A 2011 National Restaurant Association survey found that 75 percent of American adults would be more likely to choose a restaurant that participates in a charitable program supporting U.S. military personnel, veterans and their families when dining out on Veterans Day, Nov. 11.
Many restaurateurs also like to show their gratitude toward the military in more direct ways. For years, Tim Horton’s has given away donuts, while Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Hooter’s and numerous other chains offered free meals or discounts to current and ex-military on Veterans Day. Many other brands offer 10 percent discounts to vets and active duty military all year round.
In addition, several restaurant companies are seeking to employ veterans and help them become franchisees. Recent NRA analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data revealed that nearly 10 percent of the more than 880,000 thousand restaurants in the U.S. are at least 50-percent owned by military veterans, while nearly 38 percent of that are majority-owned.
The effort to make veterans business owners, some say, is most important to helping them transition from military service to civilian business roles. “We have a million vets currently unemployed in this country, and we have 1 million more coming off active duty over the next year,” says Lynn Lowder, chief operating and compliance officer for 2 Toots Train Whistle Grill in Park Ridge, Ill.
A former U.S. Marine officer who served in Vietnam, Lowder knows the difficulties faced by military veterans seeking work after discharge from service. “We’ve first got to show these people some appreciation for serving our country and risking their lives for us, and then we’ve got to give them a shot with a job or, as we’re doing, with a chance to own a restaurant,” he says.
Lowder says 2 Toots’ first veteran owner-operator is former Army specialist Shaun Garry, who earned a Purple Heart after surviving five I.E.D. explosions during Middle East combat tours. The company helped Garry secure a loan to launch his venture, which is doing well, Lowder says.
“This is a guy who, as a vet, a wounded warrior, couldn’t get a job, and God only knows why,” Lowder says. “But he’s proven to us he can do it, and we know there are all sorts of Shauns out there.”
Ex-military often are ideal restaurant franchisee candidates, says Jennifer Durham, vice president of franchise development at Tampa, Fla.-based Checkers and Rally’s Restaurants. They understand systems, processes, are good at follow through and have had long-term training in leadership skills. On top of that, she says ex-military, especially those who’ve served until retirement, understand the extended benefits of business ownership.
“Beyond their interest in owning a business for themselves, they see this as an opportunity for their kids,” she says. Currently, eight of the combined chain’s 130 franchisees are ex-military. “They see their college-educated kids struggling to find corporate work that’s secure. And they’re not afraid of the hard work and extra effort required to make a business profitable.”
Little Caesar’s co-founder and former Marine, Mike Illitch, had reached out to vets informally for many years as his pizza chain became the nation’s third largest. But it wasn't until he read a newspaper article several years ago about Army staff sergeant Robbie Doughty that he got serious about doing something. Despite losing his legs while serving in Iraq, Doughty's attitude and strength of character impressed Illitch, who showed his appreciation by giving Doughty a Little Caesar’s pizza franchise in Paducah, Ky.
“So, in 2006, [we] introduced the Little Caesars Veterans Program as a way to thank our vets for the service they and their families have given to our country,” says chief executive Dave Scrivano. “The program provides franchise business opportunities to qualified, honorably discharged veterans transitioning to civilian life or seeking a career change.”
It also provides them with between $30,000 and $52,000 in franchise fee reductions, equipment and marketing contribution credits. According to Scrivano, the program has been well received with more than 100 vets becoming franchisees.
“[T]he kind of feedback we get from them is humbling,” Scrivano says in an email. “They tell us that they’re proud to be part of an organization that has this type of program … .”
When Matt Friedman’s company WingZone began franchising, he didn’t know it was hitting on good idea by signing a military veteran as its original franchisee.
“Not only was he a vet, he opened our first military store, which meant he knew the market well,” Friedman says. Even better, that unit quickly became the chain’s top seller. “That opened our eyes up to military markets and ultimately finding vets who want to get into a growing franchise. Now, nine out of our 85 franchisees are veterans.”
Meanwhile, independent operators lacking resources to establish veterans' career programs but who nevertheless want to show their gratitude to active and retired military personnel can join forces with organizations like Team Red, White & Blue. The nonprofit group connects food manufacturers and operators to boost awareness within restaurants of Team RWB programs, and establish support for soldiers returning from combat.
Team RWB hosts weekly fitness activities and monthly social events that help soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to adjust to civilian life healthfully. The group sponsors public events and confidence-building programs that help veterans build relationships through community involvement.
“We wanted to recognize the sacrifice and courage of our country’s military. The best way to honor their bravery was to support an organization dedicated to serving returning veterans,” says William Johnson, associate business manager for A.1 Sauce, a Team RWB partner. “We are privileged to be partnering with a terrific organization.”