Co-owners Shawn Rao and Jonathan Serrano have quietly been slipping donations to local charities through a Pay It Forward program for some time now. Patrons dining at Social House are randomly presented a red envelope containing anywhere from $2 to $20 in cash along with a letter from the owners. The letter thanks guests for visiting and encourages them to give the money to someone in need. They have received dozens of emails with inspiring stories, letting them know that the campaign has resulted in tens of thousands of dollars in donations to local charities.
I spoke with Rao this past week to learn more about the start of their initiative and get his insight into what he hoped to do through this small gesture that hit the community in a big way. Here’s what I came to find:
LB: Can you elaborate on your charity initiative, how it started and your mission behind it?
RA: It has always been a priority of mine to give back to the community in one way or another ever since I have been able. I spearheaded the launch of a community service organization in college, which now has nine chapters around the country. I grew up in a very modest environment, but always kept in mind that there is always others whom have it worse. Such life experiences inspired me to develop the Pay-It-Forward program. The Pay-It-Forward program is great because it can touch so many foundations and affect people by supporting causes that are significant to them. The hope is when our guests receive an envelope full of cash, they add money and put it toward something that really makes a difference.
LB: How exactly do you choose the patrons to hand off the envelopes to?
RA: We try to hand out the envelopes during dinnertime and the earlier hours. That way, guests can actually read them when they are leaving.
LB: What are some of the reactions you have received from guests?
RA: The reactions have been incredible. Most guests are blown away by our efforts to give back and it inspires them to contribute to our society in some way, one of our main goal in the program. One guest told us they were so touched by the program, it gave them goose bumps. We make sure they get the envelope as they are leaving so they don’t try to give it back to us.
LB: I would love to hear some of your favorite stories from emails you have received back about the donations.
RA: There have been so many great stories. The largest one monetarily was a gentleman who received two dollars in his envelope; he added $1000 and made a donation to a local cause dear to his heart. Another gentleman received five dollars, added $100 and clothed a homeless man. A lady received $20 dollars and added another $250 and donated it to breast cancer research. Although we give a small amount of cash to our customers, most are so moved and empowered by the cause that they pay it forward in a big way. We estimate that our donation increases fivefold on average, so for every 5k we give away, 25k gets contributed to charity.
LB: I’m assuming this has helped your business grow and strengthen your community support, so I was wondering how you have seen this happen since the beginning of the initiative?
RA: I hope our patrons are being more mindful to give back by the program. We honestly haven’t gauged if business has grown from it. That was not our intention at all when we started it. We just want to contribute to society and show that making a difference for just one person can affect an entire community. We are blessed to have two great locations that let us connect with thousands of people a week and provide a platform to spread the worth of philanthropic efforts. Hopefully as our locations grow, the message will soar to even bigger heights and we can make our society better as a whole, one day at a time.