How To Run a Successful Restaurant Night

A restaurant night fundraiser is a simple way to raise money for your group. It’s also a great way for groups to build community and to give parents a way to support their school.

by Rose Cafasso


A restaurant night fundraiser is an easy and simple way to raise money for your group. These events can be run by a few volunteers and do not require a big investment of time or money. Restaurant nights are a great way for groups to build a sense of community and give parents a way to support their school without a lot of fuss.

How Does a Restaurant Fundraiser Work?

A restaurant night is a joint effort from a parent group and a restaurant. A night is selected and school community members are invited to eat at the restaurant during a set time period, such as between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. The restaurant agrees to donate to the PTO or PTA a percentage of the proceeds generated by the school’s families and friends (typically excluding alcohol and tips). The percentage usually ranges from 10 percent to 20 percent.

Groups can run more than one restaurant night per year, and they are particularly helpful as supplemental fundraisers to a group’s core fundraising programs. Groups are most successful when they focus on promoting a restaurant night ahead of time so that families can add it to their calendars and make sure to attend. Also, groups have found that getting creative with restaurant nights—giving the night a theme, or giving out small door prizes—helps make these events more successful.

How To Pick the Right Restaurant for Your School

Before you do a restaurant night, take time to evaluate the options. Some things to consider:

  • Many national restaurant chains offer fundraising programs; while they are similar, some add interesting twists. For example, some restaurants offer special programs that allow teachers or volunteers to “work” as servers for the evening. At least one restaurant chain allows parents groups to bring in local celebrities to join the wait staff, and they donate their tip money to the parent group.

    Also, in some cases, local restaurant managers will be open to negotiating a deal with your group. While the typical arrangement calls for restaurants to give your group 10 percent to 20 percent of the proceeds from your participants, some will extend the deal to a percentage of total restaurant sales for a given time frame. Be open to negotiating, and plan how you would ask for a better deal. Sometimes it helps to write down exactly what you want to ask and refer to these notes when you discuss it with the local manager.

  • Think about the popularity of a particular chain in your community and how it will fit with other events on your calendar. A recently opened restaurant may have some buzz in town and could make a good choice.
  • It may work to time your restaurant selection based on other events you will be running. For example, if you are running a fall carnival with a rodeo theme, then try a restaurant night at a western-theme restaurant like a steak house a few weeks before or after that event.
Contacting the Restaurant

You can contact a local restaurant directly or go to the restaurant’s website. Most national chains have information on their websites about how restaurant nights work.

  • When you reach out, try to make contact in mid-afternoon, between the lunch and dinner rushes. That way, you are more likely to connect with a manager who has time to respond to your request.
  • Many national restaurant chains have detailed program descriptions on their sites. Often, restaurants will require your group to fill out a short form or application that is processed at the corporate level. Most of the forms are simple, although a few will ask questions such as “What is your fundraising goal for this event?” (Note: Often, restaurants require groups to provide a tax ID number when completing the application.)
  • Once your application has been processed, a local manager will get in touch with your group. When you connect with a local manager, try to build a rapport so you have a designated go-to person throughout this process.
  • Make sure to ask up front what will seal the deal. Will there be a contract that both your group and the restaurant manager will sign? Find out how they will confirm your event.
Review the Details

Review the written terms of the program and discuss them with the local manager. In general, restaurants offer to donate between 10 percent and 20 percent of the proceeds generated from your families. Some offer a sliding scale that increases the percentage the restaurant will give back based on your number of guests. In a few cases, restaurants will not donate anything if your group brings in fewer than 20 guests.

Other considerations:

  • Make sure the scheduling works for you. Some restaurants allow groups to hold an event anytime, including weekends. Others set aside a few specific times each week for school groups.
  • For scheduling purposes, keep in mind that restaurants recommend you get in touch about four weeks before you wish to hold your event.
  • In some cases, restaurants will require your group to have a few volunteers on site during the event.
  • Most restaurants will provide a customized flyer or ticket for your restaurant night. Your job is to make copies and distribute these to your school’s families and friends. It’s important that parents understand they must present the flyer or ticket at the restaurant for their contribution (the cost of their meals) to count.
  • Find out when and how your group will receive its donation. Most restaurants say they will send a check to your PTO within a few weeks’ time.
Plan the Event

Once you are comfortable with a restaurant’s program, it is time to plan it.

