The emerging brand has raised over $1.8 million for ALSF.

The reality is nothing new to restaurants. Profit margins are razor thin. While there is no concrete number, the range falls between zero and 15 percent. Typically, though, it somewhere around 3–5 percent. And the belt is tightening as delivery costs disrupt the dynamic, local sourcing becomes a norm instead of an ideal, and chains across the spectrum expand rapidly to satisfy customers’ needs, whether that be in technology, convenience, accessibility, and more.

So, where does this leave community involvement? Every restaurateur lauds the benefits: It helps get the word out. Boosts employee engagement. Connects operators with locals—an especially important notion for chain restaurants aiming to shed the sterile, corporate label. It’s just the right thing to do.

But actually doing so is often an inconsistent and fleeting concept. Food costs rise. Labor problems surface, and the notion of doling out hefty sums, food, and staff hours to charitable causes slips down the priority ladder. And so the following questions become critical for operators: What really is the return on investment of giving back to a non-profit? What impact does it have on your workers and customers? Do guests truly give you credit? Does it lead to additional visits?

READ MORE: Firebirds’ secret to being the unchained chain

Emerging brand Firebirds Wood Fired Grill, which opened its 50th location early September in North Wales, Pennsylvania, teamed up with the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation in fall 2012, and is fast approaching $2 million in donations. The company was created at the front-yard lemonade stand of 4-year-old cancer patient Alex Scott. Her goal was to give back to oncologists so they could help other kids. Scott passed away in 2004. By then, she had raised more than $1 million toward a cure for childhood cancer.

Stephen Loftis, the vice president of marketing at Firebirds, took some time to chat with FSR about the partnership, why it’s an integral part of the brand’s DNA, why giving back pays off, in more ways than one.

Firstly, talk about Firebirds’ partnership with ALSF. How did it come about, and what about this cause in particular really spoke to the brand?

Our relationship with ALSF (Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation) began when two of our GMs in Arizona decided to sponsor a local golf tournament that was raising money for childhood cancer research. Firebirds was looking to align itself with a charity that wasn’t too large, and one that focused its efforts on children. Lemonade was a natural tie-in since it was already on our menu. In 2012 we met Alex’s parents Liz and Jay Scott who founded ALSF in honor of their daughter, Alex, who succumbed to cancer at the age of eight. There was an immediate connection and we “officially” partnered with ALSF system-wide. Fast forward to today—Firebirds has raised over $1.8 million for ALSF and we expect to eclipse the $2 million mark in 2020 which happens to be the 20th anniversary for both our company and their foundation.

Interior Of Firebirds Restaurant

Every Firebirds location maintains a community outreach effort throughout the year.

What are some activations for Firebirds around the foundation? How has the company raised money for ALSF in and outside of the restaurant? And how do you get employees prepared?

Going back to 2000 when restaurateur Dennis Thompson opened the first Firebirds Wood Fired GrilI, the notion of giving back was part of the fabric woven into the company’s culture. It’s important that we have employees buy-in. In fact, it’s an integral part of our onboarding and training programs. Employee feedback is overwhelmingly one of pride, knowing that their job includes a bigger purpose and that they can truly make a difference.

We started with a single menu offering, a fresh glass of lemonade. For every glass sold Firebirds donates $1.25 to ALSF year-round. Since then we’ve expanded our fundraising efforts to include:

Lemonade Days: An annual three-day fundraising program when employees erect and staff lemonade stands at every Firebirds restaurant location (soon to be 51 in 19 states). We make it easy for our guests to donate at the lemonade stand using Square Payment, which allows them to swipe their cards and grab a glass of lemonade on their way out. Thanks to our charitable guests, we surpassed our goal to raise $100,000 in three days. It’s definitely a community effort.

Big Daddy Lemonade Cake: A portion of proceeds from every slice of lemonade cake sold is donated to ALSF.  

