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Building Community to Expand Customer Base, Drive Traffic, and Boost Restaurant Sales

Restaurants do much more than feed customers, playing a central role in neighborhoods, food establishments nourish the soul of the community. The venue for many important life events, from first dates to family reunions, and birthdays to business meetings, restaurants are the gathering places for communities across the nation.

Building strong community ties not only helps to create mutually beneficial alliances with other local businesses, but forges a more powerful connection with existing customers, broadens the customer base, and boosts sales.

Participating in community engagement initiatives can accomplish more than getting people in your door. When restaurants get involved in the community, people feel good eating somewhere with which they share an emotional connection. Not only does this help to boost customer loyalty, but it also helps you stand out from the crowd, reminding members of the community that your restaurant is more than just a great place to eat.

While restaurants unconsciously give back to guests simply by existing, providing a convenient and comfortable space for their lives to be lived out, purposefully giving back to the community serves a dual purpose. Not only do community-based events provide great subject matter for free publicity, but initiatives that serve the neighborhood at large create good feelings in the community—something money can’t buy.

Additionally, devising a plan to keep your business at the forefront of folk’s minds not only serves to reach a new target audience and increase revenue, but it helps boost employee morale at the same time.

Executing community initiatives can have many benefits.

  • Boosts Reputation: Showing the community that your restaurant is giving back helps to build a favorable reputation for your brand and increases customer loyalty.

  • Employee Satisfaction: Giving employees opportunities to support community causes helps boost job satisfaction.

  • Saves Money: Some initiatives can improve operational efficiencies, which can boost your bottom line.

  • Lowers Ad Costs: Using key PR tactics to get the word out can save advertising dollars by creating subject matter for local news outlets, resulting in invaluable free publicity.

  • Attracts New Employees: With many restaurants facing labor shortages, strong community engagement can make your restaurant more appealing to young job seekers.

  • Invests in the Local Community: The community in which you operate is your business’s home and any actions that make your community stronger will ultimately benefit your restaurant.

Getting started

Giving back to the community can—and should---be an important piece of your restaurant’s long-term business plan. And one of the single most powerful marketing tactics to accelerate and sustain success is to get involved in local events. As with most marketing endeavors, creating an effective community engagement strategy takes commitment, follow-through, creativity, and strategic planning.


There’s nothing worse than getting a community excited about an even and then finding out you’ve gotten in over your head. Before you decide to launch any plans for an event, it’s important to make sure you’re committed to the idea and that it’s not just a fleeting thought. For this reason, it’s critical to be sure you’ve thought about the time, people power, and cost an event would involve in the early planning stages before launching a full-blown endeavor.


Once you’ve made a commitment to work with a charity, school, or other local organization, make sure you don’t drop the ball. If you’ve made the commitment, following through is critical. Create a calendar of events that works for you and your staff. Start small with one event a year, if that’s all you think you can handle.

Sponsor a toy collection drive every year during the holiday season, for example, or host an outdoor beer garden every Fourth of July and donate proceeds to a local animal shelter. If these initiatives work to your advantage, you can initiate more regular community events, such as starting a monthly police and fireman-free pizza day or inviting high school football fans to enjoy a free drink every time the local team wins.


Like most marketing strategies, thinking outside the box with unique creative ideas is the most important, though not always easy, step.

Sitting down with your staff and having a brainstorming session is a great way to begin. Solicit suggestions from your staff about their ideas for community-based activities that might work well with your restaurant’s branding, location, and overall theme, and go from there. Offer a prize for the top 5 ideas and then a grand prize for the winner. This could be anything from a free meal to a paid weekend off.

Before you start organizing a fundraiser or event, think about the causes that are the right fit for your restaurant. This might mean revisiting your mission statement and company values to figure out which causes align with your business. Whether your focus is on sustainability or tackling a popular neighborhood concern, there are many effective ways to give back without breaking the bank.


Once you have the idea and made a commitment to set aside the manpower, time, and expense a community-based activity entails, the next step is to sit down and make a plan. Start by creating a timeline that includes deadlines and lists the responsibilities of all team members involved.

  • Choose an ambassador to help manage the event

  • Pick a social media coordinator

  • Elect an event calendar manager

Not only are these “jobs” cost-effective because you don’t need to spend any additional funds hiring outside help, but they can be huge moral boosters. When you give people added responsibilities, team members gain a sense of empowerment. Presenting the added responsibility as an opportunity to gain knowledge and boost their resume is a great way to “sell” the assignment to your staff.

While this list is in no way comprehensive, we’ve highlighted some favorites to give you a few ideas to help you get started.

Donate Food or Meals

Food and meal donations are one of the most impactful and hassle-free ways that restaurants can give back to the community. And luckily, technology is making this easier than ever.

A growing number of apps are helping restaurants solve the problem of hunger by ensuring that food makes its way into folk’s bellies instead of landfills.

Check out these platforms for ideas.

Donate a Percentage of Profits

While donating food is great, cash is king for many charities. One way to raise funds for a charity or local organization is to dedicate a special event or menu item to a cause. Create a (High School Mascot) Pizza, for example, and donate the profits from the sale of these menu items to the local school.

