While restaurateurs are widely recognized for their ability to feed and care for guests who come to them for a pleasant dining experience, they are quite not as well known for reaching out to provide aid for those individuals who are less fortunate.

Yet, the foodservice industry has long provided support for those in need — despite the fact that the breadth and depth of that support has not always been acknowledged. "We are one of the most charitable industries in the country," says Alyssa Prince, senior manager of community relations for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. "[The industry] generates at least $3 billion in revenue in terms of charitable aid — and much of the money is not even tracked. Restaurants have deep roots in their communities."

From donating items to the local food bank to organizing elaborate events designed to raise funds for national causes like Share Our Strength, restaurateurs give back to their communities in many ways. "Ninety-four percent of our members made a charitable contribution last year," Prince says. "But nine out of 10 actively engage in some charitable activity."

Certainly, not every activity restaurants participate in are as urgent as hunger relief. Restaurateurs also lend a hand to community organizations like the little league or local high school by participating in specially tailored fundraisers. However, anti-hunger initiatives form the greatest part of the industry's charitable efforts, with about 73 percent of operators offering food donations to community programs or local food banks.

"The nature of the business is hospitality," Prince says. "From feeding those who are hungry to just helping them celebrate, restaurants know the needs of their neighborhoods."

The foodservice industry also seeks to demonstrate its gratitude to the nation's men and women in uniform as well as its veterans. It has become almost an annual tradition among restaurateurs to offer free or discounted meals to veterans and those still serving in the military each year on Veteran's Day in November.

In addition, however, many operators and organizations go a step further by reaching out to American veterans and incentivizing them to pursue careers in the restaurant industry. The International Franchise Association, for example, recently strengthened its partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's "Hiring our Heroes" program. The program has a goal of hiring as team members and recruit as franchise business owners 75,000 veterans and military spouses and 5,000 "Wounded Warriors" by the end of the year.

To help educate the public — and the industry itself — about restaurateurs' often unsung efforts to give back to their communities, the NRA in 1999 established the Restaurant Neighbor Award with American Express. "We wanted to share these incredible stories of giving with the public," she says.

Each year the program receives hundreds of entry applications from around the country, which are then whittled down by the individual state associations. Following that, a panel of judges convenes in Washington, D.C., to select the year's four award winners, who then are honored at a gala dinner.

Choosing the four award recipients from so many worthy entrants is an extremely difficult job, judges say. One of this year's winners, Todd Maurer, chef-owner of King Eider's  Pub and Restaurant in Damariscotta, Maine, was chosen for helping residents of the surrounding Lincoln County remain warm during the cold Maine winters. After learning in 2005 that some of his neighbors could not afford to heat their homes because of the skyrocketing cost of oil, Maurer and two business associates established the Community Energy Fund of Lincoln County. Working with other restaurateurs, accountants, lawyers and printers in the area, Maurer has managed to raise nearly $700,000, helping some 1,200 families keep warm throughout the winter.

In addition to channeling individual donations into the fund, King and other restaurateurs established the "Dine in Damariscotta" event to fuel the continuing effort. "Every dollar we raise goes to the people of Lincoln County, and everything it costs to do a project like this is paid for by the businesses of Lincoln County," he says.

Members of King Eider's staff also involve themselves in the program by donating time and effort to the events. Today, even people who earlier had been helped by the fund and have gotten back on their feet donate to the fund, Maurer says. "They've recovered, and that's a good thing.

"In the restaurant business, we're part of the community," he adds. "We all rise together or fall together. And if we can do something to help out, we should."

Sue LaTour, cofounder with her husband, Mike Bischoff, of the 12-unit Passport Pizza in Clinton Township, Mich., was moved to help feed victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. What began as a small-scale effort has evolved into a program that distributes more than 500 pallets of food each year to residents of Michigan. In addition to donating the chain's own products, she works with other sources such as Costco, Panera Bread, and Gordon Food Service, which donate food with limited shelf life.

Aided by Passport Pizza employees who make deliveries on their own time, the company helps generates 3,000 meals weekly. In addition, Passport — which also won a Restaurant Neighbor Award in 2014 — hosts a meal each month for East-side Teen Outreach, 160 at-risk kids; Project 9, established to improve Macomb County; and C4 Urban Outreach, an evangelistic street ministry that aids Detroit's homeless, poor and addicted.

"Everybody takes pride in being part of it," she says. "It gives everybody a great feeling."

BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse has been organized to give back to the communities in which the Huntington Beach, Calif.-based chain operates since 1991. Under the auspices of BJ's Restaurants Foundation, the chain is able to reach out to those in need, says foundation president Rob DeLiema, who estimates BJ's generates combined charitable donations of some $700,000 each year.

One key facet of BJ's community outreach program is its TASC Force, an acronym for Team Action to Support Communities. Restaurant team members are encouraged to support their communities by participating in such events as blood drives, painting houses for needy seniors, supporting local food banks, and just generally lending their support to charitable fundraisers. According to DeLiema, the foundation also supports sanctioned events with donated food and financial contributions, noting that he wrote checks for an estimated 125 charities last year — many of those which helped to support children.

Participating team members are rewarded with service pins and recognized in articles that appear the company's internal newsletter, which helps to convince others to participate. "The vast majority of our team members are in their 20s," DeLiema says. "There is no promise of better shifts or increased employment if they participate. They do it through their own social conscience. I'm in awe of what they do."

In addition, BJ's supports its Cookies 4 Kids program, donating a portion of its signature Pizookie dessert sales to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the brand's main charity organization. Much of the chain's support for Cystic Fibrosis is linked to new restaurant openings, DeLiema says, noting that the foundation invites guests from the surrounding area and the local chamber of commerce to attend charity and training events that occur a week before the grand opening.

Giving back to the community, DeLiema says, is a way of demonstrating that "we are really grateful to people and organizations for supporting us. We're successful because of our guests and if we support a school or an event, and someone is trying to decide where to go to dinner next, it makes the decision easier."