  • Take a look at your calendar to determine what would work for your school. Select a few dates and forward those to the restaurant, remembering that they typically require about four weeks’ notice.
  • When planning, seek a few volunteers to help with promotions and get a few folks to sign on to be on-site helpers the night of the event. These folks can do one-hour shifts or work together. You won’t need a big group of helpers, but it makes sense to have at least one group representative present throughout the evening.
  • To help make the event more exciting, try creating a theme for it or tie it to a specific holiday or time of year. In fall, for example, you can do a restaurant night using a cool nights/hearty meals theme; in spring, focus on the nice weather and hold it at a restaurant with outdoor seating.
  • Consider handing out small door prizes, like leis, to boost community spirit when your families arrive at the restaurant. That way, they’ll be able to spot each other as they dine.
Tips and Ideas for a Fun Night

When planning a restaurant fundraiser, it helps to remember that you need to give families a reason to go. So try to come up with a fun theme to make it appealing, or tie it to a specific event to make it more convenient for families. Here are some ideas:

Back to school: A restaurant night is a nice way for families to meet early in the school year. Create a School Kickoff Night and build on the excitement of the start of school. Make sure to give families name tags so they can meet, and try doing group photos with a few families together so they feel even more connected!

Half-day meals: Schedule a lunchtime event when schools hold a half day for staff professional development. Appeal to parents who will be picking up their children for early dismissal. Because it’s lunch, keep it fun and easy, like a pizza party at a local pizza place.

Holiday fun: Consider setting up a few restaurant nights around a holiday. Try a Halloween restaurant night and encourage families to attend in costume. If possible, have a volunteer hand out candy to attendees when they leave the restaurant.

Patriotic theme: Try a red, white, and blue theme for a restaurant night at a place specializing in burgers. This would work well toward the end of the school year. Greet families as they arrive at the restaurant and hand out little flags.

Exam break: A restaurant night could be a welcome celebration for families at the end of a week of standardized testing. Encourage families to come out and let loose after working so hard through the testing week. Give students balloons when they exit.

Getting the Word Out

Publicity can make or break a restaurant night because the more families who know about the event in advance, the higher your attendance is likely to be.

  • For starters, it’s important to send out an invitation that promotes the event as a way to help your school. If possible, tie it to a specific fundraising project. For example, you can say, “Come have a meal at XYZ restaurant and help raise money for new outdoor recess equipment.”
  • Tell families the date and hours it will run so they know that they have some flexibility and that they don’t have to adhere to a rigid schedule.
  • Communicate that this is a no-fuss event. Let families know that all they have to do is come eat, and the restaurant will automatically donate a percentage of what they spend to the school.
  • Make sure to remind families that they need to bring their flyer or ticket on the night of the event. Most restaurants will not allow groups to pass out flyers or tickets on site, which makes it even more important to distribute them widely in advance.
  • When publicizing your restaurant night, try to reach families in a variety of ways, including email, Facebook, and Twitter. You can post a screenshot of the flyer on Facebook as a way to catch people’s attention.
  • Send a reminder a few days before the event and tell parents again that they need to have a flyer with them to participate.
  • On the day of the event, put up a sign at school near the pickup and drop-off areas (even a homemade poster board sign works).
The Big Night
  • On the day of the event, check in with the restaurant to confirm your plans.
  • Send out a last-minute reminder to families via social channels.
  • Arrive at the restaurant ahead of the start time and check in with the manager.
  • Be available on site in case any of your families have questions.
  • See whether a volunteer is willing to take some photos at the event.
  • Make sure you sit and enjoy a meal with your own family!
  • Send a thank-you note to the restaurant manager.
  • Give families an update in your newsletter or through other channels to share the results of the restaurant night.
  • Post photos from the event on Facebook and in your newsletter. This will show families that the night was a success, and it will help build a sense of community.
  • Within a week of the event, send an email asking families for feedback so you know what they liked and didn’t like about the event. This feedback will help you plan your next restaurant night.