Culinary Philanthropy

There is no industry that is more generous, more philanthropic, more community-focused than the restaurant industry.  I certainly don’t have any empirical data to support this, but when I see what goes on in the Triangle, with restaurants and chefs holding fundraisers, giving away gift certificates for silent auctions, and being an integral and visible part of our community’s fabric, I will stand behind this statement.  Most restaurants do not make a ton of money.  The labor costs, the food costs, glassware and flatware, and the rent all result in a fairly narrow profit margin for restaurateurs.  That’s one of the many reasons why restaurants fail so frequently.  The downturn of the economy has made it even tougher for these folks, and yet, they give, and give, and give some more.  Sometimes these charitable events cover the restaurant’s costs, but many times they do not.

Want some examples?

I’ll start with my good friend and rock star chef, Ashley Christensen.  Last night, she held a fundraiser for Cookies for Kids’ Cancer, a non-profit that struck a chord with her after she read about the fight of young “Prince Liam,” who passed away a couple of weeks ago after a two-year battle with cancer.  She not only donated all of the profits of the highly lucrative Valentine’s Day dinner to this charity, but she also got so many vendors to provide her wine, meat and produce for free.  On top of that, she got others to sponsor similar fundraising efforts last night, such as local brewer, Fullsteam.

But it doesn’t stop there with Ms. Christensen.  She recently held a fundraising barbecue dinner for the charity that’s near and dear to me, the Lucy Daniels Center.  She holds quarterly fundraising dinners for another organization where I’m a board member, the Southern Foodways Alliance.  This series of dinners has not only raised thousands of dollars for the SFA, but they have brought the Triangle food community together at the potluck dinners held at her home.  She’s donated gift certificates to a number of charities.  She truly gives her time, her goods, and yes, her money to support causes that are important to her.

Ashley’s restaurant, Poole’s Diner, is one of many participants in the Triangle Wine Experience to benefit the Frankie Lemmon Foundation.  The list of these participating restaurants can be found on this link, but this event is an unmitigated success, raising the majority of funds needed to keep the Frankie Lemmon Center in operation.  Put another way, the Frankie Lemmon Center may not survive without the support of the Triangle’s restaurant community.  Oh, one more thing.  Ashley Christensen is on the Board of the Frankie Lemmon Foundation.  Yup, she’s giving back in more ways than one.

Take a look at the Urban Food Group’s website, and you’ll see how important charitable giving is to it — they list the charities they support on their home page.  UFG donates all of the food for Band Together’s VIP area — that’s where all the high dollar donors hang out.  They also support The V Foundation, Safe Child, The March of Dimes and more.  Kevin and Stacey Jennings, the owners of UFG, get hounded to donate gift certificates for charitable events.  This is a common theme with restaurants (and wine merchants): everyone wants something from them.  Money.  Or goods.  Or their time.  And the more popular the restaurant, the more these restaurants get requests for help.

I am really barely scratching the surface about the philanthropic endeavors of these people.  They nourish our bodies, but they also nourish our souls.  Consider that when a restaurant helps to raise $50,000 over a course of a year, that may represent 10% of its revenues.  Think of another industry that has that type of impact on our community.  I’d love to say my law firm helped raise, directly or indirectly, an amount equal to 10% of our revenues, but that’s not the case.  Part of that is because no one has figured out a way to get people to buy $250 tickets to a black tie affair to receive legal advice, but that’s only part of the point.  A law firm — mine included — can give away lots of pro bono legal services, but I would be surprised if the most generous firms provide services that that has a value exceeding 1% of their revenues.

And this leads me to my final point: chefs are remarkably generous with their time.  If they don’t host a fundraiser at their restaurant, they’ll certainly donate their services to a worthwhile charity.  Look at this Sunday’s Evening With Master Chefs to support the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.  Although the name may be a bit hyperbolic, the event features 9 local chefs cooking to raise money to support cystic fibrosis research.  This event has raised over a million dollars over the past 14 years, and hopefully the success will continue.  You might know some of these chefs, but for the most part, they’re not individuals whose name you’ll recognize right away.  But they are still donating their time, their labor, and their creativity to the community.  And we are all better off because of it.  So why don’t you go ahead and support them and their cause and get a ticket to this event?  If they can give back, so can you.

I’d love for you to provide comments where you list chefs or restaurants giving back to the community.  These folks don’t get the recognition they deserve, so let’s change that.

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