HUNTLEY – The owners of Tropical Smoothie Café are taking their charitable works in the community to a whole new level this year.
Mike and Terri Ward, of Union, plan to donate 100 percent of the profits of the franchise restaurant located at 12162 S. Route 47 to feed the hungry through the Grafton Food Pantry.
When the Wards opened Tropical Smoothie Café, which serves healthy sandwiches, wraps and a variety of smoothies, in August 2011, they had a mission to give back, said Terri Ward, 56.
“We wanted to provide great food for the community, a place where kids can go on a date, and teach students and young people a work ethic,” she said.
The 35-seat café, whose motto is “Eat Better, Feel Better,” employs high school and local community college students as a way to provide them with spending money and work skills.
In addition, the business always has had a charitable aspect to it, Mike Ward said, citing donations to local groups, fundraising events and gift certificates for raffles.
But the Wards knew they wanted to do more.
Mike Ward, 55, cites the couple’s Christian faith and the book “The Hole in Our Gospel” by Richard Stearns as influences for their next step.
“What if we took this restaurant and found a way to use it to serve others,” Mike Ward said.
“Serving the least of these,” Terri Ward added.
Partnering with the Grafton Food Pantry gives the Wards a way to find those who could use help.
Because turning a restaurant into a nonprofit entity is not easy, the Wards instead created a nonprofit foundation called Dignified Dining.
The foundation allows the Wards to convert 100 percent of Tropical Smoothie Café’s profits into vouchers to be donated to the food pantry.
Mike Ward, who sold his software company in 2006, does not receive a salary from the café, and Terri earns a small amount for the catering work she does.
The aim for this year is to provide 6,000 meals, which amounts to a donation of close to $30,000, Mike Ward said.
For every meal purchased at the café, it’s possible to donate two to three vouchers to the food pantry, he said.
On March 1, the Wards presented the Grafton Food Pantry with their first 200 vouchers.
Designed to look like money, the vouchers are for adult meals including a food item, side and a drink or smoothie; kids’ meals; and smoothies.
A father of three children recently used the vouchers to take his family to the café for dinner.
“Now they can take their families out to eat,” Mike Ward said of helping families “dine with dignity.”
Tropical Smoothie Café also does a lot of smoothie sales at schools through an off-site fundraising program, Terri Ward said. Smoothie vouchers will allow needy children to visit the café for a treat with their parents.
“It lets them be like their peers,” Terri Ward said.
The charitable effort has not gone unnoticed.
“The community has been extremely supportive,” Mike Ward said.
A tip jar near the register often is overflowing, and even the student workers have donated their tips to the cause.
The response at the Grafton Food Pantry has been equally positive.
“We’ve had a very positive response to them,” pantry secretary and community outreach director Harriet Ford said of the vouchers. “It’s a real nice experience for our clients and their families.”
The pantry serves 175 to 200 families each month, Ford said. In February, just over 600 individuals sought help.
The Wards expect their donations to ramp up as the weather warms. That will be a bonus for the pantry, which often sees donations drop off in the summer.
“That’s our busiest time,” Terri Ward said.
To maximize the donation, the Wards hope to enlist community volunteers to reduce labor costs. The volunteers won’t be taking jobs away from students, since they will not be used to prepare food or run the register.
For instance, one woman comes in on Fridays at the end of the lunch shift and spends two hours doing dishes. Another volunteer makes deliveries.
“We don’t want to burn them out,” Mike Ward said of the one- to two-hour shifts two to three times a week.
The Wards hope to expand the Dignified Dining concept to other local restaurants and area food pantries.
“If we asked every restaurant to give 1 percent back and converted that to food vouchers, add that up,” Mike Ward said. “Think how many coupons that would be.”
For now, the Wards are getting the process worked out with Tropical Smoothie Café.
But so far it’s been a win-win for both the Wards and the food pantry.
“It’s nice that it’s a local restaurant taking care of local people in need,” Ford said.
How to help
DINE: Tropical Smoothie Café, 12162 S. Route 47, Huntley is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday. For faster service, call ahead at 847-669-3803. To view the menu online, visit IL04.tropicalsmoothie.com.
VOLUNTEER: If you are interested in volunteering, call 847-669-3803, visit www.facebook.com/TSCHuntley, or email Mike Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org
DONATE: Contributions can be made on the Dignified Dining Foundation website at www.dignifieddining.org.