These St. Louis restaurants give back year-round
Food does so much more than feed our bodies. Whether with a crowd in a festive party room or with strangers at the neighborhood bar, when we dine, we build connections with each other.
The restaurant that provides the meal is the yarn in our close-knit community. Weaving a space that is simultaneously public and personal, our favorite restaurants feel as cozy as our homes, but with better food and easier clean-up. So when the fibers of the community are stretched, it’s no surprise food folk are often the first to help.
From annual events like Brass Rail Steakhouse’s free Thanksgiving dinner, which feeds thousands in need, to daily commitments like Lola Jean’s Giveback Coffee’s, which donated 100% of its profits to charities for a full year, the St. Louis food industry makes a difference. Gift cards for trivia nights, Dine Outs for a cause or, in the case of Bloom Café, when the restaurant is the cause, all feed the need.
Every fourth Tuesday is Giveback Day at alternating Katie’s locations. Owners Katie and Ted Collier had launched their restaurant with contributions from a Kickstarter campaign and wanted to return the favor. All profits made on Giveback day go to a local organization whose vocation is dear to the Colliers.
“We try to choose the most needy, smaller charities. We like to focus on children and solving homelessness, and animal shelters. I get a kick out of the fact that our animal Givebacks are the busiest ones,” said Katie Collier.
To date, Katie's Pizza & Pasta has donated more than $225,000 to local charities, including Harris House, Friends of Wings and Stray Rescue.
Many of the servers at Olive + Oak choose to wear red felt hearts on their uniforms. It’s a quiet nod to the calling of co-owners Mark Hinkle and Greg Ortyl, who both tragically lost their sons to congenital heart defects.
“The felt hearts open the conversation. They create awareness for the cause,” Hinkle said.
Through the Ollie Hinkle Heart Foundation and the Mighty Oakes Heart Foundation, their families have raised more than $1 million and probably considerably more for heart disease charities, according to Hinkle.
“We do whatever we can to help with whatever resources we have whenever we see an opportunity,” Hinkle said.
That could be donating time and snacks to Camp Rhythm, a summer camp for children with heart conditions, or delivering meals to hospitals or treating exhausted caregivers to a special evening at the restaurant “just to brighten up a family for a few hours,” Hinkle said.
It’s wonderful when a restaurant directs a donation. But what if the restaurant customers take altruistic matters into their own hands? That’s the premise behind GiftAMeal, a socially conscious dining app used by 28,000 philanthropic foodies who are stopping hunger with their phone cameras.
GiftAMeal, a 2018 Arch Grant recipient, is the brainchild of Washington University graduate Andrew Glantz. Glantz toyed with developing a restaurant recommendation app during the summer of his sophomore year. He planned to donate a portion of the future app’s revenue to fight hunger.
A few months later, Glantz was inspired by Toms Shoes, Warby Parker and other organizations he saw responding to millennials’ desire for conscientious consumerism. Charitable giving became the driving force of the app, not just a benefit, and GiftAMeal was launched.
When users snap a photo in one of almost 150 local partner restaurants, GiftAMeal makes a donation to Operation Food Search. The donation is doubled if the user shares the photo on Facebook or Instagram.
Each donation covers the cost of transporting a family’s meal from Operation Food Search to a local food pantry. On average, GiftAMeal users fund the delivery of 15,000 meals per month, with more than 330,000 meals total to date.
GiftAMeal partner restaurants range from independent coffee shops like Meshuggah Cafe to restaurants like Vicia. The app is free for users, and restaurants pay a small monthly fee. In return, “the app helps restaurants build long-term loyalty with their customers, support their community and they don’t have to train their staff on it,” Glantz said.
He’s proud to have created a business model that is both financially successful and socially responsible. “We are doing well while we are doing good.”
A case study by partner restaurant Rich & Charlie’s found GiftAMeal customers spent 24% more per check, returned 45% more frequently and tipped 14% more than standard guests.
While GiftAMeal harnesses the power of social media every day, Bloom Café uses everyday social interactions to help people with disabilities achieve independence and meaningful careers.
The full-service breakfast, brunch and lunch spot doubles as a training facility for Paraquad, the St. Louis-based, nonprofit organization that empowers people with disabilities.
You may be too busy enjoying your Rueben to notice you are an active participant in a “social enterprise,” but that’s what Kevin Condon, Paraquad’s senior director of development and marketing, calls the restaurant. At Bloom Café, people with and without disabilities dine and work side by side.
“Bloom Café serves the community, and the community gets to see what a truly integrated society would look like,” Condon said. “You can see people who are working, who are successful and happy, and they happen to have a disability. Most charities don’t get to show what their vision of the world looks like, but we do.”
Many of the employees are participants in the Bloom Café job training program. For 12 weeks, students learn food safety and handling, as well as social and workplace skills. After training, they receive a paid internship at Bloom Café and other local restaurants. At the end of the internship, Paraquad places graduates in permanent jobs at local restaurants.
“One of the most challenging things for young adults with disabilities – like young adults everywhere – is to get their first job. Through the training program at Bloom Café, the students get a job, get experience and build a career,” Condon said.
Bloom Café has varied hot and cold items, including vegan and gluten-free meals and a children’s menu. The restaurant was built with accessibility in mind, including a generous ramp, spacious unisex bathrooms, and plenty of space around the tables and chairs to accommodate assistive devices.
Read More // First Look: Destination Café in Tower Grove South
The League of St. Louis Chefs, a small consortium of farmers, food pantries and food industry friends are also asking the question, “What if?” The Gramophone owner Roo Yawitz explained the group as an impromptu idea, spurred by a James Beard Foundation Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change program. Chefs who attended were inspired to find a systemic solution to food insecurity.
“We want to help local owners and operators give back to the foodshed in creative and interesting ways,” Yawitz said. “It’s about affecting change in the food system.”
A harsh frost was the catalyst for the League’s pilot project. Last winter, an unexpected cold snap meant Bohlen Family Farms in Perryville, Missouri, had to harvest its squash immediately and entirely.
Gerard Craft, executive chef and owner of Niche Food Group, purchased the whole crop at full market price and asked his friends and family to help turn the squash into soup at a de facto soup pop-up in the Cinder House kitchen at the Four Seasons.
Half the soup went to food pantries and the rest was sold, allowing Craft to recover his costs, and the remaining profits donated to the food pantries.
“I was surprised by the number of people who jumped in to help cook and process the soup. Those are the things I love to see – people coming together,” Craft said.
Craft is excited about future projects. “We are looking for sustainable models that help farmers and help people in low-income and low-access food areas,” he said. “It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved. The farmers get paid full price. The restaurants get publicity. People get food.”
It’s an idea whose time has come – one that makes us all a little more connected to our community and to the food that brings us together.
Kellie Hynes is a longtime contributor to Sauce Magazine.
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