A 10-year franchisee of Moe’s Southwest Grill, Larry Wilson often turns his job into a party. For the last four years, each of his locations—he runs 12 Moe’s units in central New York and northeastern Pennsylvania, and has six more opening this year—has held monthly fundraisers to benefit local high schools, which not only allows his business to give back to the community, but also helps it make new friends in the process.
Wilson livens things up at his establishments by spending several thousand dollars on marketing and events for each new location he opens, but he does so with a good purpose, one that reaps other dividends: Since starting these events, his comparable sales across all locations have gone up 38 percent.
Here, he shares his thoughts on how the two go hand in hand.
1. Look at fundraisers as “friendraisers”
Most events that we do are a fundraiser for the high schools. High school sports are getting their budgets cut badly, so we go to the high schools and invite them in. They bring in a couple hundred people to the fundraiser. We charge them $10 for all they can eat and drink—nonalcoholic beverages, obviously—and we give them $7 and keep $3, so we give 70 percent back. We call it a “friendraiser”; they call it a fundraiser. We bring in lots of friends and make new friends, and those friends become customers.
I think a lasting impression is one reason we do these fundraisers. As a franchisee, we are very successful in the Moe’s world, and we want to give back. We’d love to give back $15,000–$20,000 a year, and I think overall we are in the $18,000 range per store now. That’s a lot of money, but these schools need help.
2. Remember that smaller numbers add up to big ones
I think it’s important for the community for us to give back, and it doesn’t cost us a lot of money. If a football team comes in and says, “Would you give us a yearbook event for $100?” I’ll say, “Why don’t you bring in 150 or 200 of your friends, and you can generate between $1,000 and $1,400.” The average fundraiser raises about $1,250 when we do these events, and it’s a big deal. We are booked a year in advance for our fundraisers. When we opened up for 2015, within days we had the whole year booked. We do one fundraiser like that per month per location, where it’s a big all-you-can-eat fundraiser, and it’s a very big deal. These schools line up to get involved with these fundraisers. We do 12 per year per store, and we raise $15,000–$18,000 per year per store for high schools.
3. Make a big splash with grand opening events
What we do is go to the local high schools and, the day or two before we officially open, we open the restaurant up and let them pay $10 per person. Those events, we give 100 percent to the high school. That event is for three hours, and we usually raise about $3,500–$4,000 a night. It’s a really good way to connect with families.
Our business is driven by the 16–35-year-old demographic and really hardcore 18–29-year-olds, so we go after high schools and colleges big time. We go into these high schools and try to get involved with the high school juniors and seniors, whether it’s through sports or through the parent-teacher association, and we work our channels that way. It’s a great avenue.
We work the local disc jockeys very closely. Every time we go into a new market, I go and search out all the media people. I work with all the local talent—disc jockeys, on-air talent like TV and radio—and we feed them through catering events so they can understand the product. We get them to do live endorsements with us. We opened a brand-new market last week, and two weeks before we opened I was in every radio station doing interviews with them, giving them all free food, feeding them, helping them understand what we’re all about. It really does help a lot.
4. Host an unforgettable grand opening event
It’s really working the event prior to the day, getting people bought into what you’re trying to raise money for or trying to do. All the pre-planning is the secret to the event. The event itself is just having a lot of people there. People want to be where people are, so our grand openings are hugely successful because we make them huge.
We did a two-day event for the last grand opening. On day one, during lunch, we fed all of the local businesses, gave them free food that afternoon for lunch. That night we did a high school fundraiser and raised $3,200. The next day we had two colleges come in. We fed 500 college students and gave them 600 T-shirts, and we had the first 50 college students wait in line for free burritos for a year. We had 67 kids camping out overnight on our sidewalk with sleeping bags and tents in 38-degree weather. It was fun.
Sometimes we have magicians at these events. Sometimes we have guys juggling fire out in the parking lot. We do lots of different things to make them special.