As co-founder and co-owner of the Mitten Brewing Company, he knows a thing or two about great pizza and beer, but from the very beginning, he wanted his restaurants to provide something more: philanthropy for neighbors in need right outside their doors. Since opening in 2012, the Mitten has financially supported around 100 nonprofits that serve local neighbors. Chris and his staff have volunteered at many of these nonprofits as well.
One volunteer location: Mobile Food Pantries hosted by schools on Grand Rapids’ Westside, near the Mitten’s flagship restaurant. Through volunteering at these food distributions, Chris and former board president Dana Mate Dones realized the program needed financial support. So in 2017, they started an annual golf outing to fundraise for the program. Ever since, they’ve supported Mobile Pantries at schools on Grand Rapids’ Westside each year! In 2021, their 5th annual golf outing raised enough to fund 15 Mobile Pantries at schools near their restaurants.
“I think the reason we’ve maintained the relationship with the food bank and never strayed from it is because we volunteer at the pantries,” Chris said. “That forms a deep connective tissue to the cause. The greatest part of the week is at the food pantry.”
On the Westside, Chris has found he can’t ignore the challenges people face. He drives by neighbors without homes every day on his commute and has realized kids living just a few yards away don’t always have enough to eat.
“What I’ve recognized through the years is the importance of immersing yourself in the service part of philanthropy,” he said. “It motivates people to give. That’s the highest and best use to the small business platform — to connect to the community.”
Chris thinks everybody wants to give, but too many individuals and businesses see philanthropy as something to do with their leftovers for their “pet causes.” Instead of donating only because a cause interests you, he argues “money should go to local places that affect the lives of people you rub elbows with.”
“You should be intentional about it — speaking to nonprofits about what they need vs. what you think they need. I’ve started off many projects with misguided notions and after sitting down with development people, they say ‘that’s not what it is!’”
Chris’ book Dough Nation argues businesses don’t have to be big to serve their communities. He believes customers already expect to pay more to shop local. A small rise in prices is a cost customers can and do get behind when they know it’s giving back.
“I always say, ‘every dollar you spend at the Mitten Brewing Co. makes a difference in our neighborhood.’ Every fall that money goes toward hunger causes. We are very proud to underwrite Westside Mobile Food Pantries.”
Many times, donors prefer anonymity, but Chris has noticed being vocal about the Mitten’s philanthropy brings awareness.
Last year, the Mitten Foundation paid off $2,700 in school lunch debt for kids in Suttons Bay, near one of their locations — “Kids were getting stamps on their arms that said ‘I have lunch debt.’ That’s really stigmatizing,” he said. Other breweries saw what they were doing and started paying off lunch debts, too.
“You don’t have to brag about it, but if you share, people will imitate.”
Chris’ two young sons volunteer alongside him at Mobile Pantries and have even started their own community clean-up club.
“It’s important for us to model for our kids so they don’t have to confront these misheld preconceptions about giving,” he said.
The food bank relies on support of all kinds to fuel our work — a little help from one of the best local pizza and beer joints is certainly appreciated! Thank you, Chris, for your work to fight hunger!