Special Report | September 2013 | By Lauren Caggiano

Hungry for Change

Restaurants join the fight against hunger in the U.S.

Shake Shack is one quick serve brand that contributes to the anti hunger effort.
Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti (behind check, right) poses with the restaurant that raised the most money for Share Our Strength. Shake Shack
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While the obesity epidemic has received a lot of attention in the U.S., hunger, particularly childhood hunger, is a serious problem that tends to be less understood by the American masses. More than 16 million kids (one in five) in the U.S. do not have access to the food they need, according to hunger-relief charity Feeding America.

But in the last few years, restaurants have become a powerful tool in the fight against hunger, and several programs are capitalizing on foodservice partners—including quick-serve restaurants—to bring food to those in need.

That is especially true this month, as September is Hunger Action Month. Many restaurants around the country are specifically running promotions to support Share Our Strength, a national organization that works to ensure no kid in America grows up hungry through its “No Kid Hungry” campaign. The nonprofit works with community groups, activists, food programs, and restaurants to surround impoverished children with nutritious food where they live, learn, and play.

This month, thousands of restaurants across the country will support Share Our Strength through its “Dine Out For No Kid Hungry” fundraising effort.

Share Our Strength president Tom Nelson says his organization employs a “think global, act local” philosophy. Restaurants have an innate interest in ending hunger, he says; just as they care about feeding their hungry customers, they’re concerned about those in the community who don’t have access to consistent or quality nourishment.

“There is such a shared concern for the cause of feeding people,” he says. “Restaurants are natural partners in feeding the hungry.”

This vested mutual interest is why the “Dine Out For No Kid Hungry” campaign fits nicely with restaurants’ objective to feed people, Nelson says. “Dine Out For No Kid Hungry” is a way to bring attention to the issue of childhood hunger and raise funds at the same time.

“The fact is, one in five American children face hunger. Those struggling with hunger and poverty can be your neighbor.”

Restaurant participants use either custom or provided promotional materials to support “Dine Out for No Kid Hungry.” No two campaigns are alike—part of the appeal—and individual stores have set fundraising goals for themselves to inspire friendly competition among brands. Restaurant management can tailor their campaign according to their market needs and past indicators.

Nelson says these promotions generate both quantifiable and unquantifiable results. The most tractable metric is the actual money raised by the promotion, but perhaps equally as important is the sense of goodwill created among restaurant participants. Nelson points to research that indicates consumers feel more positive about patronizing a business that is involved in the community, which can translate into loyalty.

“It makes the customer feel good about the purchase,” he says.

(Want to learn more about No Kid Hungry? Check out the video below!)

Even better, Nelson says, is that “Dine Out for No Kid Hungry” inspires individual restaurant employees, as well. He cites employee engagement as one of the factors behind the campaign’s success. “Employees feel better about the company they work for if they contribute to the community,” he says.

Quick-service burger chain Shake Shack has succeeded in capitalizing on the feel-good aspect of Share Our Strength’s programs through its Great American Shake Sale. Shake Shack raised more than $285,000 during its second-annual Great American Shake Sale, a month-long fundraising initiative that benefited the broader “No Kid Hungry” campaign. Throughout the month of May, guests who donated $2 or more at any Shake Shack received a complimentary shake on their next visit. In 2012, the chain, known for its all-American fare, raised $130,000 for the cause.

Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti says those good feelings derived from giving back should not be understated. “If your staff’s not on board, it won’t go anywhere,” he says about executing campaigns like the Great American Shake Sale.

Garutti offers a few pointers to restaurants wishing to implement a cause-marketing program like “No Kid Hungry” chain-wide: Start at the bottom, he says, as the ground-level team must drive the initiative. He cites an example in his stores: “Our staff get so pumped up about [the campaign],” he says. “We have a contest within the company, where locations compete [to raise money for the cause]. The winning team gets a picture with the check.”

Garutti also says brands can work to form a deeper relationship with their customers through “No Kid Hungry.” Being transparent about where the money will go is critical to success, he says. “When you donate, you’re giving the money directly, so it’s not a nebulous concept of where the money might go.”

Italian quick-service restaurant chain Fazoli’s is using its popular breadsticks to fight hunger in the U.S. The Lexington, Kentucky–based chain partnered with Feed the Children, a disaster and hunger-relief organization.

As part of the second-annual “Breadsticks For Hunger” tour, Fazoli’s employees, also known as “Breadstick Ambassadors,” travelled across the U.S. in a specially outfitted food truck from June 17 to August 15, with stops in 22 cities. Volunteers and truck staff handed out the trademark breadsticks, hot from the oven, and encouraged the public to support Feed the Children.

The event kicked off in Lexington on June 17 with a food distribution for more than 400 families in Fazoli’s home market. Each family received a 25-pound box of food and a 10-pound box of personal care items. The boxes are designed to help a family of four for up to one week. The effort showed Fazoli’s commitment to fighting hunger in its own backyard; more than one in four children living in Lexington is considered impoverished, according to the company.

