The term “breaking bread” was originally quite literal: a meal during which participants broke apart a loaf of bread to share. Today, breaking bread refers to a comfortable, shared interaction that usually involves a meal of some kind. School organizations looking to raise money have discovered that fundraisers featuring restaurant meals serve a dual function of raising money and building community—nothing unites people like breaking bread together. Many restaurants, from locally owned businesses to national chains, offer fundraising programs in which a percentage of sales is donated back to the school.

Hosting a restaurant fundraiser is “a great way to get alumni (and others) to support your group by doing what they need to do each day—eat!” says Kyle Gordon, leadership teacher and student council adviser at Collinsville High School in Illinois, and the associate director of the Illinois Association of Student Councils. Busy parents appreciate a good excuse not to cook dinner and will come out to support your efforts.

Restaurant fundraisers take a variety of forms. “I work with Papa Johns and have four ‘CHS Weeks’ there. For an entire week, for those who order pizza and use a special coupon code, we get a 20 percent rebate on each order. That adds up quickly,” Gordon says.

At Rocky River Elementary in Concord, NC, the school sponsors a Chick-fil-A night from 4:00–8:00 p.m. on the first Wednesday of every month, which brings in about $500 monthly, says service learning teacher and student council adviser Liz Benstead. At Loara High School in Anaheim, CA, Activities Director Paul Chylinski hosts the yearbook banquet at Marie Callender’s restaurant and makes it a fundraiser night. “I get 20 percent of sales on my own banquet,” he says. The form the fundraiser takes is open to the creativity of the sponsoring organization.

Planning a Restaurant Fundraiser

As with other events your chapter or council organizes, careful planning is the key to maximizing profits.

Consider timing. “Choose a night and week with as few other events going on as possible,” says Katie Keyes, student council adviser at Boswell High School in Fort Worth, TX. Look for times when there’s a lull in your group’s activities, and avoid conflicts with major events on the school calendar, end-of-quarter testing times, or weeks that have many events going on.

Select the restaurant carefully. “Choose a restaurant that people in your community really like,” Keyes says. “I put a lot of effort to partner with a new restaurant that not many knew about, and it was an epic fail.” A restaurant that is convenient to families, is affordable, and is popular with students will increase the likelihood that people will turn out for the fundraiser.

Determine what the terms are. “Talk to the restaurant manager and see exactly what is expected out of you and what their rules are,” Gordon says. “Some places are very strict, and you cannot pass flyers out while there. Also, you want to know what their expectations are and how much of a percentage you will be rebated.” In some cases, the restaurant donates a flat percentage of sales in the designated period, while in others the customer must mention the fundraiser while checking out for their purchase to count toward the total. In a few cases, the restaurant designates a minimum level of sales before they will make any donation. “It is much easier if the restaurant will just give you a percentage of all sales for the night, rather than making each person mention your organization. Of course, if you can get plenty of people to come out, they usually give you a higher percentage of the sales,” Keyes says.

Publicize the event. “Advertise, advertise, advertise! The more flyers you can get out there in peoples’ hands, inboxes, or social media screens, the better,” Gordon says. The enthusiasm of your council or chapter members in spreading the word will play a key role in your success. “We did a fundraiser breakfast at our local Applebee’s. It was successful because students did an amazing job promoting it through the community,” says Christi Fitch, student council co-adviser at Southern Alamance High School in Graham, NC. “They talked it up with family members, church members, teachers, and did announcements on the school webpage and morning announcements for more than a couple weeks.”

Begin advertising well in advance and increase your publicity push as the event gets closer. “The groups that do well put flyers out—including posting them in the actual restaurant—a couple weeks in advance, then go heavy with online reminders like Remind 101, Instagram, etc., the day before, the day of, and during the event,” says Angela Steagall, student council adviser at Tuloso-Midway Middle School in Corpus Christi, TX.

“I’ve found that starting a couple of weeks out with increasingly frequent reminders works really well,” Keyes says. “Don’t forget to advertise to your faculty and staff! I’ve found them to be the best supporters.”

Be a presence at the event. This is where the social aspect of breaking bread together comes in. “Requiring your members to be there in their organization shirts to talk to people, ask for their support, and tell them about all your chapter or council does for the school and community can really add to the success of the fundraiser—and the fundraiser after that, and so on,” Keyes says.

This venue also provides a great opportunity to promote your organization itself and build a positive reputation in the community. Have members on hand to greet people and thank them for coming out to support your chapter or council. “The students that are going to work are representing you, so make sure they are wearing an organization shirt that identifies them, no hats, and always have a smile on their face,” Gordon says. “Also, prepare them to tell people what you are going to use the money for.”

Alternatives to National Chains

Fundraising programs are common with restaurants that are part of national chains (see page 19), but schools located in communities that don’t have national chains also can raise funds through a breaking bread event. Try one of these alternatives:

Food trucks. Bring the restaurants to you by creating a food court in your parking lot featuring local food trucks. Some schools set up a regular night for food trucks and invite several to come each week for “Food Truck Tuesday,” for example. Food trucks tend to build a following, and they let their followers know on social media where they are, so you might attract customers beyond the school community.

