Charitable Restaurants

Non-profits, community organizations, and school groups often host fundraising events to benefit a charitable cause or to help members cover the costs of necessities like uniforms and travel expenses. Restaurant fundraisers require minimal amounts of labor and a relatively small time commitment, so they’re a popular choice for groups looking to raise money with an event the community will be hungry to participate in. Operators looking to give back to their communities will want to establish a fundraising program, but with notoriously slim restaurant profit margins, it’s important to offer fundraising opportunities that won’t be detrimental to a business’s overall success.

Some operators – like those in the big Burrito Restaurant Group based in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Chip’s Family Restaurant locations in Connecticut – are able to donate 100 percent of all proceeds from events to the beneficiary organizations. However, most operators will need to create a percentage system similar to the ones currently implemented at many of America’s chain restaurants.

Fundraising Program Parameters

There are restaurant fundraising programs in place at the majority of chain restaurants, so operators of all types of foodservice businesses can find a model from which to draw inspiration when creating their own systems. Most restaurant charity nights give 20 percent of profits from fundraising events to the host organizations, but some programs may give back as much as 50 percent.

Restaurant Name Percentage of Profits
Panda Express 20 percent of pre-tax sales
Panera Bread 20 percent of pre-tax sales
Chipotle 50 percent of net sales
Blaze Pizza 20 percent of net sales
Chili’s 10 percent of sales excluding tax and gratuity
TGI Friday’s*
*Gold Coast Holdings Restaurants locations only
Up to 20 percent of pre-tax sales

To put that into perspective, a fundraising event that draws 200 people at Chipotle, where the average check is estimated to be $11, would raise $1,100 for the organization hosting it, but that same event held at Chili’s, where the average check is around $14, would raise only $280.

In addition to establishing different profit percentages, the restaurant fundraising programs at chains often specify what types of groups are and are not eligible for participation in a charity night. In most cases, only not-for-profit organizations are eligible, although a restaurant may place restrictions on certain types of organizations, including barring political or religious organizations from participation.

Some companies have more specific parameters: Chipotle specifically focuses its charity efforts on community gardens, food and sustainable agriculture groups, K-12 schools, libraries, youth community groups, and university groups, while Chili’s Give Back Nights are not open to “causes that are in contrast to our family based values,” the interpretation of which may be up to the discretion of each location’s manager. You may choose to distance your restaurant from potentially controversial groups to help keep your business from making headlines for the wrong reasons.

No matter the percentage you decide to donate or the groups you choose to work with, it’s important to make sure your restaurant has an established system in place for fundraising events. It’s equally important to communicate the process to both staff and outside organizers to avoid any misunderstandings that could generate bad press, such as groups unexpectedly waiting a long time to receive the money they raised.

Because the foodservice industry often has a high turnover rate, documenting each step of the event – from initial contact to the date a check is issued – can ensure a smooth transition from one employee to another if someone else has to take over the planning duties. Having an established system for fundraising nights can also create a consistent experience across multiple locations; this can help prevent your business’s reputation from suffering because of a single location’s mistake.

Alternative Paths of Restaurant Charity

To avoid the complex logistics of hosting multiple fundraising nights every month, you may consider giving back each month to a different community organization. This can be as simple as designating a specific day of every month, such as the third Thursday, as your charity night and giving a percentage of the proceeds from that night to the organization you and your employees have selected.

Operators may also wish to make a positive impact in their communities by establishing a charitable foundation in their restaurant’s name. For example, operators of the Darden family of restaurants, a group that includes brands like Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse, established the Darden Foundation, which has given more than $86 million to non-profit organizations since 1995.

Ariana Keller
Ariana Keller

Ariana Keller was raised on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in south Alabama, where she learned to fish and love football. She moved to Knoxville with her family when she was 12 and later graduated from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor's degree in English. She spends her free time playing tabletop and video games and passionately rooting for mediocre sports teams. She is an advocate for animal rescue and lives in Knoxville with her husband and their two adopted pets: a hound dog named Beau and a Maine Coon mix named Vesper.