Charitable Giving | January 2014 | By Sam Oches

The Good Neighbor

Giving back to the community takes more than a financial investment.

Quick service operators like &pizza invest in neighborhood with time and money.
&pizza co-owners Michael Lastoria, left, and Steve Salis work diligently to ensure their restaurants reflect the neighborhoods they’re in. &pizza
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Roll tape. Two women behind a cluttered counter smile into the camera, a range of designer outfits framing the wall behind them. They talk of a dream to open a business, a love for their corner of Washington, D.C.

Cut to individual glimpses of two men, one laughing as he sits on an orange leather sofa, the other staring contentedly into the camera, a disheveled artist’s studio enclosing him, paints splashed on the background wall. Voiceovers talk of music, of art, of the investment the community makes into these things.

And now a young man guides a can of spray paint along an aged wall, a stream of brown arcing downward along a canvas of oranges, purples, and blues. Looking into the camera, he explains his passion for graffiti and the wave of support his community has provided in him following this passion.

This isn’t a production from the Washington, D.C., tourism bureau. It is a video compiled by &pizza, a new pizza concept that moved into the U Street Corridor in the nation’s capital last summer and produced the video spotlighting the neighborhood. But there is no pizza in the video. There are no customers; there is no branding. Without &pizza’s signature ampersand fading in from black at the end of the video, viewers might not realize it was the restaurant’s production at all.

This is intentional. Like many other quick serves across the country, &pizza is building its core identity around its local community and the neighborhoods it serves. In each of its two units—and the three more under construction in the D.C. metro area—&pizza markets only through grassroots means, sharing stories from local residents and offering pizza and support to charities and causes working to make the neighborhood a better place.

“When we set up shop, we want to make sure we do our research and that we come into a neighborhood understanding its history and understanding what it’s been through,” says Michael Lastoria, &pizza co-owner. “In doing that research, we meet a lot of interesting people who have amazing stories to tell. We feel like, since we’re already there and we’re already listening and we’re already hearing these stories—they’re powerful, they’re inspiring, and they need to be told. So if we can be a small part of that story-telling experience about these neighborhoods, then why not do it? It’s the right thing to do.”

Investing in and giving back to the community is not a new concept in the quick-service restaurant world. But today, restaurants are becoming more than just a source for financial support. With food culture more popular than ever and the story behind food especially important to Millennials, full-service and quick-service restaurants alike are becoming integral members of their communities and even helping to rejuvenate their surrounding areas, spurring economic development. &pizza’s two operating units, for example, threw open their doors in gentrifying neighborhoods—D.C.’s U Street and H Street Corridors—that are springing back to life after years of decay.

To Lastoria and co-owner Steve Salis, both spots were perfect real estate for a pizza concept.

“The community pizza shop, it’s like a beacon,” Salis says. “When Michael and I were growing up, there was a place that we frequented where we grew up, and we felt like if we could bring this neighborhood vibe, this sort of community space, and use pizza as an excuse to do that, we really would have an opportunity to connect with our guests.”

Rob Gifford, executive vice president of philanthropic initiatives for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF), says the country is rife with examples of cities that turned around economically with the help of a lively restaurant community. Historically, he says, operators have found great success by giving back to their customers and integrating the business with the community. It’s partly what encouraged the NRAEF to launch its Restaurant Neighbor Award 16 years ago, an award given out to large, medium, and small restaurant businesses that devise unique ways by which they support their surrounding areas.

“The industry is uniquely positioned within the local economy, and we’ve always celebrated the importance of giving back and fully investing in that local community,” Gifford says. “We believe that it’s not only the right thing to do, but it can impact and invest in lives in the local community, as well as ultimately pay dividends for the business.”

That has been true at &pizza, which is growing quickly as it invests in its local neighborhoods. The company capitalizes on its interior design to communicate the community’s story, posting pictures of the area’s development over the years along with images of current residents. &pizza also launched its Cause campaign, which sponsors area organizations with free pizza and financial support. Lastoria says the brand is getting three to five requests a week from groups and organizations hopeful for sponsorship. He and Salis rarely say no.

“We think there are two things that are really important to creating a brand: prediction and emotion, or how predictable the business is and how much emotional sentiment is drawn when people think about the &pizza brand,” Lastoria says. “It’s the stuff that we do on the interiors, like providing people context around the neighborhood, from where it began to where it is today, and then focusing on the customers, the people that live in and work in those neighborhoods, bringing them in and making them the brand.”

The heightened commitment to local communities isn’t confined to independent operators. National chains that have for years promoted their efforts to financially support high-profile charitable causes are now refocusing their attention on communities to help connect customers to their local stores.

Which Wich is one national chain furnishing its store operators with a system that allows them to make an impact in their communities. The 10-year-old, 300-unit sandwich chain is rolling out a proprietary cause called Project PB&J that will integrate individual stores with their neighbors. The initiative follows the buy-one-give-one model, made popular by TOMS Shoes; every peanut butter and jelly sandwich sold at Which Wich logs a free PB&J in a company database. Store operators can then access those sandwiches to provide for their community in a variety of situations, such as to respond to a natural disaster or to feed the hungry.

