Behind-the-counter philanthropy

October 19, 2009
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Sometimes philanthropy comes from nachos smothered with cheese sauce, at least for the charitable organizations that work the concession stands at Van Andel Arena.

The arena has had a program in place for the better part of a decade that allows nonprofit groups to man the stands and collect 10 percent of a stand’s total sales, minus taxes, for their worthwhile cause.

When SMG Savor took over the building’s food-and-beverage business three years ago with the Convention and Arena Authority’s approval, the firm refined the program. Since then, those groups have earned $532,073 from their work. SMG Marketing Director Lynne Ike told the Business Journal that 34 to 38 nonprofits are involved each year in the program, which provides these groups with an alternative to the usual fundraising efforts.

Although the participating organizations range from the widely known Sweet Adeline’s to a fledgling softball league, SMG Regional General Manager Rich MacKeigan said many are groups connected with high schools and colleges. And the dollars those groups have earned have become even more vital in the past few years with the state offering less public funding for things like field trips and scholarships.

“I know we’ve got a number of high schools and it’s not necessarily the students, although on occasion that is the case; it’s usually more the parents. Then there are the college and university groups in terms of fraternal organizations or teams or clubs that also participate,” said MacKeigan.

“It’s a great program from our perspective because, relatively speaking now, the labor is inexpensive. But the quality of that labor, on the norm, is extremely good,” he added.

Every group that mans a concession stand must go through the SMG Savor training programs: one on how to handle alcohol sales and another on servicing customers.

Each group also has to commit to a minimum number of events to show that they’re onboard for the arena’s entire entertainment season, which gets heavier once the Grand Rapids Griffins begins playing.

“From a customer-service perspective, that’s what you want. You want people who are in the building on a regular basis who can deal with the lines, deal with the re-stocking, and are used to the environment on the high-volume nights, because that makes it quicker for the fans, as well,” said MacKeigan.

Amy Carrigan, director of food and beverage for SMG Savor, said is hasn’t been difficult to find IRS-sanctioned nonprofits to work the stands. She said inquiries from organizations begin to roll in during the summer and groups are chosen in September, when the season’s first training sessions are held each year.

“It is a fairly big commitment. We do ask our groups to all be certified, so everybody goes through our alcohol management training as well as our customer-service training. We have, right now, 36 groups,” said Carrigan.

Not every organization that applies for the concession work makes it through the training regimen. In fact, at least half routinely don’t.

“I would say every quarter we do training and we probably have four to six new groups that are either interested in learning more or want to go through our training. Usually about two groups actually make it through the training and want to put forth the effort and the commitment to go through with it,” said Carrigan.

Carrigan said each group has to work at least five of the 40 Griffins games. After that commitment, an organization can select the types of events it might prefer, such as concerts, family shows or the arena-rattling monster truck rallies. She said some groups man a stand for every event held during a season.

Carrigan echoed MacKeigan’s assessment by verifying that about 75 percent of all the groups that work the arena have social or academic ties to education.

SMG Savor doesn’t maintain a waiting list for groups. It does have opportunities for those who might want to serve at a smaller stand or on a night when help is needed.

The firm also has a staff member on hand at each event to assist every group behind the counter.

“We have what we call a stand leader — an SMG employee — kind of a liaison who is there to handle any customer-service issue, any money issue, anything with our inventory or anything with that group,” said Carrigan.

SMG, the Philadelphia-based firm that manages the daily operations of the arena for the CAA, administers other philanthropic efforts, and one has to do with performers. Ike said host venues have traditionally thanked these artists by giving them team jerseys. But she said SMG felt a change was necessary because some artists left their jerseys in dressing rooms or gave their jerseys away because they have already collected more than enough.

“So SMG decided that we would donate money to their favorite charity in the name of the entertainer. Half of the donation also goes to SMG’s charity of choice, which is currently the Kids Food Basket,” said Ike.

So far, the “thank you” program has raised more than $70,700 for 101 charities.

SMG also donates tickets to charities that they can use in fundraising raffles. Ike said the company has given 130 groups more than 800 tickets that were worth more than $35,000.

At the same time, the CAA, which is responsible for the overall operations of the arena, has raised $212,295 in charitable contributions for four local organizations from three “Big Daddy’s Do Wop Sh’Bop” shows — a 1950s and 1960s music-review show that features original artists and has been held in the spring.

Gilda’s Club of Grand Rapids, the Van Andel Institute’s Hope on the Hill, St. John’s Home and Hospice of Michigan have been recipients of those CAA charitable dollars.

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