It usually takes a trade show or the threat of legislation to bring quick-service competitors together, but occasionally the industry puts business aside and rallies around a single cause. In the wake of the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina, brands flocked to the Gulf Coast to offer assistance. More than four years later, they again seem to have found a common charitable pursuit.
Across the industry, franchisees, independent operators, and major chains are working to help stop hunger in the U.S. and across the globe. According to a 2006 study by the National Restaurant Association (NRA), eight out of 10 restaurants choose to support hunger-relief efforts in one way or another, contributing food, money, time, and marketing clout to further the cause. But why, with so many problems in the world—from AIDS and cancer to global warming and human displacement—have so many in the industry chosen to rally around this specific cause?
Perhaps most importantly, it seems like a natural fit: U.S. restaurants, which serve about 130 million customers each day, helping to feed the 36 million Americans and more than 1 billion people worldwide who don't have access to enough food. The significance is not lost on the NRA, either. The industry's main trade organization has long worked to galvanize its members to end hunger through efforts including its support of National Hunger Awareness Day, donation of leftover food from its annual trade show in Chicago and recognition of individuals who support the cause.
"Hunger relief is a natural connection for restaurants that are in the business of feeding and serving people," says Alyssa Prince, senior director of community relations for the NRA. "It just makes so much sense."
For example, the Great American Dine Out—a fundraising event organized by nonprofit organization Share Our Strength which works to end childhood hunger in the U.S.—experiences great support from quick serves. The weeklong September event, for which restaurants and customers come together to raise money for the cause, drew more than 500 quick-service participants in 2008. This year, participation among brands doubled, says Debbie Shore, co-founder and associate director of Share Our Strength.
While Shore says none of the major quick-service brands have signed on to support the Great American Dine Out, some of the larger companies are organizing efforts of their own.
One of the big names leading the charge to fight hunger is Yum! Brands. The parent company of KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Long John Silver’s, and A&W started its World Hunger Relief campaign in 2007 and last year pledged to donate at least $80 million to the World Food Programme (WFP), the world's largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger across the world. Karen Sherman, director of corporate social responsibility for Yum says that though each of the company's five brands has its own philosophy, the company chose hunger as the focus of its corporate giving for a reason.
"We're all in the foodservice business," she says. "We provide food to people, and here we have the opportunity to go much deeper and help those who may never have access to our food and are faced, frankly, with death and starvation."
According to Sherman, Yum chose to partner with the WFP specifically because the organization has the ability to help leverage the company's size and scale to maximize its efforts. The WFP also can reach international communities in which Yum restaurants operate.
"We're a global company," Sherman says. "We always say that our employee base, our marketing, and our philanthropic efforts need to mirror our company."
But hunger is a problem at home in the U.S., too. When Danny Bone, who owns a franchise location of the upscale burger concept Elevation Burger in Austin, Texas, heard about a hunger-relief program in his community, started by the Junior League of Austin, he decided to help.
Called Food in Tummies, or FIT, the program provides weekend meals for children attending the city's Baty Elementary School, 97 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price weekday lunches through the National School Lunch Program. To ensure they don't go hungry when not in school, FIT sends the kids home with backpacks full of food on Fridays. Bone decided to help by donating 10 percent of his sales for a week this past November, promising to contribute no less than $2,500. He says part of the reason why he chose to donate to a hunger-related cause is that it was a local issue.
"I am a native of Austin," he says. "I've lived here all my life, and I always love to give back to the city. When you give back to Austin, it gives back to you."
Though Bone says it wasn't his primary reason for giving, he acknowledges that his effort to give back could reach the ears of potential customers. "I think there will be those who will notice that we are charitable and perhaps give us a try," he says.
Yet with the quick-serve segment often serving as the press’s whipping boy, one doesn't have to be much of a cynic to question whether these efforts aren't at least in part aimed at improving public relations. After all, many contributions by quick serves to hunger relief are hardly anonymous gifts.
For example, Dunkin' Brands' corporate employees and franchisees wore company T-shirts when they packed boxes for local food banks during a company-organized volunteer day, says public relations manager McCall Gosselin. And Yum’s World Hunger Relief efforts are often accompanied by press releases.