Dollarphotoclub_81936911More data from the frontlines about the bottom line benefits of corporate philanthropy, this time with a focus on restaurants. The recent No Kid Hungry summit in Washington, D.C., which addressed how the restaurant industry can combat childhood hunger, also emphasized how strong charity programs can help recruit and retain top-level employees.

The summit brought together No Kid Hungry activists, chefs, local and national leaders and other champions of the cause to support the mission of the nonprofit Share Our Strength, which engages the public to make ending child hunger a national priority. The organization also connects kids in need with nutritious food and teaches their families how to cook healthy, affordable meals.

Share Our Strength recognizes the important role that the restaurant industry can play in alleviating the hunger experienced by 1 in 5 American children, and has launched a program called Dine Out for No Kid Hungry to bring together restaurants, suppliers, media and trade organizations to raise millions of dollars for this cause. Nine thousand multi-unit restaurants helped raise $9 million for the program last year.

As reported by Restaurant News, Diane Hovey, the managing director of Dine Out for No Kid Hungry, issued recommendations for how restaurant brands can successfully incorporate community giving into their overall business plans. She noted that philanthropy programs can be effective at attracting and retaining top employees in the competitive restaurant industry.

Hovey was most recently the CMO of Corner Bakery Cafe and had plenty of data to share to prove her point. Corner Bakery became involved in the Dine Out program the year that it launched, in 2008, and from the beginning Hovey measured the employee engagement connection to the company’s philanthropy. Three thousand employees were asked, “How proud are you of the way Corner Bakery gives back to the community?” In 2008, 62% of employees responded that they were “very proud.” In 2010, that number rose to 90 percent.

According to the National Restaurant Association, 94% of restaurants make charitable contributions, adding up to a total $3 billion per year. The public mostly recognizes this benevolence, with 72% believing that restaurants are giving back to their communities.

When it comes to giving back, many restaurants focus on what they know best: food. According to the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF), roughly eight in 10 restaurants donate food as part of their corporate philanthropy, ranging from giving to food banks to cooking meals in low-income neighborhoods.

At the same time, food waste is also epidemic. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the United States throws out 40% of its food every year. That’s not half-eaten sandwiches; that’s totally edible food that any hungry person would be happy to have. All told, this amounts to $165 billion in food waste every year.

Darden Restaurants has addressed this disparity by focusing on reducing food waste. Launched in 2004, the Darden Harvest Program partners with local food banks to provide immediate hunger relief. This exercise in corporate philanthropy has tangible results for less fortunate families, with Darden donating 10.4 million pounds of food valued at $105 million in one year alone, and giving more than 60 million pounds of food to hunger relief agencies since the program’s inception.

When I wrote about Darden in the past, I pointed out that Darden had also donated over 330,000 pieces of plates to hunger relief agencies in need of new dishes, or to Habitat Restore Resale Outlets, allowing the latter to raise money to help build new homes in the community. More than just providing a functional dining experience for people receiving food assistance, this is a significant chunk of money that hunger relief organizations will not have to spend on replacing old plates.

Darden believes that its commitment to engaging the people and communities where they do business leads directly to more engaged employees. The company’s leaders see how community outreach helps Darden’s employees improve their effectiveness by feeling better about their work and, in turn, improving their interactions with guests. Darden’s ethos is that an engaged employee is particularly important in the restaurant industry, and community service is an essential morale booster that consistently improves engagement across the board.

Noting the clear bottom line benefits of community engagement, the National Restaurant Association has issued these recommendations to restaurant leaders on meaningful ways to target their philanthropy efforts:

  • Donate part of your sales to hunger-relief programs or find a benefit in your area. Supporting anti-hunger initiatives and programs that address food waste are logical fits for the restaurant industry. To get involved in the nationwide effort to end childhood hunger, Share Our Strength helps restaurants find fundraisers in their area. Also consider hosting a holiday celebration for people at risk of hunger or others in need.
  • Donate surplus food to a food bank. If you don’t have leftovers, consider this a special service. Use your buying power to purchase large quantities of food at wholesale prices and/or cook extra food to donate. For more information about food banks in your area and especially non-perishable foods, check out Feeding America. Food Donation Connection also can find local charities that accept prepared, perishable food and can help you realize the tax benefits for making donations.
  • Look for existing community events to support. Many communities hold “Taste of” events organized by local restaurant associations, chambers of commerce or nonprofits to benefit specific causes.
  • Ask customers for inspiration. Building customer relationships by linking your restaurant to causes that customers care about is a smart way to give back to the community. But also remember that the most successful community programs and partnerships are ones that have special meaning to company leaders and employees.
  • Designate a percentage-of-sales day. Many companies select a day (typically a Monday or Tuesday when restaurants tend to be a little slower) to donate a percentage of sales to a given charity, ideally ones that resonate with customers and employees.
  • Get involved in disaster relief. Restaurants have an important role to play in assisting emergency-aid workers and community residents after a disaster. On a happier note, restaurants can also assist local festivals that gather the community together.
  • Work with your local schools. Sponsor a local school and provide students with special lunches and prizes in exchange for reaching attendance and coursework goals, or provide apprenticeship opportunities to interested students.

All of this is helpful, but in order to engage employees in your community impact, it’s not enough to simply give back; you’ve got to get employees aware of and activated around your efforts. Toward that end, panelists at the No Kid Hungry summit offered three recommendations for the Dine Out program, which are applicable to any philanthropy program:

  1. Communicate before, during and after: As an example of how restaurants can get the message out, Denny’s took its senior team — directors from both company and franchise units — on a tour to meet children and teachers in the classrooms before its September campaign launched. The company also sent videos to every one of its restaurants and set goals with each one, communicated progress during the campaign with photos, and provided videos after the event and reward plates for the Top 10 restaurants.
  2. Provide a toolkit: Tommy Bahama sent informational packets to its restaurants and offered daily suggestions throughout its campaign so that everyone understood why they were participating. Employees were also provided with a “daily fact” throughout the 30-day campaign to maintain momentum, social media was leveraged to inform customers, a company-wide video was shown to employees, and servers were given scripts to make it easier for them to engage with their guests on this campaign, so that both servers and guests were as educated as possible.  All of this kind of planning pays off in increased sales; as one example, Grimaldi’s saw a 12% increase in same-store sales year-over-year in September because of the excitement around the program.
  3. Create energy by following through on the message and sharing results: Success begets success and inspires others to do better. The Corner Bakery Café location in Orange County, Calif. saw an 8% increase in sales over the previous September, which is generally a slow sales month. It’s important to keep everyone informed and engaged by sharing how locations are performing compared to others as well as compared to its own prior years’ results.

Like businesses in any industry, restaurants must seize opportunities to capitalize on their strengths to give back to their communities while engaging their employees and increasing customer loyalty. Feeding the hungry while firing up inspiration through concerted employee outreach is an ideal recipe for impact all around.