“Better together has never been represented better than us here together today.”
That was the message Dennis Benson delivered to employees from 18 Applebee’s restaurants right before children and teens at The Barry Robinson Center joined them for a joyful holiday celebration on Tuesday, December 12, 2017.
Applebee’s has been bringing Christmas joy to the Center for 22 years. Each year, employees at Applebee’s restaurants in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina raise funds to purchase gifts for residents at the Center. And it’s clear the employees look forward to sharing the Christmas spirit.
Benson, president of Potomac Family Dining Group, which owns more than 60 Applebee’s in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, recognizes the legacy the restaurant has established with the Center.
“Our employees are expanding their family by another child for the day,” he said. “This project fits so well with our Applebee’s family-style brand, where everyone is welcome and we’re your friends in the neighborhood. Everyone participates at some level, and we appreciate the connectivity, to meet the children and the staff.”
This is Benson’s fifth year with the event. He has been so impressed by the impact that he invited his company’s area directors from other parts of Virginia to attend.
“Being here today, to see how it works, has inspired them to find a similar organization in their regions, that their employees can support,” he explained.
Finding a champion for the project also will be key for those area directors. In southeastern Virginia, that Applebee’s champion is Heather Kuster, an area director who has coordinated the project for the past 10 years and was a participant prior to that.
“Every store is literally Santa Claus for these kids,” she said. “Christmas is a really big deal in my family, and it’s a really big deal to me to help the children here at the Center. It’s a really happy time.”
Employees at each Applebee’s location find creative ways to raise funds, among themselves and also customers – car washes, bake sales, raffles, jeans days and more. This year, Applebee’s employees raised about $15,000, which each restaurant used to sponsor two to four children – selecting and wrapping gifts, stuffing stockings and bringing food treats.
Plenty of smiles filled the Center’s cafeteria, transformed into “party central” for the event. “I love this!” “It’s exactly what I wanted!” and of course, “Thank you so much!” could be heard around the tables as the residents opened gifts. Afterward, the Center’s Voices of Pride ensemble of singers and musicians performed several holiday songs for the guests from Applebee’s.
Helping raise awareness of the Center in the community is another benefit that Applebee’s provides through this project. Kristin Lagerstrom, general manager of the Kempsville Road restaurant in Virginia Beach, said they provide information about the Center to new employees and to customers.
Shannon Lee, honored at the event with the company’s 2017 Better Together Award, is a general manager who opened two new locations this year in Norfolk, on Little Creek Road and Monticello Avenue. Even though the Monticello location just opened in October, the employees wanted to help.
“This is their first time participating, and we made a point to build this project into their culture,” said Lee, who has been helping for the past 10 years. “It’s been exciting for them and it becomes really fun. Even though we don’t know the children, we work hard to personalize the gifts as much as possible.
“One of those things we really appreciate about being with Applebee’s is the opportunity to help the children at Barry Robinson.”