Breath and cigarette smoke rise in cold curls above the heads of those chatting outside the brick building of the Haywood Street Congregation on a chilly November morning. Inside, laughter and conversation can be heard from the downstairs dining room, not far from the office of Downtown Welcome Table Executive Director Laura Kirby.
The Welcome Table, Kirby explains, is a space dedicated to removing the barriers that exist between those in need and those who have enough. “Our model is to bring the community back together,” she says.
In the dining room, in the midst of a diverse and convivial crowd, a large poster thanks a list of more than 40 of Asheville’s most celebrated restaurants. These businesses typically provide about 40 meals per year for the program with the Haywood Street Congregation covering the remaining 104 meals that are served — all on handmade plates with quality silverware, tablecloths and flowers.
The experience the restaurants help provide for guests (all are invited to Welcome Table meals, not just those in need of food), helps foster the concept that people who are experiencing food insecurity and homelessness are full-fledged members of the community who are worthy of hospitality, not marginalization. “A lot of our guests spend their days walking by these restaurants,” Kirby points out. “For them to be able to eat the same food means they get to join the community and be part of the restaurant culture that makes Asheville unique.”
This year, the Asheville Independent Restaurants trade association commissioned a survey by the Magellan Strategy Group to gather a variety of data about its nearly 130 member eateries. Among the results, the study showed that 91 percent of AIR members contributed to local charities in 2017, with average financial and in-kind donations for that year totaling $19,993 per restaurant (some establishments gave in excess of $50,000 to Western North Carolina organizations).
Charitable contributions across all AIR members totaled $2.14 million. Jane Anderson, AIR’s executive director, says the numbers help quantify the charitable spirit she has come to expect from local restaurants. “Most people in the hospitality business really do like to help people,” Anderson says. “Restaurant owners are trying to do the right thing.”
The number is comparable to national figures — the National Restaurant Association estimates that 94 percent of all restaurants (including both independent and chains) donate to charitable groups, with contributions totaling about $3 billion a year. But how do restaurants, which have notoriously slim margins, manage to give so freely of their resources?
Michel Baudouin and Liz Button are among the Asheville restaurateurs who regularly contribute to the Downtown Welcome Table and other organizations. Baudouin owns downtown eatery and bar Bouchon and L’Ecluse, and the soon-to-open Haw Creek restaurant La Fête. Button is co-owner and director of human resources, community and sustainability at Katie Button Restaurants.
Button and Baudouin both support multiple causes throughout the year, and they say they typically receive at least 10 requests per week for donations. Requests to Katie Button Restaurants are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, says Button. Considerations, she says, include whether the request is for recurring or one-time donations and who the beneficiaries are — KBR only donates to charities serving people in need, ideally children.
“We’d love to fill every request we receive,” Button explains. “But eventually it does add up, and we have to say no sometimes.”
Baudouin also finds it necessary to turn down some requests in order to focus on the areas of greatest need. “Don’t ask me to donate to your golf tournament,” Baudouin jokes. Organizations whose missions address education, the arts and poverty are particularly close to his heart, he says, but ultimately, he tries to give help where it is most needed.
He notes that providing food at charitable events is his favorite way to market and refine his offerings. “The best thing a restaurant can do is to get food in people’s mouths,” he explains. “Right away, you know if people like you or not. Advertising is telling people what you want to tell them. Contributing serves that purpose, but we also get to know directly who we are helping. We hear from whoever is at the event how they are accepting what we serve. And a restaurant is only as good as the customer is happy.”
Baudouin believes that keeping customers satisfied depends, in part, on having a happy staff. “Generosity breeds generosity,” he remarks, pointing out that customer support of Bouchon drives his ability to offer competitive wages to employees and to be part of a web of support for community members in need.
“You can’t just take from your community,” he says. “The minimum is to give back. The minimum is to take care of your employees.” Employees, in turn, volunteer their time to serve at fundraising events and with organizations such as the Downtown Welcome Table.
In the interest of growing a spirit of volunteerism among staff members, Button has developed a plan to compensate employees who choose to give time to work with local nonprofit organizations. Beginning in January, Katie Button Restaurants will offer paid volunteer time off to employees who have been on staff for at least one year. Full-time employees can receive up to eight hours of VTO when they volunteer with certain local organizations; part-time employees can receive up to four.
Though Button is still working on compiling a full list of eligible organizations, currently included in the plan are MANNA FoodBank, the Haywood Street Congregation’s Downtown Welcome Table, Pisgah Legal Services and Homeward Bound WNC.
In addition to expressing appreciation to employees who volunteer their time to helping the community, Button also hopes the plan makes clear the value that Katie Button Restaurants places on helping others. “The best thing about a successful business is having a voice, and we choose to use that voice to help people,” she says. “That is so empowering. We don’t take it lightly.”