At Soba for Quantum Theater fundraiser

On a beautiful summer night, 48 people met at Eleven, one of Pittsburgh’s top restaurants, for a sumptuous five-course meal, paired with exceptional wines. The purpose was to support the Society for Contemporary Craft (SCC), the nonprofit hosting the dinner. Cost to each participant was $150 for the meal but Eleven didn’t get any of the money. Instead, it all went to SCC which was responsible solely for the tip that night.

big Burrito, the owners of Eleven, picked up the cost of the entire meal, drinks included. And Contemporary Craft netted nearly $5,000. At a time when nonprofits struggle to raise funds through labor-intensive annual events, this benefit dinner is easy, enjoyable for all and a treat for the senses. Talk about putting the fun back in fundraising.

The outstanding menu for the 412 Food Rescue Group at a recent benefit dinner at Eleven

“The big Burrito Restaurant Group’s commitment to donating monthly fundraising dinners in support of Pittsburgh nonprofits is unparalleled,” says Janet McCall, executive director of the Society for Contemporary Craft. “We’ve raised thousands of dollars over the years through these donated meals at Casbah and Eleven. It’s truly a win/win. Our donors enjoy delicious five-course dinners and 100% of the cost of their meal supports our organization. big Burrito is not only a long-standing leader and innovator on the Pittsburgh food scene; they model exemplary corporate citizenship by giving back so generously to our community.”

Bill Fuller, big Burrito’s corporate chef, offers this: “As a high-profile restaurant group, we have lots people coming to us asking for a donation of appetizers to an event, or gift cards, or dinner to give to an auction. We strongly believe that we are a part of the community and we want to give back. But we wanted to figure out how to give back in the right way, to do a good job at it.”

Approximately seven years ago, Fuller explains, they had just remodeled the downstairs of Casbah on Highland Ave. in Shadyside. “We realized it held about 50 people, it’s a nice venue for an event, and what if we invited some of our favorite charities to come here, bring their supporters, we’ll throw the dinner party, and they’ll collect the money for it?”

Fuller said big Burrito decided that once each month, on the third Thursday, they would allow a nonprofit organization to have the room and charge $100 per person. They would provide all the food and drinks with a special tasting menu, and the only cost to the nonprofit would be the gratuity for the serving staff.

At Quantum Theatre's fundraiser at Soba in July.
Natalie Bencivenga and Mary McKinney at Quantum Theatre’s fundraiser at Soba this past month.
Natalie Bencivenga and Mary McKinney at Quantum Theatre’s fundraiser at Soba this past month.

It was such a quick success, Fuller says, that they added a series at Eleven, their Downtown restaurant, at a more upscale cost of $150 per person, and Mad Mex, with suggested costs of $35 per person. “Some organizations change restaurants from year-to-year so different people with different thresholds for giving can attend, and they can reach more of their donor base.”

Julie Butcher Pezzino, executive director of Grow Pittsburgh, was thrilled with their benefit dinner at Eleven. “Putting together an event on your own is a lot of work and the cost associated with doing it, with the employee time, is significant,” she says. “But big Burrito makes it plug-and-play. The venue is already beautiful because it’s one of their restaurants, and, of course, the food is amazing. It’s unbelievable that they put in all that time and effort and let us focus on the ticket sales and entertaining our supporters.”

Leah Lizarondo had nothing but praise for big Burrito and Fuller after her fundraising dinner for 412 Food Rescue (see the menu here) which featured wild Alaskan halibut and roasted Gerber Farms chicken.

Fuller says the benefit dinner series is a win for big Burrito as well because they control the food and the experience. “Just handing over a tray of appetizers wasn’t representing us well. The benefit dinners allow us to do what we do best, give people a great experience in our restaurants.”

The big Burrito website has applications for nonprofits to apply for the benefit dinners. “We usually get booked for the year at the beginning of the year, and we have some guidelines about who we open the program to,” Fuller says. “We focus on kids, health, education, the arts. We don’t do religion or politics—topics that don’t belong at a dinner party anyway,” he jokes.

Big Burrito Restaurant Group
Bill Fuller of big Burrito Restaurant Group, a hero to nonprofits

The benefit dinner series is one of Fuller’s favorite parts of his hectic big Burrito job, which includes hiring and training chefs, menu planning, food and beverage purchasing, public appearances, and regular spots on WYEP radio and KDKA’s Pittsburgh Today Live. “The dinners have worked out really well as a way to structure our giving for good causes,” Fuller says. “At Casbah, for example, if a group has 50 attendees at $100 a head . . . $5,000 is a lot of money for a small organization to earn in one night. It’s great for them and it feels incredible for us.”

For benefit dinner information and applications, visit the benefit pages for Casbah, Eleven, Soba, and Mad Mex.

'Burgh-loving Jonathan Wander (Twitter: @jmwander) has written for various publications including Men’s Health, and has gratefully guest-posted on amazing sites like That’s Church.