When the longest government shutdown in U.S. history began December 22, 2018, Carl Howard, CEO of Italian quick serve Fazoli’s, was at home with the flu.
“I’m lying on the couch thinking, ‘I can’t believe these poor government workers aren’t going to get a paycheck right after Christmas.’ A lot of these people make our world go round,” he says. “I knew we had to do something.” The brand decided to offer a free Pizza Baked Spaghetti dish with purchase of a drink to furloughed federal employees with a valid ID.
After the initiative was announced, Howard received some concerned calls and e-mails from franchisees. They worried the political nature of the situation could make it appear that Fazoli’s was taking a partisan stance that may alienate customers. Howard understood their concerns but pushed forward anyway.
In a company memo, he wrote that he expected and appreciated operator support in extending the offer to federal employees. Even months after the shutdown, Howard doesn’t see the special as political in nature.
“No one can say this is a Democratic or Republican statement. We’re a brand; we don’t vote,” he says. “We’re supporting people in need in our own communities, and that’s what Fazoli’s is all about.”
The initiative was underway in January, and grateful federal employees frequented Fazoli’s to ease their financial strain. TSA workers in Lexington, Kentucky—Fazoli’s base—scrawled their thanks on security check tags and left them with the restaurant teams. Park workers throughout Kentucky called in gratefully.
The South Haven, Mississippi, store served an average of 20 furloughed workers a day. When Howard and members of Fazoli’s leadership team were eating at a local Lexington restaurant, a server whose father had found significant relief through Fazoli’s offer stood up and expressed her thanks before the whole restaurant.
No grateful guests seemed concerned with the political angle. “Lexington and Louisville are very blue and the rest of Kentucky is very red,” Howard says. “But we received nothing but thanks from everybody.”
Thanks also poured into D.C.-based We the Pizza, Good Stuff Eatery, and Santa Rosa Taqueria. The Sunnyside Restaurant Group concepts offered free, chef-designed meals to government workers. “It was right in our backyard,” says Sunnyside deputy CEO Micheline Mendelsohn Luhn. “It’s people that come to our restaurants every day. We needed to thank them and give back to them in their time of need.”
The Sunnyside concepts were invited to join the #ChefsForFeds initiative, led by celebrity chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen, wherein more than 130 restaurants across the U.S. served free meals to furloughed government workers.
Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike came into Sunnyside restaurants to take advantage of the offers, which Mendelsohn Luhn knows because the Capitol Hill restaurants see plenty of famous faces. “Many people have a preconceived notion of who a federal worker is, but in D.C., we understand that they run the gamut. You could work at Commerce, State, or Justice. They’re not politicized agencies,” she says.
Despite its location in the capital—the veritable lion’s den of politics—the Sunnyside team did not consider their specials a political statement. In fact, because the group serves such a bipartisan crowd, including many members of Congress and lobbyists, Sunnyside has an official policy against getting involved in any political causes. Rather, its many charity works focus on non-partisan issues. In a town where high-level political rivals are likely to run into each other at the store or across a slice of pizza, Mendelsohn Luhn says Sunnyside emphasizes unity and positive experiences, ensuring its concepts are a welcome spot for all regardless of politics.
“Obviously people have disagreements and different opinions, and we are in an era where that is heightened. So for us the idea that you can come in and enjoy a meal and talk through things, or maybe not talk through things but talk about other stuff, that’s the whole idea of the group,” she says.
On the other side of the spectrum, Ben & Jerry’s famously embraces politically charged issues rather than trying to defuse them. “Our cofounder Ben Cohen used to say, ‘If it’s not controversial, it’s probably not worth doing,’” says Christopher Miller, social mission activism manager at the Vermont-based ice cream brand.
Over the past 40 years, Ben & Jerry’s has taken public stances on everything from marriage equality to climate change, all while maintaining its fun and funky vibe. “We believe that business has a responsibility to engage in this kind of work,” Miller adds.
Given that Ben & Jerry’s public opinions have invited backlash in the past, the company takes a proactive approach by providing special training and support to its customer-care team. After the brand publicly supported Black Lives Matter in 2016, a few intense weeks followed.
“There were some good conversations that happened, but also some pretty hateful things were said,” Miller says. “It was hard on our customer-care team, so people like me, who don’t typically answer phones, took calls.”
Miller doesn’t think anyone at the company regrets taking a stand with Black Lives Matter or any other controversial issue. Nor does he see it as a bad business decision.
While some companies may strive to stay neutral and inoffensive to all, Ben & Jerry’s is comfortable leaning into issues, even if it does alienate some consumers. On the flip side, those brand values resonate with other consumers, who Miller points out are deeply loyal as a result.
Ultimately the decision as to whether to engage in an activity that could be labeled political comes down to the brand itself. Fazoli’s, Sunnyside Restaurant Group, and Ben & Jerry’s have all taken very different approaches in the services—and messaging—they provide to customers.
But in each case, the actions have been reflective of the brand and its values. The first step, simply, is recognizing that restaurants, like any other business, do have a certain power. The choice is whether to exercise it.
“For better or for worse, brands and corporations are the most powerful institutions we have,” Miller says. “We live in a time when government institutions seem to be incapable of dealing with many of the issues that our society faces. Brands can help fill that void, and that can be a blessing or a curse.”