Canlis Restaurant’s Matching Gift Program Spurs Growth During Economic Downturn

Like most restaurants, Canlis gives back – a lot!   And, they feel really good when they are able to support nonprofits in the surrounding areas by giving back, yet were overwhelmed at times by the sheer number of folks asking for donations.  They did not feel so good about having to say “no”, occasionally.    The problem was, as more & more folks became aware of their traditional restaurants giving back program, it became unsustainable.   Most of us would agree, restaurants receive far more than their fair share of donation requests.

Mark Canlis says, “The problem is, restaurants bear the full burden of the entire donation and there is very little thankfulness received in return.”   Why is it that every nonprofit and school expects their donation request to a restaurant will be approved, even when they may be located across the country?  Canlis receives donation requests from as far away as Hawaii.   Sometimes, they even receive multiple donation requests from various divisions within the same nonprofit organization – the right hand not knowing the left had already asked.

Mark’s “ah-ha” moment began during the Economic Downturn.   It was to be the 60th anniversary of Canlis Restaurant and a big event was planned for local dignitaries and notables.   At the same time, they were faced with a heart wrenching decision to possibly discontinue all donations, really, their entire giving back program, until the economy improved.

“As the planning for the gala unfolded, it just did not feel right”,  says Mark.   Ultimately, Canlis cancelled the original plans and began sharing ideas on how the event could be more meaningful, including, tossing an idea around that focused on giving back:   “What if they could use their restaurant’s milestone celebration to honor those giving back… the quiet philanthropists that are rewriting generosity around the Seattle area and start a dialog about how to make the community stronger?”

It did not take long for the idea to catch on.    And, soon many of the staff were suggesting friends, neighbors and patrons to be invited.   Canlis invited them all & posed these questions about giving back:   “What is giving?” and  “What does it mean to you?”   The evening was filled with laughter and great discussions around giving back and philanthropy.

Along with planning the gala evening, Canlis began rethinking their own charitable giving and how it could be more sustainable.    They thought about what they wanted their “stamp” on Seattle to be…. but when they looked around the room, they saw a half empty restaurant – the new economy was taking its toll.  How could they reconcile this dilemma?

At the same time, nonprofits were clamoring for donations of a table for four.   Then, one particular nonprofit asked for a table of 10 to be donated.   Canlis had no choice, but to decline. Upon hearing their response, the nonprofit promptly offered to pay for the cost!  … that was Mark’s wake up call.   The nonprofit went on to share that often, the gift cards for restaurants sell for up to 4 times their face value at fundraising events.   This particular nonprofit knew that even after paying for the cost of the gift card, they would make money.  This bit of insight transformed Canlis’ program completely.

Mark came up with the idea of nonprofits “matching” their donation – launching the new matching gift program during the gala.  Needless to say, the matching gift program was an overnight success.

Canlis Restaurant now gives back  much more than before.  In fact, they are one of the top restaurants giving back, but, there’s a catch.   The donations are in the form of gift cards offered as a matching gift  – the nonprofit or school must pay for half.   “Often, these gift cards will sell at fundraising events for 3-4 times their face value, so it’s a great deal for the nonprofit.  They are still more than doubling their investment.”   Basically, the gift cards are sold at a discounted rate that covers the variable cost of serving an incremental guest.    For Canlis, the magic number is 50%.

This is truly a win-win because Canlis can give so much more. They have publicly committed to giving back $500,000 over the next 5 years through the matching gift program.  At the time, Canlis did not have much to lose. The economic downturn was in full-swing and the restaurant half empty.   The results, though, surprised Mark and his team.  The matching gift program was not as costly as they feared.    In fact, not only did the gift cards fill tables, but they fueled growth.

What is most notable about this program is that it’s been good for Canlis’ business. Over the years, they have measured and tracked each gift card that has been redeemed and the results may surprise you.  Guests redeeming a $100 gift card would often spend $130; those redeeming a $200 gift card would spend $260 and those redeeming a $400 gift card would spend an average of $520 – on average 30% more.   It’s almost as though the original purchase of the gift card at the auction or event was so long ago, patrons feel like the meal is “free” and they feel good about ordering extras, such as a special bottle of wine.

The second benefit of the new matching program?   Canlis now receives a multitude of thank you letters, emails and social media thank yous from both the recipients of the gift card and the ultimate purchaser. “They are much more appreciative”, says Mark.   “It’s as though they now understand the value of what they’re asking and by paying half, the fundraising becomes a collaboration between partners.   We’re no longer bearing the full burden of the cost of the donation.”

The result?   Canlis can now support nearly any request that they receive from a nonprofit, even if it is from Hawaii or across the Country.   They give back to about 500 nonprofits each year and are able to make a much broader impact in the community.

For seven months now, the restaurant has had a wait-list, so don’t miss out – call now for your next special occasion dining experience at one of the top restaurants in the U.S. and one of the top restaurants giving back!

About Canlis Restaurant:
– Website: www.canlis.com
– For reservations, call 206.283.3313 or visit open table:
http://www.opentable.com/canlis-reservations-seattle?rid=6309&restref=6309

– Canlis’ goal is to create the best dining experience possible – a vision, a shared commitment that has been passed down for three generations.  Executing on this vision is the reason guests trust us with the most important evenings of their lives.
– Because the ‘best dining experience’ looks different every night and on every table, we’ve chosen to make hospitality our field of expertise. Canlis defines hospitality as the act of moving aside to make room for another. Here, hospitality is still a relationship, not a transaction. We are a people learning to become “other-centered”, learning to make room for non other than you.
– “What does Canlis mean?” is a commonly asked question. Newcomers may be surprised to learn that Canlis is our family name. To step into the restaurant is to be welcomed by our family and into our home.
– Be sure to read about the history of the Canlis family on their website: http://canlis.com/about/people/family-history/