Stacy Hettich, brand director for Fazoli’s, says the company was first introduced to Feed the Children through its ad agency when Fazoli’s was seeking a charitable partner. Feed the Children’s mission was in line with Fazoli’s, which is popular with children and families. That, coupled with the fact that the organization is based in one of Fazoli’s markets (Oklahoma City), made it a “right fit” as a charitable partner, Hettich says.

In hindsight, choosing Feed the Children as a charitable beneficiary proved to be another critical piece of the puzzle for Fazoli’s, Hettich says. She says any restaurant wishing to partner with a charitable organization should do its homework first, because the rewards can pay off in spades.

“Once we solidified our partnership with Feed The Children, the ideas on how Fazoli's could help anti-hunger efforts began to flow much more easily,” she says. “There are so many opportunities that come up in our day-to-day business that can often be extended to make an impact—Feed The Children really helped us to see that.”

Hettich says the hunger problem in the U.S. affects more people than most realize. There is a prevailing myth that hunger is an issue that mainly plagues underdeveloped or developing nations, she says. In reality, here in the U.S., “the economic downturn has created the ‘new poor,’ consisting of former middle-class families who may never have had to ask for help before.”

“Now, those families are being forced to decide between paying their bills or feeding their children,” Hettich says. “The fact is, one in five American children face hunger. Those struggling with hunger and poverty can be your neighbor.”

Tasked with bringing awareness to this issue, the Breadstick Ambassadors were front and center on the “Breadsticks for Hunger” tour. They interacted with the public, passing out flyers to encourage guests to purchase a specialty drink called "Giving Grape Lemon Ice.” Fazoli’s agreed to donate $1 to Feed the Children for each of the drinks it sold throughout the summer. 

The tour raised $50,000 in 2012, along with nine tons of food donations. As it stands, this year’s tour is on track to surpass 2012’s total. Donations are especially critical to the organization this year, as it’s hoping to put the funds toward disaster relief in tornado-stricken Oklahoma.

"We sincerely appreciate Fazoli's for its ongoing support to our mission," said Jill van Egmond, vice president of strategic initiatives for Feed The Children, in a statement. "Our organization was personally impacted by the tornado in Moore, with seven of our employees losing their homes to the storm. It has also stretched the financial resources of our organization, especially since it occurred just before the summer months, when the need for hunger assistance increases because schools are out and breakfast and lunch programs end."   

Like Share Our Strength and Feed the Children, Minneapolis-based eatiply is on a mission to help restaurants empower their diners to fight hunger by giving back. Eatiply is a meal-for-meal food donation project created to help fight against world hunger. Every time someone dines at an eatiply-supported restaurant and spends $10 or more, a meal is donated to humanitarian food-aid organization Kids Against Hunger.

Eatiply founder David Woodbury, inspired by the TOMS Shoes vision of philanthropy, was the brains behind the buy-one-give-one model.

“[Restaurants are] already in the business of feeding people, so it’s apt they’re fighting hunger in more ways than one,” says Sarah Vande Kamp, creative director at eatiply. The program helps participating restaurants show that they’re socially conscious and gives them a way to gain repeat business, she says. Echoing Nelson’s comments about the psychology behind giving, she says diners are more inclined to choose a restaurant with a social conscience.

“Based on the research done in the last Cone Evolution Study, 80 percent of Americans are likely to switch brands, about equal in price and quality, to one that supports a cause,” Vande Kamp says. “The majority of people will choose an eatiply restaurant over a restaurant that does not have a cause attached to it.” 

Vande Kamp says eatiply chooses its restaurant partners carefully; participants are primarily chosen based on positive Yelp! reviews and word of mouth. There is also a preference for locally owned and non-chain establishments.

“Eatiply is selective about what restaurants it brings on because we want to make sure that the customers will have a wide variety of cuisines and restaurant atmospheres to choose from,” Vande Kamp says. “And we of course want to make sure they would enjoy eating at the restaurant. We want donating to be an experience.” 

Choice is a critical component of the eatiply formula, she says. By making the conscious choice to dine at an eatiply-supported restaurant, consumers are making a statement about their commitment to the anti-hunger effort. And, in turn, the restaurant benefits from the business.

“When we pair donating with an action, a lot of change is able to come about,” Vande Kamp says. “Customers support the restaurants, restaurants support the charity, the charity supports the hungry in the community. It is a supportive system fueled by the customer's simple action.”  

Vande Kamp estimates the organization has facilitated the donation of more than 200,000 meals to date. Great Waters Brewing Company, in St. Paul, Minnesota, has been the strongest supporter so far, donating 33,688 meals in the six months it’s been on board. Other participating restaurants are located in Minneapolis-St. Paul; Seattle; Little Rock, Arkansas; Northwest Arkansas; Hampton Roads, Virginia; New York City; and Tampa Bay, Florida. The goal is to expand to markets around the country.

“We want to make sure we have an impact locally, everywhere,” Vande Kamp says about the company’s vision.