Successful Restaurant Owners Commit to Their Community

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[dropcap size=big]D[/dropcap]o unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” That’s the Golden Rule many children learn growing up, and it’s a maxim an increasing number of successful business people are now applying to their operating budgets.

It’s an important step in a jaded world where consumers don’t seem to trust the ethos of leading corporations. In fact, 61 per cent of respondents to the U.S.- and Denmark-based Reputation Institute’s “2014 Global RepTrak 100” report are “neutral” or “not sure” if companies are good corporate citizens that support good causes and protect the environment. This is according to the Forbes-published study that measures the reputation of 100 well-regarded companies across 15 countries, including Canada.

“Companies are facing major risks by not telling their story,” says Kasper Ulf Nielsen, executive partner, Reputation Institute, talking about corporate social responsibility (CSR). “The mix of social media and critical consumers is toxic, so companies need to get their good stories out there as a buffer to the negative claims.”

And customers are interested in socially responsible businesses. In fact, results from the “2013 Cone Communications/Echo Global CSR Study,” produced by Boston’s Cone Communications and the global Echo Research company, show Canadians are engaged in charitable work, and even if they don’t assert their passions, they want companies to follow their lead. So, business leaders need to get involved in their communities in a clear and consistent manner.

Examples of such philanthropic endeavors are plentiful. Coffee behemoth Oakville, Ont.-based Tim Hortons raised almost $12 million through fundraising activities this year to send thousands of kids to camp; Richmond, B.C.-based Boston Pizza has donated millions to youth-focused charities, and community outreach is key at the Oakville, Ont.-based Works Gourmet Burger Bistro. “In today’s world where corporate responsibility is often nothing more than a line item or a budgetary item, which isn’t taken very seriously, it’s something that’s part of our DNA,” Bruce Miller, chief marketing & development officer for the burger chain told F&H in 2012.

Community outreach remains integral to a company’s success. “The more boxes a restaurant can tick off … the more likely they can expand their base of customers,” affirms Kernaghan Webb, a Ryerson University professor and director of the Ryerson Institute for the Study of CSR in Toronto.

That’s the business case, but community outreach is indeed about more than a company’s Excel spreadsheet. “We’re fortunate [that] our customers reward us with their business, and we want to reward the community back with some involvement and support,” explains Keith Toppazzini, president and COO, of Barrie, Ont.-based Topper’s Pizza, which has raised $120,000 for Toronto’s SickKids Foundation since 2012 and supports food banks, women’s shelters, hockey teams and more on a store level.

“That’s how the world should work, and [it’s how] you become a good neighbour,” he adds.
Of course, it doesn’t always start out that way. “Initially there was somewhat of a pragmatic reason for wanting to get involved in the community,” admits Craig Flinn, owner and chef, Chives Canadian Bistro and 2 Doors Down Food + Wine in Halifax. “It was a way for us to — for lack of a better term — advertise that we wanted to be an active member of the community [and to] bring people through the door.”

But, Flinn quickly realized there were many other benefits. “We stand for something now, and I’m very proud of that, and I’m very proud of what we’ve done along the way to help organizations,” says the entrepreneur.

These days, Chives contributes $30,000 to $60,000 a year to charitable causes, and that number will only grow as its one-year-young, casual sister, 2 Doors Down Food + Wine, builds roots in the community. From working on the provincial organizing committee of the 2012 Canadian Chefs’ Congress in Nova Scotia to co-chairing the Taste of Nova Scotia Board and contributing food, time and/or money to fundraisers for Easter Seals (and soon Mealshare), Flinn gives generously.

The challenge is deciding which organizations to support. Ryerson’s Webb suggests leaders consider how they’d like their brands to be perceived and create an approach to giving that reflects the company and its customers. “No business should be spending money in the community if they can’t see how it aligns with their values,” he says.

Topper’s has defined its charitable demographic. “We naturally seem to be working with children and younger adults,” explains the COO. “They’re a focused customer for us. They pretty much make the decision in the family on what they’re going to eat, so it only makes sense that if they’re going to support us, we need to support them.”

In fact, the pizza chain, with 35 units in Ontario, centralized its community work further by choosing to spotlight SickKids. “We wanted the whole chain to focus on a charitable organization so that we could make a greater impact,” says Toppazzini, who stresses that community giving on the franchisee level is still encouraged. Among other programs, the company also has a “Raising Dough,” fundraising plan that facilitates the collection of an average of $7,000 per year for local organizations through the sales of discounted company gift cards.

In Halifax, Flinn often focuses on food-based charities, but with an average of three to six requests for charitable causes per week, he doesn’t always have the time or money to donate; instead he often alternates his support between the bigger charities from year to year.

David Hawksworth has a similar focus and strategy at Hawksworth Restaurant in Vancouver. He was inspired to encourage development of his peers while living in Europe 10 years ago, and, last year, the Hawksworth Young Chef Scholarship was born. “Being a chef, it’s a low-paying job, you work long hours, and this is a good way of inspiring young people and hoping they can get something out of this,” he says of the program, which offers a stage and $10,000 to the winning cook. But the toque’s charitable donations don’t end with his eponymous scholarship program. In fact, the restaurant has contributed to more than 300 charities in the past year, especially youth-based organizations such as B.C. Children’s Hospital and Vancouver’s CKNW Orphans’ Fund.

And, although many companies have limited resources, there’s always something a fledgling restaurateur can do to get involved. Hawksworth encourages potential contributors to find something “meaningful,” while Flinn suggests chefs and foodservice operators give their time by sitting on Boards or thinking creatively. “Sometimes the meal for 25 that we donate to one of the houses in town here is a cost of less than $10 in ingredients — two pounds of mussels, milk and potatoes, and you’ve got mussel chowder with bread,” offers the chef. “It hasn’t cost anything other than the cost of the ingredients, a little bit of time, and the reward is huge.”

When it comes to the bottom line, most foodservice proprietors see the bigger picture. “We don’t track the return on charity, simply because it’s just the right thing to do. It’s like keeping track of a favour, you just don’t do it,” says Toppazzini.

Flinn, who’s been leading a well-known business for 13 years, agrees: “For a business to really survive … you have to be an active member of your community, and you need to support one another.” For him quiet acknowledgment is enough. “That’s sometimes all I need to sleep really well,” he confides.

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