Though these kinds of charitable initiatives can take place-year round, holidays or special occasions are good opportunities to support local causes.

This approach to giving back can be particularly impactful when a community is in the midst of a crisis like a natural disaster or health crisis.

Offer Paid Time Off for Community Service

While food and cash are great, sometimes volunteering time can have the greatest impact of all. By giving employees paid time off for participating in community service, you’re baking volunteering into your company’s values.

In recent years, Starbucks has teamed up with the non-profit volunteer program, Points of Light, to launch a program where employees continue to receive their full pay package while working at select non-profit organizations for half the work week.

While most restaurants can’t afford to implement a volunteer program as ambitious as this, simply giving employees a half or full day off to volunteer can make a big difference.

Invest in the Future of the Food Industry

By supporting culinary education, the difference you’re making is two-fold. You’re helping the industry prosper by adding more talent to the pool while helping to change lives by providing opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be available.

ProStart is the National Restaurant Association’s program that aims to bring the culinary arts into high school classrooms. Participating students are given the opportunity to attain scholarships and access to mentorship. Restaurants can get involved through monetary donations, registering as a mentor, or hiring a ProStart student or alumni.

Think Locally

While it’s great to take on major issues, giving back to your community doesn’t always require thinking big. While it may not solve hunger in America, local initiatives such as hosting a fundraising event for your local animal hospital, youth baseball team, or elderly care home can make a huge difference.

Giving back to the community can happen in a myriad of ways, from salvaging and repurposing food waste to delivering fresh produce and healthy snacks to food desserts.

Sourcing locally is also a huge way to support the community, allowing farmers and small businesses to be part of a symbiotic business network.

Donate Used Equipment and Supplies

If you’re upgrading your restaurant’s supplies, don’t just toss that old stove, freezer, or prep table. Local non-profits, schools, and other community organizations are always looking to accept used equipment. Donating equipment also helps the environment by keeping environmentally unfriendly materials out of landfills, not to mention being a potential tax write-off.

Participate in Local Events

Keep your eyes open for opportunities to feature your food at local festivals, grand openings, or community events. Using a city-wide calendar, look for local happenings in which you can participate including food fairs, art festivals, and holiday carnivals. You’ll not only increase brand awareness with your presence but your business could be featured in low or no-cost related advertising materials.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Set up a booth at a local art or music festival and offer sample sizes of your best dishes.

  • Sponsor a local youth program or sports team by offering to pay for their uniforms

  • Purchase inexpensive ad space in a high school’s theater program, football calendar, or yearbook.

  • Create welcome packets for new residents of the neighborhood.

  • Thank your community’s educators for their hard work and boost engagement by delivering a free “thank you” lunch to a local school for the staff members at the beginning of the school year.

Partner with Local Businesses with Demos or Classes

Partnering with local retailers or establishments with community engagement initiatives can benefit both of your businesses. Here are just a few ideas.

  • Hold cooking classes or demos at local food festivals or consider hosting your own and inviting other restaurants to participate.

  • If a local bookstore is hosting a literary event to promote a new cookbook author, offer to partner up and offer a demonstration of items from the book.

  • If a local brewery or winery is hosting a wine or beer-tasting event, offer to supply the hors d’oeuvres at a discount. Take it one step further by enlisting the help of a sommelier to shape a wine menu.

  • Supply the food at a local mall fashion show.

  • Partner with a local cookware store and offer to promote their wares in your restaurant by holding how-to classes. Think omelet, sushi, or taco-making.

Join Merchant Association

Building community is about relationships, and not just with customers. Joining a merchant’s association is a great way to get to know your neighbors and build a mutually beneficial relationship. If your restaurant serves vegan food, consider joining forces with a yoga studio to develop a healthy community initiative. If you serve a late-night crowd, think about teaming up with a local movie theater to support a local charity.

Putting your heads together to create newsworthy community-based events is a great way to capture the attention of the local media.

Free Marketing Matters

This brings us to the matter of marketing. Growing your restaurant through community engagement is all about cashing in on the publicity. To do so, you want to create an experience and story that hooks customers in and gives news outlets a reason to keep talking about your restaurant. If you can achieve those goals, you’ll set yourself far ahead of the competition that only thinks about food.

Public Relations or PR is an essential part of restaurant marketing that not only helps create awareness about your restaurant’s community involvement, but it builds credibility. Public relations can help you save money spent on paid advertisements, and allow you to put time, energy, and creative juices into coming up with free and low-cost ways to develop a community presence and attract repeat business.

Inexpensive, creative ideas will go further in building positive public relations for a restaurant than thousands in advertising dollars.

For more information and tips about cashing in on free publicity, see our blog post, Something to Talk About: 8 Tips for Getting Free Press Coverage for Your Restaurant.

Take Away

Restaurants are the centerpiece of many communities, the space where life happens year after year. Getting involved in community-based events can make your business stand out, expand your customer base, forge symbiotic relationships with other businesses, boost employee morale, and grow your business.

By Eileen Strauss


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