Dear nonprofits, if you are in the midst of sending an email to an area restaurant asking for a gift certificate, stop writing and read this. Asking a bunch of chefs to be featured at your annual fundraiser because you see everyone else doing it, is not a good idea. And whatever you do, if a chef is already serving free food at your event, please don't ask them to donate an auction item on top of what they have already committed. Leaving their kitchen for the night, spending a thousand or so dollars on food, having to pay additional kitchen staff to cover them being there, and then paying someone to come work with them at the event should be enough.
Don't get me wrong, most chefs and restaurateurs in this city love being charitable. If you take the time to ask, they each have something that is meaningful to them that they would love to support. However, those efforts often take a back seat as they are overwhelmed with dozens of requests a day asking for donations and free food. It takes time to stop what they are doing to read the requests, and then to respond in a timely manner. The worst is when a request comes in on a Friday for an event the following week often meaning the restaurant and its services are an afterthought.
This expectation, that restaurants are an open door for charitable giving, has got to stop. First, most of the charities requesting items are probably making more money than the restaurant they are soliciting. Not to mention the fact that too many charities are convinced a chef station model is going to guarantee ticket sales, so everyone is doing it. The truth is, the model is stale and chefs are burnt out doing events week after week outside of their kitchens. Ticket holders are fatigued from seeing and tasting the same food and most events with this format are struggling to sell tickets.
Take it from a chef who knows. Chef Ken Vedrinski of Trattoria Lucca and Coda del Pesce, receives on average 10 charity donation requests a week. In his experience he's had some customers ask for donations while dining and when he was unable to do so, they threatened to never come back. "I want to support my customers and will whenever I can financially, however, people have to understand I am a small restaurant and am limited to what I can support," he recently told me. Ken one time had someone redeem a charity-purchased certificate for dinner when it was clearly expired (another no, no) and then argued with him in the dining room in front of other customers. Worst, the table left without even tipping the servers on a substantially expensive comped meal.
Mickey Bakst, general manager of Charleston Grill and the city's unofficial Mayor of F&B, echoes Ken's concern. "I have been in this business for over 40 years and with great pride have been able to help countless charities in big and small ways. Unfortunately, over the years, many organizations have come to depend on the restaurant industry to be a part of their major fundraisers. Whether it's donations of dinners or small bites for 500, we always have said yes and been there to help. Unfortunately, this model has become extraordinarily taxing on us as restaurateurs. The amount of requests that we receive has become overwhelming. I alone can be asked 10-20 times in a week for something to help an organization. Somehow we need to find a way to enlist other businesses to participate in the success of the organizations that are so important to our community."
It's not just charities asking chefs for freebies. Several of my clients were asked for free gift cards from for-profit businesses to give their staff for Christmas. This is ludicrous. Gift certificates are for sale and unless they are giving back their services for free to the restaurant's employees (and even then), no thanks. Restaurants are businesses and can't just give it away for free.
Here is my solution. First, take some time and get to know the business before asking for a donation. Most of them post either via their website or social media what charities they support. Before asking for a donation, ask them about their giving. What do they want to support? Do they have a budget or limit? What would they want in exchange for the donation?
Then, don't nickel and dime them. Have an outline of charity giving options that are customized and meet with the restaurateur to see what they want to do. Form a long-term relationship and see how the two groups can work together to accomplish their goals. Restaurants would always love more business and if you can share ways you can promote them in your event marketing, that's better than just taking a donation and not promoting it at all.
Last, patronize the restaurant. There's nothing worse than someone who comes in once a year to ask for a donation who doesn't ever eat there. This happens all of the time. Showing support of a restaurant really goes a long way when asking for its support.
Angel Postell is the owner of Home Team PR.