Charitable Giving | October 2014 | By Conor Morris

Team Players

Quick-serve brands rally employees around volunteer opportunities.
Quick service companies encourage workers to give back to community.
Tijuana Flats offers employee incentives for volunteer opportunities such as Habitat for Humanity builds. tijuana flats

Quick-service executives have the capacity to do a lot of good outside just filling customer bellies with tasty food. Many choose to rally their loyal consumers behind a cause, creating fundraising opportunities and spreading awareness. Others go the extra mile to rally their own corporate team and restaurant employees to engage in volunteer work that can pay off for the whole company.

For example, employees at Tex-Mex brand Tijuana Flats have helped build homes for Habitat for Humanity and dished out warm meals at soup kitchens. And employees at San Antonio­–based Taco Cabana have served countless lunches to veterans, former service members, and their family members through the brand’s partnership with Warrior and Family Support Center (WFSC).

Taco Cabana decided five years ago to direct much of its support to the charity, which is also based in San Antonio, says Todd Coerver, COO of Taco Cabana, in an email.

“With the number of active military bases around Texas—the state where the majority of Taco Cabana locations reside—the decision to focus on military giving was an easy one. It’s a great way to give back and help support this regional community,” Coerver says. “Additionally, there are quite a few veterans on our team—it just made sense.”

Outside of a consistent 20 percent discount to active and retired military, the brand also has a “Taco Treat” coupon book promotion, Coerver says. Each year during the month of October, coupon books are sold for $1; that money from the books goes to support the WFSC. Coerver says the brand raised $91,470 last year for the WFSC through that promotion.

Then there’s the employee engagement aspect to the Taco Treat promotion: On top of the quarterly lunches the brand provides to the WFSC, employees receive incentives for selling more books at each participating restaurant location.

Employees have no requirement to volunteer, though Taco Cabana will work with individual staff members who show interest in a specific initiative to get them involved. Tijuana Flats takes a broader approach when it comes to the volunteering opportunities it provides employees and the causes it supports. Employees can serve meals in local soup kitchens, participate in reading days for young kids in Head Start programs, visit and engage with children fighting cancer at nearby health-care facilities, and more, says Monique Yeager, vice president of marketing for Tijuana Flats, in an email.

The brand also has its own charitable foundation, dubbed “Just in Queso,” which provides grants for charitable nonprofits and has volunteered more than 450 employee service hours since 2011. Similar to Taco Cabana, Tijuana Flats also offers incentives to its employees who volunteer, without requirements.

“We offer employees the chance to apply for grants of up to $1,000 for local projects in their communities, as well as employees who have applied for matching donations at a car wash, purchasing shoes for kids without any, and sodding a yard in a neighborhood,” Yeager says.

There are a number of benefits for quick-serve brands that encourage this sort of employee volunteerism, including good press, says David Lewis, CEO of HR outsourcing and consulting company OperationsInc.

“Volunteerism, in my view, can translate when managed properly into good press,” he says. “That image can be pumped up to prospective clients and prospective employees ... and it is also a great message to be sending to your employees.”

But it’s important that brands don’t force their employees to volunteer, he adds, and opportunities to volunteer should be voluntary to maximize the internal benefit a brand gets. “It raises morale,” Lewis says, “provided the [charitable] organizations are organizations that your employees can sort of rally around.”

However, Lewis cautions against making employees take paid time off during their normal workdays to volunteer. Companies should be sensitive to their employees’ workloads, and “set the bar [to entry] super low and be comfortable with it” as far as encouraging opportunities to volunteer, he says.

Most importantly, there has to be engagement at the corporate level. “You can’t do this kind of stuff as effectively without leadership front and center,” Lewis says. “It’s a terrible message to sit there as a president of a company watching rather than participating in the [volunteering] endeavor.”

Tijuana Flats doubled down on its volunteerism philosophy earlier this year when CEO Brad Kaemmer joined one of the brand’s Habitat for Humanity builds.

Brands looking to launch similar volunteer programs should first examine their existing partnerships with both for-profit and nonprofit entities, Lewis says, and they should also take stock of what their employees care about, possibly through a vote of what causes they wish to support.

Taco Cabana’s Coerver says that as a part of the brand’s volunteer programs, corporate tapped into its partnership with Coca-Cola to provide the Coca-Cola Open Happiness truck to the Warrior and Family Support Center. The truck had a variety of prizes, including Coca-Cola swag and iPads, and the WFSC patients and their families enjoyed Taco Cabana for lunch.

“Seeing the courage and strength the wounded soldiers and their families exhibit while facing such devastation certainly makes you reassess your own attitude,” says Jennifer Lopez, marketing manager for Taco Cabana. “It feels great to work for a brand that supports the military and their families and who allows me the opportunity to participate in giving back.”

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