Restaurants are a vital part of a community’s social fabric. They can revitalize neighborhoods, spark innovation and host your most memorable events. So, it’s not surprising that here, where philanthropy is ingrained in the culture, restaurateurs, caterers and makers find ways to make charitable giving a cornerstone of their businesses.
“I believe it’s a social obligation to give back and help those who are less fortunate,” says Ingrid Aielli, who, with her chef-husband Fabrizio, owns Sea Salt, Barbatella, Dorona and Grappino in Naples. Throughout the year, the couple hosts Celebrity Startender Nights at Dorona, opening the modern Italian steakhouse to local nonprofit leaders, who act as “startenders” for a cocktail reception. They pour drinks, share information about their organizations and collect donations. Ingrid and Fabrizio also donate time to several children’s charities, including serving as co-chairs of Youth Haven of Southwest Florida’s 50th anniversary Starry Nights Gala in March. Every year, the couple hosts a Christmas Eve luncheon at Barbatella for about 20 kids from the shelter, complete with visits from Santa and the Grinch, gifts and a festive feast.
Children are also a focus at FK Your Diet, with five locations in Florida, including in Fort Myers, Cape Coral and Punta Gorda. Founded by Doug Miller, who grew up in the foster-care system (FK stands for foster kid), the restaurants donate 5 percent of revenue to nonprofits that focus on vulnerable children, including Embrace Families and Every Child Initiative, a Summit Church Program. “Foster kids are the bottom rung of every bad statistic you can think of. Kids, like me, who age out of foster care without a forever home, typically end up in prison or homeless,” Doug says. “Every single day, we spend money on foster kids; we try to hire and mentor them.” Other programs include an annual Thanksgiving feast for people in need and graduation galas for foster kids who finish high school. Doug and co-founder Amy Eldridge give beyond Florida, too. They raised roughly $20,000 for victims of the war in Ukraine earlier this year and the Uvalde school shooting. In May, the couple traveled to the Texas town, where they purchased $5,000 in gift cards from local mom-and-pop restaurants to donate to families in the community.
Other Lee County establishments are also pledging a portion of their proceeds to worthy causes. At Urban Buzz Coffee, a popular drive-through coffee shop in Cape Coral, owner Alex Eble and his mother and business partner, Sharene, hold quarterly Give Back Days, when $1 from every cup of coffee sold goes to a designated charity, such as Wounded Warrior Project, Donate Life America and Keep Lee County Beautiful. At The Wine Room in downtown Fort Myers, 3 percent of each purchase goes to the customer’s selected nonprofit from a list of three. “Since we opened in 2020, we have donated to Pace Center for Girls, CROW, Cape Coral Animal Shelter, Junior Achievement of Southwest Florida and more,” owner Sarah Newcomb says. “We also donate our space to multiple organizations for networking events.” To select the year’s featured nonprofits, Sarah opens voting to the public each October.
“We started receiving requests from nonprofits in the area right out of the gate. I’ve never said no,” Kyle Cebull, of Fort Myers’ Millennial Brewing Company, says. Since opening in 2016, he estimates the brewery has worked with more than 200 charitable partners, donating about $500,000 in direct contributions, goods, services and access to the space. The brewery hosts mostly street fairs and 10 percent of the profits often go to local causes. Last year’s three-day Oktoberfest—the brewery’s largest annual event—raised $4,000 for Blessings in a Backpack, Valerie’s House and Lee County Schools.
Blessings in a Backpack also benefits from Sizzle Dining (formerly Naples Restaurant Week), held over three weeks in September. After the event, $1 is donated from each of the $32 or $42 three-course dinners at nearly 50 participating restaurants, spanning from Naples to Sanibel. Guy Clarke, who runs the event with his wife, Erin, has partnered with the nonprofit on events since 2014, when he founded BaconFest Naples. “I’m blessed to have food on the table, yet here we are in the richest counties and we have thousands of kids who can’t afford to eat,” he says. “It’s not fair when we’re being gluttonous during restaurant week that kids go hungry.” In 2021, Sizzle Dining restaurants donated $20,000 to Blessings in a Backpack, which funded more than 14,000 meal packs to feed children in Collier and Lee Counties on weekends. Several restaurants also chose to make additional donations or sponsor a child for the entire year.
St. Matthew’s House in Naples has created a more direct relationship between restaurants and nonprofits. As part of its programming, which combats hunger, homelessness, poverty and substance abuse, the group operates the sit-down restaurant LuLu’s Kitchen and a catering company, Delicious by Design, which caters the VIP viewing area for Cars on Fifth. Both provide on-the-job culinary training for graduates of the organization’s recovery programs, and revenue helps cover operating costs for St. Matthew’s House.
When it comes to catering for the events that fill the society pages, Crave Culinaire is the region’s go-to. Run by chef Brian Roland and his wife, Nicole, the Bonita Springs-based company is celebrating its tenth year, in 2023, of feeding guests at luxe private dinners and charity galas, like those for Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples, Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens and Bonita Springs’ The Wonder Gardens. The couple regularly gives back to more than a dozen nonprofit partners, including Literacy Volunteers of Collier County, Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, Make-A-Wish Foundation and Naples Children & Education Foundation.
Last December, after Brian was injured during an event, members of the community held a candlelight vigil outside of Lee Memorial Hospital, where he was being treated. Though Brian remained in recovery, Crave pushed forward with the season’s slate of events, including donating dinners for auctions. At SWFL Wine & Food Fest in January, a dinner catered by Crave led to a bidding war that drove the price to $25,000. Nicole generously offered to cater a second dinner, raising a $50,000 to benefit SWFL Children’s Charities. “Brian and I are so grateful to this community. We can’t thank everyone enough for their support and prayers,” she says. “Giving is, indeed, a circular gift.”