Jeff Sinelli, founder and chief vibe officer of Which Wich, says the company is striving to invest more in the idea of “conscious capitalism,” a growing movement led by companies like grocer Whole Foods and outdoor gear supplier Patagonia that encourages businesses to focus on a bigger purpose than profitability. Sinelli attended the Conscious Capital Summit last year in Dallas and connected with a handful of entrepreneurs who are helping him get Project PB&J off the ground.

“You don’t do it to get the badge. There are companies out there … that are trying to strap onto this to get the badge so they can say they’re a conscious capital company,” Sinelli says. “It’s something you don’t go out to earn; it should be natural, because this is who you are about and this is your purpose.”

Project PB&J, which officially launches in April, will include several different company-sponsored assets, including backpack kits that give restaurants easily accessible field equipment and possibly even branded vehicles to outreach in individual communities. Franchisees will also be prepared to host educational sessions at schools to raise awareness on the issue of hunger.

Sinelli says sales are up around 30 percent at the three corporate stores where Which Wich tested Project PB&J. That came despite the fact that the brand is not marketing the initiative heavily, instead investing in point-of-purchase materials that explain the cause.

“It’s miraculous what’s going on,” Sinelli says. “Now I’ve got to take that into the franchise environment and say, ‘Look, this stuff works.’ We’re inviting our partners to go out to San Diego in April to the Conscious Capital Summit, because when you put yourself around people that you can learn from, you can become a better person yourself. And if you become a better person yourself, now you can do better things in your community and your company.”

Similar to Which Wich, Arby’s has concentrated its community work on fighting hunger in individual communities across the U.S. The roast beef chain was awarded the NRAEF’s Restaurant Neighbor Award in 2013 for its tireless work in support of Share Our Strength’s “No Kid Hungry” campaign. The company has raised more than $5 million for the cause the last two years.

Kate Atwood, executive director of the Arby’s Foundation, says the company’s partnership with Share Our Strength has been a national, holistic effort that is executed at the ground level by individual operators in their local communities. Arby’s franchisees and store operators bring the Share Our Strength partnership to life in their local markets by ensuring area kids have access to nourishing foods when they’re not in school, like on the weekends and during the summer.

“We felt really compelled to get into this work because we could operate as a national foundation and help with some of those national programs and systems, but also we have a whole army of franchisees and employees who can really help us with the local programs and the local agencies to get boots on the ground,” Atwood says.

She adds that the fact that Arby’s is a national chain does not prevent franchisees and employees from becoming integrated into their communities.

“I think food is always a great vehicle to bring people together, and to bring people together in a happy spirit,” she says.

Gifford says national chains are perfectly suited to serving their localized markets, so long as both franchisee and franchisor take advantage of the resources each side brings to the table.

Equipping Which Wich franchisees with the assets they need to serve their communities, Sinelli says, is a win-win situation because the company starts a conversation between local store operators and customers.

“Now they can talk about Which Wich, they can talk about the cause, they can talk about both, but in the true form of conscious capitalism, everyone is going to win on this,” he says. “When you create platforms where everybody wins in today’s economy, we can take everyone together forward.”

As with most trends affecting the quick-service industry today, demand from Millennials is largely driving the push toward a firmer investment in the community. Countless studies have shown that the demographic, roughly ages 20 to 35, is increasingly committing its dollars to socially responsible companies that stand for a higher cause.

Because of Millennials’ buying power—the generation is roughly 80 million members strong in the U.S. and is starting to have children—being invested in the local community will soon be a non-negotiable for restaurant operators, Gifford says.

“The data that I’ve seen over the last few years on the different groups—the Baby Boomers, the Gen X, the Millennials—for the younger generation … it’s extraordinarily important to them as employees to feel that they are working for an employer that cares about their local community, and an employer that they can feel good about working for,” he says. “And it’s extraordinarily important to them as customers to patronize and frequent businesses that meet that same standard.”

Millennials are also increasingly opening their own businesses, embedding their values into the DNA of their concepts from the very beginning. Such is the case at &pizza, where 33-year-old Lastoria and 30-year-old Salis are building a business on values and ideas they’ve always known and expected.

“We grew up in an area where it’s very anti-corporation, and everything is kind of moving back to its origin and back to its roots, and so the community is becoming more important than ever,” Lastoria says. “It’s more about starting off by doing the right thing, and if there’s a business there, great, but it’s more important that you do the right thing first.”

It could be two women who recently opened their own clothing store, a musician playing gigs around the neighborhood, or a graffiti artist following his passion for street art into an unconventional career. No matter who the locals are, what they look like, or what they do, they comprise a community base with at least one thing in common: they all need to eat.

“People have very personal relationships with restaurants that they probably don’t with other businesses,” Gifford says. “With that comes a great obligation, though. There’s an expectation that since you are such a key part of the community, that you truly are of the community, and that’s where community service and community involvement tie back in.”