More than a decade ago, a food cart became a path for sex-trafficking survivors to reclaim their lives through employment. Called Freedom a la Cart, the social enterprise stemmed from a partnership with the Franklin County Municipal Court’s CATCH Court program in our hometown of Columbus, Ohio, designed to help sex-trafficking victims get on their feet.
What began as a single food cart has expanded into a thriving box lunch and drop-off catering company. The Freedom a la Cart initiative provides survivors with the support they need to heal while pairing a business venture with a greater purpose.
While this concept isn’t an anomaly, it was at the forefront of change that is now taking the restaurant industry by storm. Over the past few years, more and more restaurants have taken the core of their business—serving great food—and wrapped it in a social mission, spurring conversation and awareness.
Often referred to as “cause casual,” this restaurant industry trend fuses food and advocacy. It’s a product of more restaurants understanding the value of building social purpose into their identity and business model, as well as the benefits that can come from being socially responsible.
This is likely only the beginning, as more companies across several industries are finding new ways to embrace corporate social responsibility practices. Restaurant owners, today in particular, have a tremendous opportunity to alter the landscape of the food and beverage industry while doing good in their communities and catapulting themselves into the spotlight. Here’s how.
Purpose With Profit
While social responsibility in business has been around for decades, this concept has gained traction as more consumers have become conscious of global issues like racism, climate change, and gender inequities. Many consumers are looking to align their spending with their values, and businesses are noticing.
A recent Harvard Business School report shares that nearly 90% of companies on the S&P 500 index published a report on corporate social responsibility in 2019. That’s up from just 20% in 2011. A recent Aflac survey found that 70% of Americans believe it’s somewhat or very important for companies to make the world a better place, while 77% are motivated to buy from a company committed to this cause. These statistics help paint a picture of why prospective customers make certain purchasing decisions.
The food and beverage market is poised to grow to more than $8 billion by 2026 and to more than $10 billion by 2031. As restaurants compete for a cut of those profits, more and more are realizing that their menu is only one ingredient in the recipe to success. New cause casual concepts may be just the differentiating factor that draws consumers back to eat—and feel good about helping others too.
Uniting the Community around the Table
Less than a block away from the White House is Washington D.C.’s first cause casual restaurant. Immigrant Food prides itself on uniting people at the table, celebrating the success of past and current immigrants, and fighting today’s newest forms of intolerance in America.
Creating its own definition of corporate social responsibility, the restaurant’s owners built a business plan that centers on “multiple points of connectivity between the community and their cause.” They reached out to organizations that were working to make a difference in the community to better gauge what they needed and how the restaurant could help. These partnerships, central to the restaurant’s business model, helped guide the owners as they determined how they could build a successful business that also created change.
While their culturally diverse dishes reflect America at its core, the restaurant has transformed into a local destination that has opened its door to immigrant service organizations and has become an advocate in the immigration debate.
From Prison to Kitchen
EDWINS, in Cleveland, is using food to give former convicts a second chance. Led by Brandon Chrostowski, the restaurant and training institute gives formerly incarcerated adults the skills and knowledge for a potential career in hospitality, along with a network of opportunities for a better life.
Arrested at 18 for dealing drugs, Chrostowski got a second chance from a forgiving judge, who placed him on probation. He began working at a kitchen in Detroit, later trained at the Culinary Institute of America, and eventually worked at top French restaurants internationally. Chrostowski wanted to give back, so he opened a French restaurant in Cleveland. The location wasn’t without much forethought. In an article on CBS News, Chrostowki says he looked at cities that had poor high school graduation rates.
Those who train at EDWINS, which is short for “education wins,” have all had run-ins with the law. Many have spent years in prison, but Chrostowski said he hopes to redirect their lives by inviting them to a restaurant boot camp. This six-month program provides housing, clothes, training, and other essentials for those who want to take advantage of the opportunity. The non-profit program, changing the perception of those who have served time in prison, is funded by his main restaurant and private donations.
More Mission-Driven Menus
Across the U.S., the list of restaurants powered by a social mission is growing. Los Angeles-based Dog Haus has partnered with No Kid Hungry to create menu items in which $1 for every sale goes directly to the charity. Wilmington, N.C.-based Bitty and Beau’s has served as a place where people with developmental disabilities can find employment and build a future. The coffee chain reports that its attrition rate is at nearly zero, and every time a new location opens, the owners are inundated with applications.
Giving Back and Gaining Fans
Restaurants are changing the industry for the better by using their platforms to engage with their customers and unite communities. It’s a transformation that is not only changing lives, but it’s also simply good for business.
Understanding consumers’ buyer behavior begins by recognizing what inspires them and propels them to act and buy. Restaurant industry leaders understand the value of integrating authentic social purpose into their businesses. They are reaping the rewards of loyal customers who want to make a difference by putting their money where their (hungry) mouth is.