Local communities large part of fast casual culture

By Valerie Killifer

At the 2010 National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel, it was standing room only during the panel discussion called Fast Casual Differentiators: Make Your Brand Standout in the New Market Economy. The high level of attendance made it clear that the fast casual category isn't just a passing phenomenon. And with sales of the Top 100 chains in excess of $17.5 billion in 2009, the segment is leading the industry charge.

We've decided to take an in-depth look at what separates the segment from the rest and what truly makes it shine. This week, we take a look at the segment's emphasis on community.

More than 10 years ago, Ralph Rubio and his wife Dione founded Cabo Café, a San Diego-based, non-profit casual dining restaurant with proceeds benefiting California's Monarch School. The Monarch School is an educational facility for homeless children living in San Diego.

Cabo Café opened in 1999 on Monarch premises and provided job training to students through part-time employment opportunities. In 2002, the restaurant began operating at a profit and helped to fund programs specially suited for Monarch students.

Even though limited classroom space led to Cabo Café’s closure, its development by Ralph and Dione Rubio speak to the community mindedness entrepreneurs – specifically, fast casual operators – have brought to their operations.

While large QSRs are reaching out to consumers across the country with national charitable promotions, fast casual operators are gaining customer loyalty through their focus on community efforts and organizations.

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For Rubio, the big draw to partner with Monarch stemmed from the fact the school was local.

“Everyone really got behind (Cabo Café) and it was very motivating, the idea that we were helping these kids,” Rubio said. “Back then, it was very much a novel idea, combining entrepreneurship with a restaurant or charity. Because it was innovative at the time, it got a lot of attention locally and really helped Monarch.”

For fast casual operators, the ability to connect charity and community comes from the ideas generated that touch on more than making money.

For example, for every new Dickey’s Barbecue Pit that opens, the company is incorporating local charities and organizations into their grand opening events. Dickey’s also is asking all owner/operators to establish on-going partnerships with community groups where they operate. So far, partnerships have been formed with a local Cystic Fibrosis foundation and The Angel Network.

To benefit pubic safety

Firehouse Subs founders Chris and Robin Sorensen, come from a long line of firefighters and even worked as firefighters in their hometown of Jacksonville, Fla.

When they founded Firehouse Subs in 1994, an opportunity was created to extend the brand’s reach through a public safety foundation, which was launched nearly 10 years later.

“We’re big believers in giving back to the community,” Robin Sorensen said. “And we thought it would be neat if we had something that tied back into our heritage.”

The Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation was launched in 2005 and its purpose is to raise funds through local-store sales of $2 pickle buckets, of which the company sells 5,000 to 10,000 per month. Funds generated by the sale of those buckets are then used to purchase life saving equipment for fire and police departments.

Approximately $2.9 million has been generated since the foundation was started, but the company’s goal is to raise $10 million by 2015. And so far, donations made have included a rescue dog, a thermal energy camera and an Auto Pulse (a cardiac support pump), for which the company was featured on Anderson Cooper’s “Building Up America” segment on CNN.

The foundation breeds company loyalty, reflects the brand’s corporate identity and extends its reach, said CEO Don Fox.

“You need to be forward-thinking and give customers other reasons to be loyal to you,” Fox said. “You also may touch people that may never have been a customer in your restaurant.”

In order to successfully partner with a charitable organization, Fox said to choose groups relevant to customers, the brand and its entire system. He used the Ronald McDonald House as an example of a successfully organization launch.

“Go and find something close to your heart,” Fox said.

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