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    The Good Neighbor

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

    &pizza co-owners Michael Lastoria, left, and Steve Salis work diligently to ensure their restaurants reflect the neighborhoods they’re in.

    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.”