A shot of altruism
Guest bartender nights at the BBC Tavern & Grill have helped raise thousands of dollars for nonprofit organizations in the community.
By Pam George
“A gorilla walks into a bar” is
usually the start of a joke. But at BBC Tavern & Grill, you might
find the gorilla behind the bar.
You might also find puppies, costumed characters and men made up to look like creatures from a “Star Trek” episode. It’s all part of BBC’s popular guest bartender events, which have served as fundraisers and friend-raisers for nonprofits throughout the area.
“The folks at BBC excel at the concept,” said Jim Miller, who dressed up in the gorilla suit to benefit the Brandywine Zoo. In the same way that some establishments become known for craft cocktails, live music or decks with water views, BBC is known for well-attended guest bartender nights, he continued.
The events give charities a chance to raise money without renting a hall or a caterer. They receive all the tips given during the specified period and 10 percent of diners’ food bill. But that doesn’t mean the charity can coast. The ones that do well think beyond the bar.
The promotion, held one or two nights a week, is the brainchild of owner David Dietz, whose daughter was 5 when she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. Shortly after BBC opened in 2010, he decided to do an event to raise money to help find a cure. He invited people to be guest bartenders and sent out Facebook invitations.
“We raised a lot of money, and there were a lot of people in attendance,” he said. Other charities took note. Dietz recalled writing how-to bullet points on the back of a napkin for one friend. The requests for advice kept coming, and the events at BBC kept growing.
Dietz created a copyrighted manual—complete with timelines and checklists—to help the participating nonprofits succeed. “I meet with the event organizers over lunch and share everything,” he said. “I hold their hand through the process so they can raise a lot of money.” He estimated that charities have raised a total of nearly a million dollars since BBC started the promotion.
Michelle Kramer-Fitzgerald has organized the events, served as bartender for others’ events and enjoyed them as an attendee. “Overall, while organizations' success and participation vary, almost (that all I know of) have come away with several thousands of dollars raised,” she said. Some have topped five digits, Dietz added.
The causes run the gamut. “I think we’ve hosted every single school in the area,” Dietz said. Healing with Horses, the National Kidney Foundation, Delaware Tennis Foundation and Wilmington Friends are just a few of the nonprofits holding guest bartender nights in the future.
Kramer-Fitzgerald, who owns the publicity company Arts in Media has participated in events for Cit Theater Company, Faithful Friends, Delaware Institute for the Arts in Education and Delaware Humane Association
Scheduling the right people for the job is key. They don’t need to know how to make cocktails or run credit cards—the staff does all that—but they do need to bring in friends, family and coworkers, who will tip well when the bartender is on duty, Dietz said.
Bartenders who are active on social media are often more valuable than celebrities or Dele-brities, who show up, do the gig and leave. Miller is an example. Shortly before he was scheduled to be a guest bartender for the Brandywine Zoo in 2013, a tree fell on the roof of the zoo’s beloved monkey house.
To raise money for repairs, Miller promised to wear a gorilla suit all day at work, as well as during the BBC event—but only if he raised $500 in advance. “I raised $500 in five minutes,” he said. He upped the ante. “If I could raise $1,000 more, I’d wear it the next day too.” In the end, he raised more than $2,000 before the guest bartender night even began. It didn't come without sacrifice. He lost weight while wearing the hot suit for two days—and behind the BBC bar—in July.
Guest bartenders for the Chadds Ford Historical Society wore period costumes and sold such specialty cocktails as “Andy’s Potion” (Ketel One Vodka on the rocks with orange slices), which was inspired by Andrew Wyeth’s drink of choice.
Not everyone needs to wear a costume, but they do need to invest their energy as well as their time. “Be committed to it, and choose people who will be equally committed,” Kramer-Fitzgerald said. “The more ‘dug in’ you are about making the event a success, the more successful it will be.”
Many of the female bartenders go glam before slipping behind the bar. BBC hires professional photographer Ben Fournier to snap photographs of the guests and bartenders. The next day, photos are posted on the BBC Facebook page and guests, bartenders and the charity are encouraged to tag each other for more visibility.
Fundraising activities should go beyond pouring beer and wine. Dietz said that PAWS for People brought puppies for a kissing booth. “After a few glasses of wine, ladies paid $20 to hug the golden retrievers,” he said. Wilmington Youth Rowing Association brought a rowing machine to the restaurant so guests could compete against kids.
Between the increased foot traffic, the food and beverage orders, and hundreds of BBC tags on Facebook, the restaurant benefits from the promotion. So does the charity, which has no overhead. The attendees, however, also have fun.
“It’s a nice place to have a drink, grab a little bite and learn about a group,” said Alice Martinelli, who held a guest bartending night to benefit the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
As an attendee, she learned about Lori’s Hands, a Newark nonprofit that pairs university students with the chronically ill to provide support. “I would not have known if a friend hadn’t invited me to BBC,” she said. “I want to support charities in our community. If I know I’m going to go out and meet friends for a drink and I can write a check or put money in a tip jar or have a silent auction opportunity—it all works together.”
Kramer-Fitzgerald agreed. “Not everyone necessarily supports the same causes at the same levels, but almost everyone will enjoy meeting up for a drink and some nosh for a good cause,” she said. “I've gone to plenty of these events that aren't my main ‘charitable’ focus, but I like to support friends' causes, and it's the perfect informal way to do so.”
To contact Pam George, email