I imagine that for as long as there have been restaurants, our trade has been associated with philanthropy. After all, food is the most basic of necessities, and throughout history, the restaurateur has been well positioned to come to the aid of those in need. I can almost visualize citizens of centuries past, standing at the thresholds of our ancestors’ shops, presenting sympathetic figures basked in moonlight. And I can easily see the compassion in the eyes of those ancient proprietors and the gifts of food they extended to them.
The restaurateur of today has inherited this rich tradition of giving back. And I think it is fair to say the spirit of giving permeates our industry as much or more than at any time in history. If we were able to produce a value for the sum total of food donated by our industry to society during any given year in recent times, it would be mind boggling. As I prepare to serve as a judge for the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Neighbor Awards for the fourth consecutive year (a role that is an unparalleled honor), I can personally attest to the many stories of restaurateurs who step up and stem the tide of hunger that plagues the most unfortunate in our society. It is our most basic instinct to satisfy that most basic of needs.
The growth of our industry has produced wealth and good fortune that I suspect would be unimaginable to the earliest restaurateurs in our country. And the resulting accumulation of resources has enabled our industry to play a philanthropic role that extends well beyond the boundaries of just providing sustenance. Restaurant companies from coast to coast have embraced causes that extend across the philanthropic spectrum. In my role as an RNA judge, I have found more often than not, there is a personal connection between the operator and the chosen cause. It is this personal connection and resulting passion that makes those efforts so impressive and effective.
I saw this at work in my own brand long before I became a judge of the awards. In 2005, the fire-fighter founders of Firehouse Subs, brothers Robin Sorensen and Chris Sorensen, channeled their passion for public safety into the formation of the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation. Through the efforts of all of the members of our brand, combined with the unbelievable generosity of our guests, we have to date donated more than $15 million in lifesaving equipment and resources to public safety entities across the country. Those resources have been put to work saving an untold number of lives. As our brand has grown, and we achieve higher levels of success, it starts to feel like the primary purpose for our brand is to enable the success of the foundation. After all, what purpose can be more important than saving lives? And if the public recognizes our philanthropic work, and rewards us with their loyalty, that is just the icing on the cake. I know it is a bit of a cliché to say that when you give back to the community, the community gives back to you. But in my experience, it is absolutely true.
The Restaurant Neighbor Awards represents a tiny fraction of the philanthropic work being done by the members of our great industry. We see submissions for efforts large and small in scale, and without exception, they are all noble efforts. An organization’s efforts are often in proportion to their size and success as a business. And some of the most impressive submissions come from the smallest of organizations, simply because we know that, proportionately, they are making such a herculean effort to give back.
Share your philanthropic stories with us; large or small, we’d love to hear them. They’re all important.
Don Fox is the chief executive of the Firehouse Subs sandwich chain. It is based in Jacksonville, Fla.