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Brooklyn’s Colonie and Gran Electrica run monthly promotions like Margaritas for Mankind (one dollar per margarita to the ACLU).
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How New York Restaurants Are Embedding Social Change in Business

It’s on the rise

Most people head over to Butter & Scotch, the 30-seat bakery and bar in Crown Heights, for creative cakes and kitschy cocktails. These days, though, their menu has expanded to include a side of activism in the form of cue cards for calling U.S. representatives, and free shots for every call made.

Since President Donald Trump took office, this slipper-sized neighborhood spot has become an enclave for resistance, making social justice a focus of giving back. One dollar from each cocktail on its seasonal drink menu — drinks such as Not My President and This Pussy Grabs Back — is donated to charities such as Planned Parenthood and far this year, they have donated over $4000 to Planned Parenthood, and nearly $2000 to the Ali Forney Center.

In the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, they’ve added "New Mexican Nachos” to the menu, a pay-as-you-wish option with all proceeds going to the Black Lives Matter chapters in Charlottesville, as well as the other cities in which white supremacist protests are to be held this weekend.

As restaurants face skyrocketing rents, rising food costs, higher regulatory fees, and hikes in minimum wage, people have turned to restaurants to support causes — whether it’s protecting the ocean or the right to free speech. With restaurants playing an increasing role in anchoring communities, they also have been helping residents articulate values through giving. Since the Trump’s inauguration, it’s never been more true than now in New York City.

“It started as a gut reaction to the election and this feeling of futility,” says Allison Kave, who owns Butter & Scotch with her business partner Keavy Landreth. “We knew we needed to do something and we recognized pretty quickly we could do more by using our business as a tool.”

”Helping fundraise for liberal, proactive social welfare organizations positions us as having a strong point of view that they by-and-large agree with, which we feel strengthens our brand and identity,’ says Julian Brizzi, owner of Grand Army and nearby Rucola. “Also it's the right thing to do.” He says a fundraiser is in the works following this week’s events in Charlottesville.

Kave of Butter & Scotch agrees that social action programs have done more than benefit the recipient organizations: They work for the restaurant’s bottom line. “It’s been hugely beneficial for us,” she says. During the winter when business is slower, numbers were were “way up over the previous year. I really do think it’s because people were excited to do something,” she says.

Other restaurants have found creative ways to make a difference. Beat Street, a restaurant that opened in Jersey City in June, opted to forgo a traditional Friends and Family dinner and instead did two opening parties: one to benefit the Big Brothers Big Sisters and a second grand opening event benefitted the Sharing Place Food Pantry.

“I know we could’ve done a Friends and Family or a soft-open, but we thought we would start off on the right foot, and we would have much more success down the line,” says chef and partner Darryl Harmon, who believes it strengthens ties to the community.

The director of the New York Hospitality Alliance thinks it’s not just about the moment but about the industry. “At nearly every restaurant there is some sort of giving,” says Andrew Rigie, executive director. “Philanthropy is in the ethos of the hospitality industry.”

Major Food Group, behind Parm, Carbone, among others, and the newly opened Grill and The Pool at the Seagram Building, has used philanthropy as a way to take the sting out of its cancellation fees. The restaurant has traditionally charged $35-$50 per person, depending on the restaurant, for reservations cancelled after noon on the day of and for no-shows.

The charge, according to managing partner Jeff Zalaznick, is essential to streamline operations. “When you run restaurants and consistently plan your nights the way we do, it makes a huge difference if 10 people don’t show up versus 50,” he says.

Problem was, diners didn’t like it, and the team didn’t feel good about it, either. Zalaznick thought about his issue and came up with a solution: Give 100 percent of fees to the Robin Hood Foundation, a group they have been donating to for several years now. “Now, even though people are still pissed off, they see their money is going to something good,” he says.

Other operators are baking social justice into their operations. The Brooklyn bakery Ovenly operates as a so-called “triple bottom line” business, an accounting framework that goes beyond financial P&L and includes social and environmental (or ecological) impact. To bolster its green bottom line, the partners use Energy Star equipment and are on track to reduce the business’ waste by 70% in conjunction with a grant from Greening Greenpoint.

They also hire 80 percent of staff among working poor, while 30 percent are formerly incarcerated or refugees: hired through organizations such as Getting Out and Staying Out, Drive Change, and the Ansob Center for Refugees. In return, these organizations subsidize part of their employee’s salaries and pay for training time.

“We are trying to build a positive ecosystem within Ovenly,” says co-owner Erin Patinkin, “and offer economic opportunity to people who are being marginalized for no good reason.”

She says the benefits of this employment model are exponential. “It’s super nice to get some wages subsidized, but at the end of the day, we are not doing this because of the subsidies: We believe that business can be a tool for progressive social change.”

Founder of The Strong Buzz, Andrea Strong is a freelance writer with bylines in, Saveur, Food Network, and more.

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