Charitable contributions and service have always been important to the management team at Milano Restaurants in Fresno, California. Executives hold seats on nonprofit organizations’ boards, while the operator of franchise brands such as Coney Island Grill and Me-n-Ed’s Pizzeria also sponsors numerous charities, including the Boys & Girls Club, Children’s Hospital of Central California, and the Red Cross.

But when Milano was opening its newest concept—the fast-casual pizza brand Blast 825° in Roseville, California—CEO John Ferdinandi was looking for a way to get more involved with local charities and the community.

“We reviewed what that community supports and came up with four different charities. We thought, maybe we can do something more dynamic than just, ‘Here is a check,’” Ferdinandi says. “It would be nice to create more awareness for the charities.”

So Ferdinandi came up with an idea that worked so well at the Roseville opening in late September that all future Blast 825° openings will feature the same type of interactive charity experience. On grand opening day in Roseville, representatives from four charities—Placer Food Bank, Albie Aware, Placer SPCA, and Blue Line Arts—custom built a “pizza work of art” that they felt best represented the taste of their organization. The charities were able to create their pizzas from 40 different toppings that are offered at the quick-fired pizza eatery.

But the charities weren’t just designing pizzas for the fun of it; they were also doing it to raise money for their respective organizations. Every day for one week, when customers ordered a certain charity’s custom pizza, 50 percent of their entire purchase was donated directly to the respective charity and counted as a “vote” for the grand prize: the “People’s Choice” award. The winning charity’s pizza—Placer SPCA took top honors—was featured at the Roseville location throughout October, and Blast 825° donated an additional 30 percent of the pizza’s proceeds throughout the month to that charity.

More than $650 was raised from the sales of the “Sophisticat,” which featured white sauce, Blast 825°’s cheese blend, roasted mushrooms, roasted onion, and arugula, and Blast 825° matched those funds for a total of $1,300 to Placer SPCA.

“The charities were really excited about it and they had a fun time,” says Ferdinandi, referring to the interactive “custom build” pizza contest. It is also a great way to introduce the restaurant company to the local community, he adds. “It is telling the community we are more than just a restaurant or a pizza place. We want to be partners in the community and better the community and the things they believe in.”

Nonprofit consultants say that interactive community events like the Blast 825° pizza-building contest are a win-win for restaurants and charities.

“That is a clever audience-participation program that involves the audience and the nonprofit. It involves humor and involves the customers in a fun way,” says Bruce Burtch, CEO of consulting firm Bruce W. Burtch Inc. and author of Win-Win for the Greater Good.

Another positive about the Blast 825° program, Burtch says, is that a big chunk of the proceeds was committed to the charitable organizations. “The charities are making a good percentage of the profits, higher than most cause-marketing [arrangements],” he says. “The percentage is usually 5 percent with a high of 10 percent. When it is small, it is more of an advertising program for restaurants.”

Restaurant companies that donate 20 percent or more of their proceeds to a particular cause show customers that they are really committed to the nonprofit they are sponsoring, Burtch adds.

“The public is more wary of cause marketing; they are suspicious of the true intent. When they see these higher percentages, it identifies that this is a program of substance, that the nonprofit is sincerely receiving funding of a fair percentage from the restaurant.”

These types of charity-restaurant partnerships and interactive events will become more popular in the future, says Joe Waters, founder of training and consulting firm Selfish Giving.

“The future of cause marketing—especially for consumer-facing businesses like stores and restaurants—will be pervasive, participatory, and required for success,” he says. “The efforts of Blast 825° Pizza are a great example of just how that future is becoming a reality.”

Restaurant companies that use cause marketing for store openings and other events can only benefit from the efforts, Waters says. By tying cause-marketing initiatives into new store or product launches, restaurants can earn a halo with the local community and potential customer base.

For its part, Milano continued the custom-build events for all four of its December Blast 825° store openings. At its Fresno, California, store opening, Blast 825° raised nearly $1,500 for local charities; in Clovis, California, nearly $5,000 was raised.

Blast 825° will open four more stores this year, and Ferdinandi says the company looks forward to using its cause-marketing program to promote the brand in all four communities.

“We will be working with the charities and different public relations efforts to build awareness. We will use some of our internal advertising and direct mail and some radio, but … mainly we will use the social community of our brand, as well as the social community of our charities,” he says.

Story, Blast 825