By Sandy Cyr
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, two brothers traveled to the storm-ravaged area to help in one of the ways that they know best: feeding people. But what started out as one intention ended up changing the way they thought about giving back.
Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation grew out of this desire to do more. Firehouse Subs Brand Founders and former firefighters Chris Sorensen and Robin Sorensen spent eight days in Mississippi feeding first responders, volunteers and victims who were impacted by Hurricane Katrina. This experience was a game changer for the brothers, and upon their return to Jacksonville, Florida they established the nonprofit and began raising money through the restaurant chain to support the needs of first responders.
“They are simply two of the most caring individuals,” says Robin Peters, who came on board as the Foundation’s Executive Director in 2010. “They look at first responders as their brothers and sisters, because that’s their heritage. This foundation for them is about being able to give back in that capacity.”
While the Foundation and the restaurant chain are two separate entities, Firehouse Subs is the nonprofit’s largest corporate donor. In addition to fundraising for the Foundation, individual franchisees often raise money to address smaller needs within their own communities, such as fundraisers to support the families of fallen first responders, local school initiatives and more. The culture of philanthropy in the restaurant is part of Firehouse Subs’ mission to give back to first responders and local communities.
The brothers did not set out to start a foundation – they set out to help the victims, to help the first responders. Katrina impacted many of their own restaurants, and many of the first responders lost equipment or suffered damage to their departments. First responders are part of the Firehouse Subs family. The Sorensens saw firsthand the damage that was done and realized what they needed to do was to take care of their family.
The Foundation has five funding areas: life-saving equipment, prevention education, scholarships and continuing education, support for military veterans and disaster relief. Grants are awarded on a quarterly basis through a grant application process. The Foundation makes the purchase directly or provides the funds to the public safety organizations making the requests. “It’s not a romantic grant award when you give someone a breathing apparatus,” says Peters. “It’s not exciting. But guess what? It is really important when they are going into a house that’s on fire that they have enough fresh air to be able to go through to find a little kid that’s hiding under a bed.”
The Foundation does not set specific funding priorities, only the funding guidelines. The application process allows each applicant the opportunity to describe the specific needs of their department and community. There is open communication between the Foundation and the restaurant system so that if a department in a franchisee’s community is applying for a grant, the restaurant is encouraged to help the Foundation get to know the applicants a little better through the restaurant community.
When disaster strikes, this close relationship with the restaurant franchisees and area representatives allows the Foundation to be nimble in its response. “When we provide disaster relief, one of the first things we do is activate restaurants locally,” says Peters. “We ask, ‘are you okay?’ and then we start the process of providing food and ensuring the food inventory is available. That goes back to the Katrina days. Before we talk with the first responders and get them the equipment they need, we get people fed.” Firehouse Subs is all about family. If one part of the family is in trouble, other parts of the family are going to come to the rescue. All staff and support, and even vendors who service the restaurants, are figuring out ways to help out when disaster strikes. The goal is to make a difference as quickly as possible.
It is this nimbleness, this passion for the work that makes the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation unique. Robin Peters works closely with area representatives throughout the restaurant system, and watches The Weather Channel constantly to keep track of weather events around the country. The family pulls together in times of need. Last September when Hurricane Irma struck Florida and the Foundation lost phone service, a team member in Denver became the point person to coordinate relief efforts with Peters. In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast corridor, the Foundation trucked in food despite not having restaurants in the immediate impact area or even knowing if the trucks would be able to get gas to make it back to the closest restaurant locations in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
“There’s an attitude in this organization and it is so phenomenal,” says Peters. “Everybody who’s in this cares, and they go above and beyond all the time. Nobody’s ever going to say, ‘no, you know I don’t think we can get that done.’ More often the response is, ‘You know what? Let me get back to you. Let me figure it out.’ And we do. We really make a difference. They don’t look for pats on the back, or big PR. They just go out there and get it done.”
Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation’s creation is rooted in the rich firefighting heritage of the founding family. As former first responders, the Sorensens are passionate about this work. They went into it with their gut, asking themselves, “What is the need? What are we seeing? What is absolutely breaking our hearts and what can we do to fix it?” They’re doing it because they believe in taking care of family.
Robin Peters is the Executive Director of the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation. Known as the “heart” of Firehouse Subs, the Foundation provides lifesaving equipment and resources to the communities served by the restaurant chain through a quarterly grant-making process.