The nation’s restaurant industry is unique in that we have the ability to impact the lives of every single customer with whom we come into contact. Whether providing a nutritious meal or helping to celebrate a special occasion, restaurants play a meaningful role in people’s lives in many ways.
Just as important is the wider role restaurants play in local communities throughout the country. Restaurateurs in particular have a deep understanding of the cities, towns, and neighborhoods we serve. In both good times and bad, restaurants step up every day to demonstrate their civic-mindedness with a range of charitable activities.
Whether you’re a leader in your community already or you’re aiming to be one, there are some simple but effective ways to get more involved.
1. Do What You Do Best: Feed the Hungry
You do it every day—you feed people in need of a meal. More than 35 million Americans are living with or on the brink of hunger, and the nation’s restaurants are rising to the challenge of providing food for those who need it most. According to the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF), roughly eight in 10 restaurants donates food as part of its charitable giving. This includes everything from giving to food banks to cooking meals in low-income neighborhoods.
As a chef, I feel a personal responsibility to help tackle hunger. This drove me to start my foundation, One Chef Can 86 Hunger. In restaurant lingo, of course, to “86” something means to finish it, like when a menu item is out of stock. We want hunger to be “86ed” for good. Restaurants have the skills and resources necessary to help, so we are in a position to do what we do best to make a larger impact.
2. Invest in the Future of the Industry
The National Restaurant Association expects the restaurant industry’s employment numbers to grow to 14.4 million people by 2023. To support that growth, organizations like the NRAEF are committed to ensuring there is a highly-trained and professional talent pool. The NRAEF trains 95,000 students each year through its hallmark educational program, ProStart. Now in 48 states, Guam, and U.S. military bases, ProStart is a two-year high school program that teaches culinary techniques and management skills.
In high school, I had the opportunity to be a part of ProStart, which prepared me to go on to culinary school at Johnson & Wales University. Programs like ProStart, and the scholarships students receive, help young people advance their education and training to access the wide range of rewarding careers available in the restaurant industry.
When I graduated from high school, I promised I’d come back each year to mentor students as they go off to culinary school. Part of the mission of One Chef Can 86 Hunger is to take on hunger by raising awareness of culinary arts and helping students to channel their interests in the wide variety of career opportunities in the foodservice sector. That has now extended to communities in need across the country. In Harlem, for example, One Chef Can 86 Hunger awards annual scholarships to help students attend culinary school. We also operate a culinary program based on the ProStart curriculum that meets twice weekly and gives current culinary school students a chance to learn real-world skills from a professional chef.
Participation in the program is rewarding for me on a personal level—and it’s incredibly beneficial for students to learn from professionals in the industry. Whether volunteering your time to mentor students, donating scholarship funds/equipment to a local program, or considering graduates for jobs, investing in today’s culinary and management students will help ensure a strong future for the restaurant industry.
3. Listen to Your Guests
As chefs, restaurant owners, and employees, we listen to our guests every day to ensure they’re happy with their experience, but talking with customers about things other than their meal can open your eyes to problems affecting your community.
In recent years, the industry has seen unique and creative ways that restaurants are supporting their communities aside from hunger relief. King Eider’s Pub in Damariscotta, Maine, knew that the struggling economy was causing some of its neighbors to choose between buying groceries for their families and paying their heating bill. The pub established the Lincoln County Community Energy fund to provide emergency funds to help individuals pay their bills during the winter months. The example of King Eider’s Pub demonstrates how understanding the needs of the community can lead to incredibly worthwhile efforts with a real impact.
Before beginning any community outreach or—if you think you might be ready to move to a larger scale—starting your own charitable foundation, restaurant owners, chefs, and employees should ask themselves whether this is something they truly want to do. Although well worth the time and effort, it is a big commitment. Restaurants need to constantly engage the community to identify its needs. It is critical to realize that community involvement will always be a work in progress. As the community’s needs change, the ways in which a restaurant provides support can also change.
Restaurants know that doing good makes good sense. With 980,000 restaurants serving communities across the nation, we’re making a difference each and every day. I’m proud to be a part of this great industry.