Illustration: Claire Merchlinsky

Dine Out, Do Good: The Rise in Charitable Restaurants

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Anyone who dines out regularly knows the dread-inducing spiel—usually about small plates and sharing—that follows a server asking: “Have you dined with us before?”

But at Emma’s Torch, a cozy restaurant in Brooklyn, N.Y., the question is a prelude to a very different kind of advisory. “We’re a nonprofit restaurant,” began my server on a recent evening, “that provides culinary training and job placement services to refugees, asylees, and survivors of human ­trafficking. Every dish is created by our students.”

This type of story is being told in many ways at a number of philanthropically minded restaurants, bars, bakeries, and cafes. As you might expect, most of these programs focus on hunger. Seattle’s Conscious Eatery brings a one-for-one model to the business similar to that of Toms shoes, providing more than 18,000 meals to the area’s homeless so far. In Philadelphia, chef ­Michael Solomonov’s Rooster Soup Co. donates all profits to the Broad Street Ministry Collaborative.

Other restaurants make antipoverty initiatives a focus. New York’s Major Food Group (whose empire includes the Grill and Carbone) has joined the Robin Hood Foundation for “Major Good,” a pull-out-the-stops $25,000 private-­dining experience for 12. The entire fee goes to the foundation, which aids low-income New Yorkers. Managing partner Jeff Zalaznick says you don’t even need to eat at a Major Food dining room to contribute: When you don’t show up for a standard reservation, the company turns over the cancelation fee to Robin Hood. Since starting the program, the group has donated over $200,000 in cancelation fees per year. (Please don’t do this on purpose; it’s rude.)

With 78 percent of Americans wanting companies to “stand up for important social-justice issues,” according to Cone Communications LLC, it’s no surprise that restaurants are doing well by doing good. There’s a pragmatic, even capitalistic side to being ethical: “With high demand for labor, restaurants are opening their employment doors to people from all backgrounds, including disconnected youth and previously incarcerated individuals,” says Rob Gifford, executive vice president of the National Restaurant Association’s Educational Foundation.

On-the-job training, however, can come with drawbacks, namely unpolished service and sloppy food. I didn’t experience that at Emma’s Torch. The waitstaff are professionals, so the front of the house runs smoothly. Likewise, the kitchen is overseen by chef Alexander Harris, formerly of Union Square Hospitality Group’s Blue Smoke in Manhattan.

How’s the food? Everything I had was well-executed, with a comfort food sensibility that aptly reflects its maxim, “New American cuisine from New Americans.” A brunch-only fried chicken sandwich was topped with creamy vegetable slaw and harissa aioli. It was served on a pillowy brioche from Hot Bread Kitchen, an incubator in the heart of New York’s Spanish Harlem that also trains economically distressed immigrants. More challenging dishes for new cooks, such as a pan-seared red snapper over hoppin’ John, were deftly handled. And a bread pudding mined the hallmarks of baklava—pistachio and honey—to give new life to a classic.

The dining room has been packed every time I’ve visited, a sign that good food and good intentions aren’t mutually exclusive. And expansion is in the works: Emma’s Torch will soon open a cafe in the soaring art deco lobby of the Brooklyn Public Library.

As diners become more attuned to it, the trend is becoming more ambitious. In Syracuse, N.Y., the teaching restaurant With Love gives an immigrant chef a five-month-long pop-up, along with business support and training. Dog Tag Bakery in Washington offers a five-month fellowship for post-Sept. 11 military veterans and their spouses or caregivers. The participants roll croissants and pull espresso alongside professional bakers and baristas—and they also leave with a certificate in business administration from Georgetown’s School of Continuing Studies. This year, Starbucks Corp. sold almost a quarter-million Dog Tag brownies in just over a month, and the shop’s Washington flagship got major exposure when two famous friends stopped by for lunch: Joe Biden and Barack Obama.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Gaddy at jgaddy@bloomberg.net, Kate Krader

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