchen, Bertucci’s and Jason’s Deli.

The platform allows restaurants to create an account where local non-profit organizations can request events online that the restaurant operator can respond to with just a few clicks. Most events are held on slower days as a way to help drive traffic to the restaurant, and Baptiste said the events have proven effective in driving new and repeat business.

“Per 100 customers that goes to a GroupRaise meal, for 40% of them it’s their first time at the location, 82% spend more than they would on average and 96% say they’re planning on coming back,” he said. From a customer psychology perspective, charitable giving is better than discounting or couponing for getting customers to come back through the door, Baptiste said. With discounted meals, consumers aren’t as likely to return knowing they’ll have to pay full price on their next visit, but since donations are taken from full-price meals, consumers feel better about paying the same price on their next visit, and the restaurant now has an added positive association with a cause that is important to them.

Building these types of connections helps restaurants cultivate loyal customers, which helps the bottom line and makes it possible for restaurants to grow their fundraising capabilities and continue to give back.

“It’s a gratifying cycle,” Jersey Mike’s Jones said of charitable giving. “The more successful we are as a business, the more we can support important causes in the community.”


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