Should your restaurant stop providing free food for charitable events?


Before COVID, I was frequently asked to participate in events and fundraisers where I’d prepare a couple hundred tasting portions for charity and ostensibly as promotion for my restaurant. Now that things are opening up again and there is a busy events season, I find myself being asked to do these events again as if nothing happened over the past couple years. With labor shortages, food prices increasing and still recovering from the impact of COVID on our business and my staff, I just can’t justify doing these things and they don’t seem worth it. How can I say no in a way that makes sense to the people asking and doesn’t damage my reputation? I’m actually very community-minded and charitable, but it’s not a good time for restaurants!

–Restaurant Owner, Philadelphia


Asking restaurants to donate food for charity events reminds me of asking a band to play a party “for exposure.” To be sure, there is goodwill and positive PR generated from doing these events, but do those benefits justify the expense? Restaurateurs are the most generous people I know. But maybe they can be generous to a fault?

First, having a plan for charitable giving will help you discern among competing priorities. It is wonderful to be charitable, and you should by all means make an effort to support causes you believe in, causes your core customers believe in or those that may indirectly benefit your business. For example, if you are known for dog-friendly outdoor seating, supporting a local animal shelter’s annual gala may be not only charitable but a savvy marketing move. Hurting for cooks? Offering gift cards as a graduation present to culinary students at a local community college may be a smart investment.

Having a clear sense of the types of causes that you will and won’t support, along with a calendar and budget for events, will help you plan for these opportunities as well as let people know the reason you are saying no. “Sorry, but I just don’t have the money, and I’m just too busy,” is the kind of vague and disappointing message you want to avoid. “Sorry, but we can only handle one big charity event per quarter, and I’m already overcommitted for this one. Can we look to do something together in the future?” sends the message that you are already very charitable and will continue to be. Within limits.

Kiki Aranita, owner of Poi Dog, recently wrote an article advising event planners to keep in mind the very challenging couple of years that restaurants have experienced. Among other things, she recommends that planners put some skin in the game by patronizing the restaurants they are interested in before they ask for donations and offering support ranging from parking to chef stipends to extra hands at events. I love this strategy as it says to the person inquiring that you would be more than happy to do their event, but only if your work is valued and appropriately honored. Their need for free food is not your problem.

One of Aranita’s key requests of organizers is for “transparency on how funds raised from the event are distributed.” Overall, I think the goal is sustained support of the good work of the community. Too many heavy lifts for free causes your business to suffer and makes your giving unsustainable. Strategic charity that you feel good about, by a truly appreciative organizer, gives you a structure and positive reputation you can continue to enjoy for years.

More on charitable giving for restaurants here.

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