Mark your calendars — on Thursday, April 29, the Western North Carolina AIDS Project will join cities across the country for its eighth annual Dining Out for Life benefit. Every year, participating local restaurants donate 20 percent of their gross sales to help WNCAP continue its mission. The organization works with at-risk individuals through their outreach, education and prevention programs to help increase awareness, and provides case-managed care to all those already affected by HIV/AIDS. The organization suffered a setback this year with a reduction in federal funding, while the number of clients affected by HIV/AIDS continues to grow.
Harry Brown, special-events coordinator and chairman of WNC's Dining Out for Life, says that the local chapter has grown during its eight years of participation. In the beginning, 23 restaurants were on board — now the event boasts 100. Additionally, the amount of money raised yearly by WNC has jumped from $24,000 to more than $111,000. Thanks to the generosity of sponsors, only 5.2 percent of the revenue gathered has been put toward expenses. "Over the last seven years we've raised over $600,000," says Brown.
Dining Out for Life was conceptualized in 1991 by a Philadelphia ActionAIDS volunteer. The idea was, as Brown puts it, "franchised out" to other cities across the U.S. and Canada — currently, 53 cities are involved. For a small fee, Dining Out for Life International provides training and how-to information for each new city that jumps on board. Nearly $4 million a year is raised on just a solitary night of dining.
This year, 225 local DOFL "ambassadors" — some of whom are in their eighth year of service — are volunteering their time to help ensure that the event goes smoothly. The ambassadors greet diners, thank them for their participation and provide them with an opportunity to win a Caribbean cruise for two, in appreciation for their support.
The ambassadors are put through fairly extensive training sessions, says Brown. It's a far cry from boot camp, but well-organized to be sure. It's important, says Brown, that volunteers "don't go out there cold and not knowing what they are supposed to do. We show video, host a question-and-answer period and give them all of the promotional materials."
Brown adds that, in difficult financial times, the extent to which restaurant owners and diners alike are willing to dig into their pockets is impressive. "I think it really speaks a lot to the generosity of people in Western North Carolina," he says. "It's great that the restaurateurs are willing to do this in such a tight economy. Most restaurants that started doing it the first year are still doing it."
Though the aim is altruistic, Brown says that restaurants report that participating in DOFL enables them to draw in new business year after year. "It's a form of publicity for the restaurants," he says, "but most of them do it out of sheer generosity and to help promote a community effort."
This year's event will be followed by an after-party at the Grove House which will begin at 7 p.m. and continue into the wee hours. "It's a way to celebrate the day," says Brown. "The ambassadors' dining guests, the wait staff and all of the people who dined out will be able to get in without a cover charge. There will be three levels of entertainment going on." Grove House revelers will have the opportunity to dance the night away at Scandals, groove to the sumptuous jazz sounds of Katie Kasben and Aaron Price at Club Eleven, or view the Vortex Caberet doing their thing in the Boiler Room.
Make your reservations for Dining Out for Life now. To see the list of participating restaurants, visit www.diningoutforlife.com/asheville/participating.
Xpress food coordinator Mackensy Lunsford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org