Interview with Harald Herrmann and Jennifer Weerheim
Find out why corporate responsibility is so important to the CEO and VP of marketing at Yard House Restaurants and how they've gone the extra yard.
|Visit a Yard House
This one is a no-brainer and a no-painer,
because really, what’s a few pennies
added onto your next dinner check?
You lose more than that in the couch
every week. But if enough people give
a little, a lot of worthy charities get a lot.
So here’s how Round It Up America! works:
Order anything from a beer to a bacon burger.
When the check comes, it will have a line
labeled “Round Up for Charity.” So, say the
bill is $13.85, write $14 in that space. Then
add tip and total.
Fifteen cents will go to a good cause,
proportioned in the following manner:
75% will go to a local charity. In Orange
County, they are Share Our Selves, Mercy
House or the Council On Aging. Ten percent
will go to national relief, 10% will fund
educational grants and programs, 5% will be
used for administrative and marketing costs.
Round It Up America! is a simple concept: Round up your restaurant check to the nearest dollar; the change gets donated to a local charity; you make a difference.
In fact, many said it was too simple, says Yard House Restaurants CEO Harald Herrmann, who, along with VP of Marketing Jennifer Weerheim, conceived the idea. “We had a lot of people tell us, ‘Oh, that’s a cute idea but it’ll never work,’” says Herrmann. But for the man who was a founding member of the Orange County Susan G. Komen Pink Tie Guys, those are fighting words. And though both Herrmann and Weerheim have been very instrumental in community outreach and philanthropic efforts for years, they both felt a need to do more in the past year.
“Last year I would read the paper and listen to the radio and every message was about this growing need and how people were suffering,” says Weerheim. “In one week, I read three articles about how our local food banks were suffering and their shelves were bare. So [Herrmann] and I felt that we had this incredible resource with so many people visiting Yard House every day. That really inspired me. We wanted to create a program that the everyday American could donate to.”
So, she and Herrmann kept fighting for the Round It Up America! concept, and less than a year later the naysayers have either been silenced or converted. People are not only rounding up their Yard House checks to the tune of tens of thousands, but they are mailing in checks and donating online (rounditupamerica.org). The program is endorsed and administered by the Orange County Community Foundation and efforts to implement the program in restaurant chains across the nation are already cooking.
Coast caught up with Herrmann to talk about his rise from dishwasher to CEO and his biggest charitable project yet.
You moved here at an early age from South Africa.
Yes, my parents migrated from Hamburg, Germany after World War II because the city was completely leveled. They decided to start a new life in South Africa, then moved to America, and I was raised in Anaheim since 1975.
Your start in the restaurant business was at the very entry level, correct?
Yes, I had to work my way up. I started as a dishwasher at Marie Callender’s in Anaheim, the one on La Palma, which is still there. I washed dishes for a year and a half, but I enjoyed the environment, the people, the pace, and the camaraderie, everything that a restaurant can be. So I stayed in it and worked a variety of positions. For instance, I worked in the hotel business as a room service waiter, then a room service manager, assistant manager, general manager, then avice president for a company. But I never left the restaurant business.
Why the love for such a stressful business?
Growing up I was a pretty shy young man because I came from a foreign country and was taunted a lot in school. So socially, I was not an extrovert. But when I went to work in a restaurant, it forced me to interact with a broad variety of people, especially in the dishwasher capacity. I think I was the only Caucasian dishwasher and interacted with a lot of [other] immigrants. So that experience really helped me to understand the plight of the immigrant, trying to better [their] lives for themselves and especially their children. Many had left a family in another country to send money home and work hard toward a new life for themselves and their family. When I saw that early on in life, it had a lasting impact. And the stress? To me, it’s an energy, a juice about the restaurant business, especially when the restaurant is busy. It’s almost like being on a championship sports team that is working in unison to win a game. When you get through a busy shift in a restaurant, there’s no better high. Even though I’m now a desk jockey, I still feel that high of being part of a team.
You are credited with championing a sense of corporate responsibility in the Yard House.
I think the feeling of corporate responsibility is something we all share. The one thing that I felt was very important early on was the culture of the organization: who are we, what we stand for and what we do as we grow. That culture really started in about 1998. We tried to put into words a shared set of beliefs for incoming managers and hourly team members. We wanted the company to have a soul, so when we grew the company, that’s what would sustain the growth and success. We actually refer to it as the recipe for success. It’s not just about cooking burgers.
What led to the creation of Round It Up America?
After all the golf tournaments and fundraisers and galas, we felt that although there is a place for that and we will still participate, it really only represents a small population of the community. And it’s great that there are so many – I think there are 300-plus galas in Orange County yearly – but it’s still a drop in the bucket. But since we don’t have the deep pockets of huge organizations, we’ve had to get creative about making a difference. So at first, we did a call to action where we’d show up to a gala and offer a match to donors. If someone donated $25, we’d give them a $25 gift certificate to our restaurant, so donating didn’t cost them anything. On average, these raised $40,000 per night. And for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, we came up with the first pledge match program for Race for the Cure, Newport Beach. And the first year we raised over $250,000, more than they did inyears prior. Jennifer and I saw how significant that approach was, so Round It Up is the summation of those other programs, because Round It Up is a call to action, albeit subtle, to give small but significant amounts to local charities.
You’ve said it also includes a good representation of the community. What do you mean?
Take for example our restaurant in Irvine. We’re close to Leisure World, UCI, business, and residential. So at Yard House, there’s a mix of students, seniors, businesspeople, and families, all under the same roof and with the same opportunity to give. That’s not a demographic you get at a gala dinner or a golf tournament.
How’s the program going?
Great. We started the program company-wide in mid-October. To date, over 102,000 people have Rounded Up to donate over $86,000, with the average donation about 80 cents. We’re taking in on average $40 per restaurant and $1,000 a day as an organization. So we’re on pace to raise $350,000 the first calendar year.
Impressive for only a few months.
True, but what really makes it amazing is when you consider the scalability of where this can go. We decided very early on that this wouldn’t be just a Yard House program. This had to be bigger and hopefully would encompass the restaurant industry at large. Hopefully, it is in the truest sense, philanthropy. So imagine what 500 restaurants or 5,000 restaurants could do. For instance, if 500 restaurants raised just $25 a day, that would represent $4.5 million a year; 5,000 would raise $45 million. The State of California alone has 90,000 restaurants, so the scalability is tremendous.
Is there interest outside your organization?
Definitely. We presented the program to the California Restaurant Association (CRA) in November and we had nine restaurant chains, representing 300 restaurants, commit immediately. Also, the CEO of the CRA, Jot Condie, took this to his counterparts and already 34 state restaurant association CEOs want to institute Round It Up.
Why are you so passionate about the program?
California has no money; we’re bankrupt. We’ve got social services and food banks and community programs running out of money. One in six Americans goes to bed hungry. Fifty percent of students in high schools are failing and not graduating. We are just not doing a good job. So I feel like from a social standpoint, this is an opportunity for the restaurant community to stand up and be a voice for our customers, for our communities – because keep in mind, this is their money. They’re the ones that are rounding up. We’re just the conduit. So a program like this, if it does take off, could be a game changer.