As local hunger-relief organizations stage fundraisers and awareness campaigns for Hunger Action Month, local restaurants make their own efforts to promote food security in the community. From donating large portions of food leftover from catered events to shelters through the Food Connection program to providing free gourmet lunches to the homeless community through the Haywood Street Congregation’s Welcome Table, there’s no question that Asheville’s restaurant owners are doing their part to help solve Western North Carolina’s food insecurity problem.
One restaurant, though, has established a simple, year-round way of giving — asking patrons if they want to skip a side dish. Customers at The Cantina at Biltmore Village can opt out of one or both of their entrée’s side dishes with the cash equivalent ($2 for one or $4 for two) being given to MANNA FoodBank. In just over two years, the Be Nice With Your Rice program has raised more than $42,000.
“The amount donated is not our profit or what ii costs us to make it. It is the actual cash equivalent, which can be up to $4 per person,” says co-owner Sherrye Coggiola. “We collect about 300 donated sides a week.”
“The really powerful thing is that people are giving up something to give to us and that feels good,” says Alisa Hixson, individual and corporate relations director at MANNA FoodBank. “You are literally giving up something tangible and potentially very satisfying — your food — so that someone else can eat.”
Focusing their charitable giving to help create food security was natural. Besides being in the food industry, co-owner Anthony Coggiola has firsthand experience working in developing nations where hunger is a daily battle. The Cantina originally partnered with MANNA as a culinary sponsor of the organization’s Blue Jean Ball, but the owners decided they wanted to create a deeper engagement with their giving. That idea spurred the side-dish donation program.
“We have children going to school hungry, and that is amazing to me,” says Sherrye Coggiola. “I was born and raised in this town, and am so thankful that for what Asheville is today, but we all have a responsibility that everyone can live here and enjoy this town. As things get more expensive and it gets harder to live here and eat here, we all have a duty — no one should go hungry.”
The Coggiolas feel so strongly about their partnership with MANNA that even their staff is educated on what the organization does, with each new employee touring the site.
“One of the main reasons their program is so successful is that the wait staff is really on the front lines explaining exactly what we do,” says Hixson. “I think they feel really connected to it.”
All around the restaurant, patrons can see how the Coggiolas have chosen to direct their support — stickers on the front door, the box on the menu depicting the side-dish donation program and the chalkboard behind the bar that displays the monthly donations raised and how that equates to meals provided.
Not only have they managed to involve the local community through their donation program, they’re also involving visitors to the area. “Biltmore Village gets a tremendous amount of tourists,” says Hixson. “They have found a way for the tourists to support MANNA’s work.”
“We are a triple bottom line company — people, planet and profit,” says Sherrye Coggiola. “In everything we do, we look back toward that and know that we can improve.”
She challenges “all businesses in the area to take a look at their generosity and consider focusing for impact by partnering with the local charity of their choice in a way of their choice based on their business model. We know how generous this community is, but working with nonprofits in this and other business endeavors has given us a unique perspective.”