Round Up for a Cure: Our guests are given an opportunity to increase their check total to the nearest dollar amount, with the difference donated to ALSF.

The Lemon Ball: Firebirds is a Diamond-level sponsor of this annual fundraising event which includes sending 20 staff members to the ALSF gala in Philadelphia each year, and every year our folks come back so inspired to help eradicate childhood cancer in our lifetime.

Alex’s Lemonade Stand Golf Classic: Firebirds recently held its second annual golf tournament in September which is National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. The amount of support shown by our charitable guests and the Charlotte community was incredible.  

Speaking as an emerging chain, how important is community involvement to fostering a local-first feel at each restaurant during expansion?

Every Firebirds location maintains a community outreach effort throughout the year. It is vital to our success. We provide local law enforcement and first responders with complimentary meals on Patriot Day and invite current service members and veterans to Dine on Us every Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Before every new restaurant opening we invite community VIPs to a complimentary reception to build relationships before we even open our doors to the public. We invite Hero families (those who face childhood cancer in their own families) to celebrate our new restaurant opening and provide them with meals and gifts. Our local communities are key stakeholders and giving back to them is one of our core values.

Firebirds' Smoked Wings With A Honey Jalapeño Glaze, Topped With Crushed Pistachios And Grilled Onions

Firebirds’ smoked wings with a honey-jalapeño glaze, topped with crushed pistachios and grilled onions.

From an employee perspective, have you found the direction helpful for retention? Do team members get more engaged when they know what the restaurant stands for? What are some ways you’ve seen this?

Our regional managers are so vested they created an internal contest to see which region can raise the most money for ALSF.

We bring ALSF’s founders, Liz and Jay Scott, to our annual meeting where our GMs, chefs, staff and partners hear firsthand how their efforts are advancing research, and our employees are visibly moved to be told they are making a very real impact.

Firebirds is constantly brainstorming new ways to help ALSF fund childhood cancer research, develop less toxic treatments and protocols for these kids to endure, and ultimately to find a cure for pediatric cancer.

What is the ROI of giving to a non-profit each year? Is there tangible value in being a purpose-driven restaurant?

While it’s hard to quantify a direct ROI, it definitely plays an important role in our recruiting efforts, particularly among millennials, which happens to be one of our fastest growing demographics of guests and staff. This is not so much a brand strategy as it is a corporate philosophy.

What is the impact on guests? Do you think it inspires visits? How do you share that message?

We know our partnership with ALSF impacts our guests. Many tell our servers that it is one of the reasons they continue to come back to Firebirds (in addition to our great food) and it’s a direct touchpoint that connects our staff with our guests in a meaningful way. ALSF is prominent on our menus, on our website and on our social media channels.

Is there some feedback you’ve received from customers that stands out?

Our guests let us know what they think in person and on social media.

Someone just posted a comment on our Facebook page about our kids menu: “Trying to keep boys busy @FirebirdsGrillopened kids menu and found this. Businesses that like leading with #empathy as a value will simply lead the others.”

We recently received a 5-star Google rating from a customer who wrote: “Great food and awesome atmosphere! They also have Alex’s lemonade on the menu! The proceeds go to fight childhood cancers. The salmon is amazing! We had an awesome waiter that was attentive and funny! Loved him!”

Facebook Post From The Firebirds Wood Fired Grill Account

More broadly speaking, how do you think the restaurant industry can do more to give back? 

I think the industry is very good about giving back. Donating food, collecting items, sponsoring fundraising events like chef cook-offs all impact those less fortunate. Having said that, I’d like to challenge every restaurant to find a cause they are passionate about and make a real impact. Even better, get behind funding a cure for childhood cancer. Of all the millions of dollars our federal government earmarks for cancer research, less than 4 percent is dedicated to childhood cancer, which kills more kids than any other disease. We need to fix this sooner rather than later, even if it starts with just one cup at a time.

Chain Restaurants, Feature, NextGen Casual, Philanthropy, Firebirds Wood Fired Grill