In deference to operational setbacks in the hospitality industry brought on by the pandemic, a Dorchester County social service agency's supporters for the first time in nearly two decades aren’t asking restaurants to anchor their biggest annual fundraiser.
“It's an interesting dilemma to be centered on chefs when they are struggling the most,” said Marilyn Kaple, longtime chef chair of the Scrumptious Summerville Kitchen Tour.
Since its launch in 2002, the popular ticketed event has raised money for the Dorchester Children’s Advocacy Center by asking local chefs to serve snacks in Summerville-area homes on a designated day. A press release announcing the event’s cancellation explains, “The food and beverage providers all donated 100 percent of their time and product. … Without these incredibly kind donations, we could not have held the event with the success we have had.”
Prior to the pandemic, it was common for nonprofits to call on restaurants for financial support. Food and wine festivals were the most notorious champions of the practice, often resulting in events that showcased the best capitalized companies and chefs.
For instance, when asked about the all-White host slate for the upcoming Holy Smokes Lowcountry Barbecue Festival, organizer Aaron Siegel said the Hogs for the Cause benefit had to restrict its roster to pitmasters who could afford to participate. (Rodney Scott “was supposed to be involved, but he’s just too busy,” Siegel said, adding that Oakland’s Matt Horn will appear at the Nov. 13 event at The Bend.)
But smaller charities were also in the habit of appealing to restaurants for free food and gift certificates. According to a study released in 2010 by the National Restaurant Association, 94 percent of restaurants make charitable contributions to the collective tune of $3 billion a year, or approximately $3.6 billion in 2021 dollars.
When the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association in 2017 surveyed its members, it came up with similar figures: The average member restaurant annually puts $19,993 in cash and in-kind donations toward good causes, although some respondents said they yearly give more than twice that much to charity.
Whether that trend will continue is unclear. Restaurant owners are facing higher costs for ingredients and labor, while diners concerned about the post COVID-19 fate of their favorite restaurants have become increasingly conversant in the slim margins associated with selling food and drink.
“We want to totally respect what they’ve been through,” kitchen tour coordinator Rachel Cole said of the decision to cancel the event. “We hope and pray things will be back to normal, but we can’t bank on it.”
Before organizers settled on 86ing the tour tradition and shifting their focus to a seated gala, Cole informally polled restaurants featured on past kitchen tours. She learned “with the staffing challenges, it’s hard for anyone to commit.”
Indeed, donation requests involving in-person appearances by restaurant staff may be the most likely casualty of the recent crisis: When Kaple solicited dining gift cards for The ARK’s fundraiser in May, she “had no trouble getting very nice donations.”