Restaurants find positive benefits in cooking for charity events

When an organization wants to raise money, the first calls are often to restaurants. After all, nothing loosens people's purse strings like the winning combination of good food, good drink and a good cause.

Whether it's the Sprout Fund's annual Hothouse event, an intimate dinner for a few dozen donors or just a couple of gift cards for a school raffle, many Pittsburgh restaurants (and other food establishments) give generously of their time, their food and their expertise.

It helps in how you ask

Soliciting donations? Here are a few tips:

Many restaurants are inundated with requests for gift cards, fundraiser dinners and participation in community events. They invariably can't afford to be as generous as they might like, so while there's no harm in asking, don't expect every business to participate.

• Don't call or stop by restaurants during peak times to ask for a donation -- that means 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. if they serve lunch and 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. if they serve dinner. Some businesses will ask for a written request, so be prepared.

• Many businesses budget for charitable giving each year, so ask early for the best chance of being included.

• Say thank you, publicly whenever possible.

• Let the buyer beware: When independent restaurants close, holders of unused gift certificates typically have little to no recourse, so if you're unlucky enough to auction off a defunct dining experience, the organization may have to pay for a replacement prize.

Last weekend, restaurant participants helped draw a few thousand people to the Sprout Fund's Hothouse Maximum Fun party on Saturday night and the Rachel Carson Sustainable Feast on Sunday afternoon. Tonight, hundreds more will gather at the SouthSide Works for the fifth annual Savor Pittsburgh, a food-focused event that raises thousands of dollars every year for the American Respiratory Alliance of Western Pennsylvania.

Without donations from restaurants, these events wouldn't be possible. But there are also positive benefits for the restaurants. Not only do they enjoy the opportunity to support a good cause, they have the chance to connect with new customers in a meaningful, memorable way.

"It really is a win-win situation," said Julie Pezzino, executive director of Grow Pittsburgh, which is holding its first large-scale fund-raiser, "A Taste of Grow Pittsburgh" on Sept. 19 at the Frick Art & Historical Center in Point Breeze.

"We were in a great position to launch an event like this [because of] the support of our restaurant partners," she said, and "the people who are going to come to this event are very likely already patrons of some of these restaurants, and when they see the others at this event they quite likely will want to be patrons."

This type of fund-raiser is a natural fit for Grow Pittsburgh because its restaurant partners participate in its mission "to demonstrate, teach and promote responsible urban food production." All of the restaurants participating in the benefit regularly purchase vegetables from Grow Pittsburgh, including Legume Bistro in Regent Square, Enrico Biscotti in the Strip District and Highland Park, The Café at the Frick and The Quiet Storm in Garfield.

But local restaurants, grocers, bakeries and breweries are eager to help all kinds of charitable causes. The Sprout Fund is well known for funding public art projects in the Pittsburgh area, along with other grassroots community projects, but in recent years it has become equally well known for the size and splendor of its yearly fund-raiser, the Hothouse party. Each year, it gets support from dozens of small and large local restaurants and food establishments.

This year's edible highlights included shrimp ceviche from Seviche in the Cultural District and four kinds of mini-whoopee pies from Vanilla Pastry Studio in East Liberty. This is the fourth year that Vanilla has participated in Hothouse, said owner April Gruver.

"As a mom, I am most passionate about children's charities, and so Vanilla supports Family House, Family Foundations, Girl's Hope, and many other charities that make requests throughout the year."

Many more restaurants and food businesses were represented in the Hothouse silent auction, which included dinners at Tessaro's in Bloomfield and Avenue B in Shadyside, beer from the Sharp Edge and a baking lesson at Enrico Biscotti Co. in the Strip District.

Some businesses were pulling double duty last weekend, showing up to support the Sprout Fund on Saturday night and the Rachel Carson Sustainable Feast on Sunday afternoon. Dozen Bakeshop served up miniature local peach pies at both events, topping them with individually bruleed meringues for Hothouse and a chewy oat topping at the Sustainable Feast, while the East End Food Co-op in Point Breeze gave out bags of popcorn that could be customized with an assortment of tasty seasonings.

The Sustainable Feast has become such a popular event that this year it moved from the Rachel Carson Homestead in Springdale to the Rachel Carson Bridge in Downtown Pittsburgh.

Event planners also added a contest to see who could come up with the best, most sustainable dish of the feast (find out who won in today's Food & Flavor section), but mostly the chefs seemed focused on having fun and connecting with customers at this affordable, family-friendly event (tickets are $10 and kids 5 and under are free).

Chefs from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center handed out flatbread crackers topped with a pickled vegetable jardinière made entirely from vegetables grown on their roof garden.

Derek Stevens, executive chef of Eleven Contemporary Kitchen, and Bill Fuller, executive chef of the Big Burrito Co., handed out copies of the recipe for their heirloom tomato salad with a pesto aioli, crispy bacon and sourdough croutons, while Keith Fuller, executive chef of Six Penn Kitchen (and no relation to Bill), wooed potential diners with 15 percent off coupons, while handing out his Hammer & Sickle pork sandwich with potato gnocchi, pesto and walnut pasta salad.

Chef Andrew Morrison of Habitat, Downtown, was dishing up a salad of vanilla-poached peaches and spicy arugula, but he attracted the younger crowd with slices of the syrupy peach sans salad greens.

Chefs seem a little more intent on taking home the prize at tonight's Savor Pittsburgh culinary event, where the competition has long been a focal point. Twenty-three restaurants will compete to see who has best appetizer, entree and dessert, as well as the best overall dish. Ticket-holders get to vote on a people's choice award, while a team of 15 judges will select the best dishes.

Last year, pastry chef Joseph Post and executive chef Christopher Jones of Tusca Global Tapas on the South Side took home the top prize for their milk chocolate cashew bomb, while Chef Roger Li of Tamari in Lawrenceville captured the popular vote.

Jeff Maag, Tusca's new executive chef, hopes to replicate his predecessor's success. Formerly sous chef at Tusca, he has participated in the last two Savor Pittsburgh events, and he's planning to enter all three categories. He and his staff will prepare more than 750 servings of a riesling and white grape risotto with candied pecans, a peppered pork mignon with jalapeno sweet potato gnocchi with sweet apple creme fraiche and banana mango beignets with blueberry honey ice cream.

"It's a blast," Mr. Maag said. "It's good to see the other chefs around and see what they're doing, and you get to meet new chefs from restaurants that are just opening."

Among the new participants this year are Brian Pekarcik from Spoon, East Liberty; Justin Severino from Elements, Downtown; Donato Coluccio from Donato's, O'Hara; Kevin Watson, from the not-yet-open Savoy Restaurant and Lounge in the Strip District; and Dianne Porter of Cassis on the North Side. Ms. Porter is competing in the appetizer category with her smoked trout spread on toasted baguette. This summer she's also participated in the Pittsburgh Aviary's "Night at the Tropics" and the Mattress Factory's Urban Garden Party.

For information on these events and others like them throughout the year, read the Little Bites column in the Restaurants section and Margi Shrum's Sauce column in Food & Flavor on Thursdays.

China Millman: 412-263-1198 or . Follow her at .


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