Most business owners would acknowledge that success isn’t possible without turning a profit. But recently, some foodservice professionals around the U.S. are staking their success on community impact through nonprofit restaurants.  

In forming a nonprofit restaurant in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, Maggie Kane wanted to provide a place where all diners could eat with dignity. Called A Place at the Table, the restaurant aims to provide a link between the not-always-accessible dining options of the city and meal centers.

“We don’t have a place where all people can come together and eat a meal,” says Kane, executive director. “This offers people who can’t afford it a good healthy meal with dignity, and it offers people who can afford a way to give back and be a part of it.” The restaurant has been hosting pop-ups at Raleigh restaurants while it looks for a permanent spot. 

Here’s how it works: A Place at the Table just needs 80 percent of customers to pay the suggested meal donation to cover the costs of 20 percent of customers who will not be able to pay that amount. Guests who dine at the restaurant can also volunteer in exchange for a meal. Instead of tips, money added onto the meal costs goes toward paying for someone else’s food. 

At the OKRA Charity Saloon in Houston, local charities benefit through the restaurant’s crowdsourced approach. For each drink purchased, guests receive one vote that they may cast for one of four charities selected by OKRA’s members. The charity with the most votes at the end of the month receives the next month’s drink proceeds.

OKRA—Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs—began in 2011 when a group of local bar and restaurant owners came together to brainstorm ways they could help Houston. The group functions as an independent, community-supported advocacy group. Since 2013, it has raised nearly $1 million for local charities. 

In addition to a menu of about 20 classic cocktails, beer, wine, and $3 shots of Fernet, OKRA also offers a food menu of paninis, waffle fries, cookies, and fried okra from the chef of local establishment Paulie’s. The wine selection is curated by the sommelier from wine and whisky bar Public Services, and a beer list selected by beer bar and restaurant Hay Merchant. “Like many other bars, we do our best to keep our costs as low as possible in order to maximize profit; the only real difference is all of our profit goes back into the community,” says OKRA president Ryan Rouse. He says that OKRA tries to organize charities with similar agendas as goals every month. OKRA members vote as a group on the final four, then customers vote for the winner.

“Allowing guests to vote with their tickets makes it fun and puts the power in their hands. Besides being able to financially help out local charities, we also bring awareness to groups that people might not have known are out there,” he says. “It could bring a new volunteer to a group or help spread the word of needs within the Houston community.”

Feature, Philanthropy