Web Exclusive | April 2012 | By Danielle Beurteaux

Brands Get Behind Autism Awareness

Quick serves roll out promotions for Autism Awareness Month.

For the month of April, fast-casual restaurant Carino’s website is blue instead of the normal yellow, and if visitors click on the “Why Blue?” tab in the upper right-hand corner, they’ll find out why: the company is helping raise awareness about autism.

That’s because April is Autism Awareness Month, and quick-service and fast-casual restaurants are doing their part to help the cause.

This is the third year that Austin, Texas–based Carino’s, which has 68 corporate-owned and 65 franchised stores, has been involved with autism awareness. Ryan Bearden, director of marketing, says this year’s goal is to raise $50,000 for the Autism Speaks and Autism Society organizations by serving 50,000 kids’ meals.

“With the improved diagnosis of autism, obviously there’s a big focus on children,” he says. “The earlier you’re able to diagnose and understand where on the autism spectrum someone lies, their chances greatly increase of being able to live a normal life.”

A recent Centers for Disease Control and Protection report found that in the U.S., approximately 1 in 88 children have autism spectrum disorder, a 23 percent increase over the organization’s previous estimation.

Several restaurant companies have adopted autism awareness as part of their cause marketing efforts to support the rising prevalence of the condition.

Bearden says that when he joined Carino’s a year and a half ago, he emphasized the importance of community involvement, recognizing that that’s where the company’s dedicated customer base is located. Supporting autism awareness proved to be a good fit for community-based efforts.

Throughout April, Carino’s is asking local chapters of Autism Society to nominate autism heroes, whom the company then profiles on its Foundation’s blog. “I thought it was really important to highlight these quiet champions we’ll never know otherwise, and give much-needed exposure to the work these people are doing,” Bearden says.

Jersey Mike’s, a national chain of sandwich shops, participates in Autism Awareness Month as part of its company-wide community philanthropy efforts. Founder Peter Cancro maintains a giving-back philosophy, which he continues to emphasize to his franchisees.

Approximately 1 in 88 children have autism spectrum disorder, a 23 percent increase over the CDC’s previous estimation.

The franchisee in Conway, South Carolina, is partnering with Horry County’s Project Lifesaver program and S.O.S. Healthcare, a non-profit community medical program, for the fourth year. The groups provide tracking wristbands to autistic children; each wristband transmits a unique frequency, enabling caretakers to quickly locate lost children.

Franchise owner Kevin Satterfield came up with the idea and approached Project Lifesaver about the partnership. He’s happy with the results. “Several of my contacts have a child with the bracelet,” Satterfield says. “It’s peace of mind the parents have knowing that if [their child] wanders, they can find them quickly.”

This year, the franchise is giving 50 cents for each regular-size and $1 for each giant-size No. 7 Jersey Mike’s sandwich sold. The campaign raised $3,000 last year, and this year the franchise is aiming for $3,500–$4,000.

On World Autism Day, April 2, Satterfield and his team hosted a community awareness and outreach booth, offering information about autism. “It never fails,” Satterfield says. “Somebody comes up to us at an event like that who didn’t know the program offerings right here in Horry County for them.”

One quick-service outfit spreads its autism awareness campaign throughout the year. The Columbus, Ohio–based burger chain White Castle has a track record with autism awareness that began in 2009, the first year it raised money for Autism Speaks.

With increased diagnoses, the company noticed the effect autism was having on its employees and customers and their families, says White Castle vice president Jamie Richardson. “We started to hear from more of our team members anecdotally that they had a niece or nephew or daughter or son who’d been diagnosed,” Richardson says. “We wanted to get involved.”

Autism had been prevalent in the White Castle family for a while. CEO Dave Ingram, grandson of founder Billy Ingram, and his wife Marcy have a son who was diagnosed with autism. The couple gifted $10 million to Ohio State University and Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus to fund an autism research center.

White Castle’s corporate office will be lit blue at sunset on April 23 in recognition of Autism Awareness Month. In July, White Castle stores will sell puzzle pieces for $1 each to benefit Autism Speaks. Richardson says the company is waiting until the summer because it’s the busiest time of year for the brand.

Later this year might even see the return of a customer favorite to support autism awareness. “We are in earnest discussions right now to bring back one of our all-time best sellers, the White Castle hamburger-scented candle,” Richardson says.

Last year, White Castle raised more than $500,000 for autism research, and it’s aiming for even more this year. The feedback for its autism campaigns has been gratifying, Richardson says. The company’s Facebook page and telephone hotline both get feedback from customers who found support and helpful resources through White Castle’s awareness efforts.

“For us, it’s about connection and community,” Richardson says. “It’s to let people know they’re not alone.”