Reporter's Notebook

Brands build business by doing good

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Corner Bakery, La Madeleine and Macaroni Grill outline successes in building business from participation in Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry Dine Out.

A number of restaurant chains are finding they can boost business by doing good.

Executives from several brands gathered Feb. 19 at Dallas’ Palm restaurant to  outline how their participation in Share Our Strength’s national Dine Out, held in September, had helped them boost business.

The SOS No Kid Hungry program is aimed at ending childhood hunger in the United States, where it is estimated one in five children struggles with the issue.

Debbie Shore, co-founder of SOS, told the group that last year’s Dine Out involved 8,294 restaurants and saw the fundraising grow 49 percent over the prior year, to nearly $6 million. It was the fifth year of the Dine Out program.

John Cahill, chief operating officer of the 60-unit Dallas-based La Madeleine Country French Café, said the 2012 Dine Out promotion helped increase traffic. “It kicked our business up a notch,” Cahill said. “For the three weeks after, we picked up about 2 percent or more in traffic during the time they were giving the coupons.”

Last year, La Madeleine raised about $100,000 and the company intends to double that amount this year, Cahill said. The chain offered customers who made a$1 SOS donation a free triple chocolate peppermint cookie. With a $5 donation, guests got a coupon book worth more than $20 in La Madeleine products, including a free 15-ounce jar of tomato basil soup, a pastry, a cup of gourmet coffee, a mint dessert, a cup of homemade soup or a small salad.

The 210-unit Dallas-based Romano’s Macaroni Grill chain last year offered $5 off a meal on the next visit if a guest gave $2 to Share Our Strength.

The $5-off coupon got an enviable 22.9 percent redemption rate, said Brandon Coleman III, who was chief marketing office for Macaroni Grill during the promotion. “It was our most spectacular program of the year,” he added. Shore added that Macaroni Grill raised $330,000, and it was the brand’s first year in the program.

Diana Hovey, chief marketing officer for the 147-unit Dallas-based Corner Bakery Café, a division of Roark Capital Group, said her brand’s participation has also bolstered staff engagement and pride. It helped the brand be recognized as a leading fast-casual restaurant brand for community involvement, which is an attractive attribute among the highly sought-after Millennial customers.

Wallace Doolin, founder of the Black Box Intelligence consultancy and the host of the Dallas meeting, added that restaurants approach the program in a variety of ways, which they can customize to their culture.

“When we started out, we were looking for a formula everybody could use,” Doolin said. “And what we learned is that it’s the passion within the individual company to come up with what they believe is going to work for them. That’s more important than any formula.”

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