Chicago participates in Great American Dine Out

By Brianna Wellen

Some families in Chicago struggle with choosing from thousands of restaurants when it’s time for their next meal. Others aren’t sure if there is a next meal. Thanks to a week of charitable giving, many restaurants of choice provided for those in need.

Share Our Strength, an organization dedicated to solving the global hunger issue, teamed up with restaurants across the nation for the third time in an attempt to end childhood hunger by 2015. From Sept. 19 to Sept. 25, more than 50 Chicagoland restaurants ranging from casual take-out to fine dining did their part and joined the Great American Dine Out.

Last year the effort raised $793,000 with the participation of 4,200 large chains and independently owned restaurants nationwide. At this year’s halfway point, the organization was well on track to exceed its goal of $1.1 million.

“The beauty of the Great American Dine Out is that there is complete flexibility in how a restaurant can participate,” said Shelia Bennett, the event’s director. “What we’ve noticed is many of the independent operators prefer to donate a percentage of sales while many others chose to create some kind of coupon and collect customer donations.”

One of Chicago’s independent participants is Nia Mediterranean Tapas, 803 W. Randolph St. After searching for a charitable outlet for the business, the restaurant chose to join the Great American Dine Out for the first time. Throughout the week, customers were offered a four-course meal for $32 with all proceeds going to the charity.

Michelle Anderson, Nia’s event coordinator, sees the problem through a local scope. The dine-out event is a chance for people to become aware of what’s going on and take initiative, she said.

“Right now there are a lot of people going hungry, especially in the city,” Anderson said. “Granted a lot of businesses aren’t doing that great either, I [still] think it’s good to remind everybody there is a lot going on right now and we need to be generous and helpful with everybody.”

In order to get the word out, chain restaurants throughout the city chose to offer promotions throughout September. So far, it’s paid off for companies like the Corner Bakery Cafe, according to Bennett. She said while the cafe raised approximately $50,000 last year, this year’s donation has more than doubled.

Along with the national stores, 17 Chicago Corner Bakery locations offered a bounce-back coupon, which gave those who donated money to Share Our Strength a free whoopie pie.

Chicago restaurants also raised money for the cause by donating proceeds from a specific specialty item. Saloon Steakhouse, 200 E. Chestnut St., chose to focus on Jacob’s Creek, a wine popular with its customers. They donated the profit of each glass sold, according to the restaurant’s General Manager Erica Ames.

“I think it’s a good opportunity for us to try to use something like [Jacob’s Creek], a quality product our customers are enthusiastic about buying anyway, and it gives them a little extra incentive because of the charitable aspect of it,” Ames said.

She saw a definite rise in wine sales during the week and said she hopes after this year’s success, the restaurant can continue involvement in Share Our Strength and the Great American Dine Out.

Though the dine out came to a close, Anderson still sees opportunities for restaurants to step up and help accomplish Share Our Strength’s goals outside of national calls to attention.

“I’ve seen a lot of kitchens and restaurants taking their excess food to soup kitchens or taking it to organizations where it can be redistributed,” Anderson said. “I think Chicago overall is trying to work together as a community. It’s a very small large city in that everyone does try to reach out and help their neighbor.”