Monday, July 19, 2010

Finding the Balanced Blend: Managing a Mix of Business and Philanthropy

For any business owner, there's a constant push-pull between devoting time to a philanthropic cause of choice, and yet staying focused on the core business. After all, without the engine of profit to generate dollars and keep your staff employed, what resources would you have left over to devote to a cause?

Acclaimed chef Michael Chiarello recently addressed exactly this issue. You'll likely recognize Chiarello from the first season of Bravo's hit competitive cooking show, Top Chef Masters, or his Food Network program, Easy Entertaining. He's also the founder of the retail chain NapaStyle, as well as the owner and head chef at the Italian-inspired fine dining restaurant Bottega in Yountville, California, widely recognized as a jewel of the Napa Valley culinary scene.

Chiarello is the epitome of the charismatic celebrity chef, but he recently wrote quite candidly on his personal blog about the tricky balancing act of running his multiple businesses while still serving the causes close to his heart.

Throughout his career, Chiarello has made charity work a priority. On Top Chef Masters, Chiarello donated all his cash winnings to a longtime favorite organization, Clinic Ole, a community health and dental clinic that assists migrant laborers and the underserved in the Napa Valley's wine country. He also frequently works with Meals on Wheels, the noted organization devoted to creating senior citizen nutrition programs around the country.

As you can imagine, Chiarello feels the strain of running several popular and demanding businesses while still assisting his causes when asked. As a younger chef, Chiarello recalls, he would virtually always donate his time, food and energy, jetting around the country to cook for various benefit events. As he got older and developed his signature branded empire, all those hours in the airport became tougher to fit into the schedule.

So Chiarello cooked up a compromise option. Here he describes it:

These days when people ask me to donate “my time” I tell them we’ve come up with a formula that allows me to auction off my services but still keep my Bottega staff and myself out of the Food Bank line.

1) I cook their dinner for eight (or six or twelve or twenty) in the restaurant. That way, I can still take care of all the other patrons at Bottega that night. And I get to go home and see my wife afterward.

2) I ask that they pay Bottega’s average revenue for the table – for us, it’s $60 per head. So if they auction off the table for eight at $5,000, they pay us $480 and still make $4,520 for their charity. I agree to work with them and write up a special menu, and I’ll give their table a lot of love when they’re here.

This approach means I can still look at myself in the mirror every morning without going anywhere near the security line at my airport. The restaurant is able to help many more charities then it would if we were footing the bill and the charities get the difference in $$.

This allows him to host functions at Bottega, putting his star power to good use and sharing the delicious flavors of his Crispy Potato Gnocchi, his Hand-Cut Whole Egg Linguine or Preserved Lemon-Spinach with fans and guests, while still remaining close at hand to tend to the needs of his restaurant.

Managing time and business demands, inventively leveraging resources for the benefit of the community, these are the continuing challenges of every philanthropically-oriented business owner.

Fortunately, Chiarello, like any chef, adept at reconciling the flavors, colors and textures of his delicious cuisine, knows that, in business too, it's all about striking a balance.

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