Another idea is to bring food trucks in for a special event. The student government at South Lakes High School in Reston, VA, brings in several food trucks to be on hand at the end of their homecoming parade each year. The vendors donate 20 percent of what they make during the event to the student government. “We figured students and community members would want to grab something to eat after the parade, so having food trucks was a convenient option that allowed people to stay at South Lakes and not have to worry about making it back in time for the football game,” says 2017 parade chairperson Samantha Lowe. “The community loved the food trucks! They were able to have a wide selection of food options in one place without having to drive anywhere.”

Celebrity waiters. Partner with a local restaurant for an evening in which your organization provides the wait staff. Recruit local celebrities—the mayor, the principal, star athletes, other dignitaries—to wait tables and ask them to donate their tips to the organization. Publicize this heavily in the community for a good turnout and be sure to alert the local media.

Dinner at school. Hosting a dinner at school—complete with a carryout option—is a good alternative for schools that don’t have a local connection with a restaurant. Some ideas in this area include:

  • Spaghetti dinner. Use the school cafeteria to cook spaghetti and marinara sauce and have members of your organization serve it with salad and dessert.
  • Chili supper. Make big pots of chili and pans of cornbread for an all-you-can eat chili supper.
  • Potato bar. Provide a baked potato and a bar with all kinds of toppings—butter, sour cream, bacon bits, chili, broccoli, cheese, etc.—and charge by the pound.
  • Barbecue. Serve grilled hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken along with sides of coleslaw and potato salad for an outdoor event.
  • Dinner theater. On the night of a school play, organize a dinner in the cafeteria before the play. Put tablecloths and battery-operated tea lights on the tables and have student servers. Or, tailor the décor to the theme of the play, such as a ’50s diner theme for the musical “Grease.” An alternate idea is to have students perform one-act plays in the cafeteria while diners are eating.
  • Pancake breakfast. Host a pancake breakfast at school on a Saturday morning using the cafeteria kitchen or borrowed electric skillets to cook the pancakes. Serve coffee, tea, and juice.

Inviting members of the school community to break bread with you at a fundraiser featuring a meal—whether at a restaurant or a do-it-yourself meal at school—is a great way to watch the dough start rolling in.

Lyn Fiscus is a writer based in Virginia. She is co-author of The Bucks Start Here: Fundraising for Student Activities.

Sidebar: Restaurant Dining for Dollars Programs

Many national chains offer fundraising programs for nonprofit groups. Check online at the links listed or contact a manager at your local affiliate for details.

Offers three-hour-long benefit nights on Sundays through Wednesdays for 10 percent of the sales. Arby’s also has a community fundraising booklet to sell; the organization keeps 100 percent of the profits.

Offers two programs: Flapjack Fundraiser, a breakfast event during nonoperating hours with set breakfast plates, and Dining to Donate events for 10 percent of food purchases.

Guests mention or present a fundraiser flyer at a Dining for Dollars event, and up to 25 percent of their dine-in, carryout, or delivery purchases will be donated back to your nonprofit organization.

Boston Market
Features three programs: Restaurant Night, gift cards, and catered events.

Buffalo Wild Wings
Their Eat Wings, Raise Funds program allows each of their restaurants to help raise funds for organizations in their local community, including restaurant night events in which a portion of the sales are donated to your school.

California Pizza Kitchen
Features easy-to-arrange fundraising events in which 20 percent of sales generated by supporters of your organization will be donated back to you.

Well-known for its willingness to partner with schools and other groups for fundraisers, whether selling chicken sandwiches at a school event or hosting a restaurant night. Fundraisers are approved at the local level, so contact your nearest store.

Chili’s Give Back Event
A Chili’s Give Back Event is an all-day fundraiser benefitting nonprofit organizations with a valid tax ID number. The organization promotes their Give Back Event and receives 15 percent of the sales from guest checks with turned-in vouchers.

Your supporters show a flyer in print, on their phones, or mention it at checkout, and 33 percent of the sale can go toward the fundraiser.

Five Guys
Many local Five Guys restaurants sponsor school fundraisers; details vary, but often 20 percent of sales (and an additional $1 for every milkshake purchased!) go to your group. Check with a local store for details on their program.

Noodles & Company
Offers fundraising nights with 25 percent of sales going back to your organization.

Panda Express
Invite your friends and family to dine in or take out at Panda Express or Panda Inn and the chain will donate 20 percent of the event sales to your organization.

Panera Bread
Supporters show a printed or electronic version of your organization’s flyer when ordering at the bakery café, or they can use the online code during checkout for a donation of 20 percent of the sales from your fundraising event. A minimum of 20 orders is required to qualify for any donation.

Potbelly Sandwich Shop
Supports school groups through in-shop fundraisers, scrip gift card fundraising, and in-kind donations. Host an event at the sandwich shop and 25 percent of the sales will be donated to your cause.

Offers a program in which organizations buy coupon sheets for $2 each and sell them for $10 each, earning $8 profit on every sheet sold.

Red Robin
Features 20 percent back during Spirit Nights, or you can buy gift cards in bulk for a 10 percent discount as part of their fundraising program.