Company ProfilesFranchise PhilanthropyNovember/December 2023Previous Issues

Mary Brown’s Chicken: All That and a Box of Chicken

Mary Brown’s’ myriad social purpose initiatives fuel partnerships and keep people fed in times of need

By Daniel McIntosh

There are few things Canadian shoppers love more than knowing they’re supporting a homegrown brand. But being a Canadian-owned franchise system is about more than just bringing in money. Being emphatically committed to corporate social governance is part of Mary Brown’s DNA, says Jeff Barlow, chief marketing officer for MBI Brands, Mary Brown’s parent company. That means donating to Canadian youth, deploying food drops after disaster strikes, or simply making sure Canadians can access all the news they need.

Barlow says that Mary Brown’s approach to philanthropy and charity involves both national and local efforts. Each store is tasked with working within their community and creating charitable efforts at a local level.

“Each operator is different. They may support their local high school, or they may support the local food bank,” says Barlow. “It really varies at a local level, based on every operator and how they choose to support their community.” With more than 240 Mary Brown’s locations from coast to coast, Barlow and Mary Brown’s are concerned with making an impact in every region.

MBC meets BGC

In 2021, Mary Brown’s became an official corporate partner of BGC Canada (formerly the Boys and Girls Club of Canada), hosting a national fundraising day. On a national level, the brand’s continuous partnership with BGC Canada is one of its biggest philanthropic achievements.

The partnership with the non-profit has blossomed into a yearly BGC Day campaign that raises funds to fulfill BGC’s mandate of providing opportunities for children and young people across Canada. This year, $2 from every meal, combo, and feast sold at Mary Brown’s locations was donated to BGC. Guests were also invited to make additional donations through in-store cashboxes and the Mary Brown’s app.

When it comes to raising awareness for the community, Barlow makes it clear that Mary Brown’s’ name recognition is a great tool for driving attention toward the charities it partners with, and the impact is really felt, as they have kids from the BGC interacting with their local stores during the event. “We invite all the kids from the local chapters to come into our stores, we feed them, we have balloons,” says Barlow. “It’s so much fun, they give us artwork, so it’s pretty amazing.”

Since the partnership is still in its early years, collaborative activations are constantly being introduced and revamped. A new addition for this year was the inaugural golf tournament and silent auction with proceeds going to BGC. In addition, holiday season food drops—donating food to BGC locations and other charities—fulfills both brands’ missions while limiting food waste.

A moment to be Mary

The franchisee response to these initiatives is positive, but that didn’t happen without a fair share of growing pains. “We had to learn how to work together,” notes Barlow. From the outset, it didn’t seem like a restaurant brand and a children’s charity could find a common platform, but ultimately, a sense of community foundational to both brands was the driving force.

Franchisees took up the mantle, making connections with local BGC leaders to determine a path forward. “It was really about communication, sitting down and meeting, and now it’s becoming more regular that the chapter and kids would come in and visit the store and [we would] feed them,” says Barlow.

Barlow says that grassroots activity is rooted in the brand’s DNA. “If you had to say what Mary Brown’s means, outside of chicken, it would be community.”

The Mini Mary Moments initiative mobilized all 240-plus stores across the country to send food to frontline workers. In addition, another pandemic-era marketing method stood out. “We noticed that a lot of [Canadian] news is paywalled these days. How do people who need all these resources, news, and local information access it?” recalls Barlow.

Seeing the confusion regular Canadians were facing at a time of need, the brand worked with Postmedia to subsize and drop the paywall on news websites across Canada for a month. “Sometimes it’s not about our agenda. It’s about how we can help the community get that information and news and local resources,” describes Barlow.

When disaster strikes, Mary’s there

Mary Brown’s’ philanthropy has also been instrumental in improving life after disaster situations. The restaurant was founded in St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador in 1969, and its ties to its Atlantic Canada roots remain strong. When Hurricane Fiona struck the eastern provinces in September 2022, Mary Brown’s was ready to help.

Barlow said that when the hurricane arrived, the brand donated a whole day of sales (almost $400,000) to help.

More recently, when the wildfires blazed in Canada this year, Mary Brown’s was ready to help. “Any time there’s tragedy or emergencies, we decide that we’re going to feed everyone who was displaced for free because of evacuation protocols. In the weeks following the wildfires, Mary Brown’s served over 6,000 free meals to displaced people through an open invite made on radio and through social channels,” Barlow says.

All of these initiatives, from the past year and previous years, were celebrated at this year’s Canadian Franchise Association (CFA) Recognition Awards, where Mary Brown’s won the Outstanding Corporate Citizen Award, in recognition for their demonstrated commitment to community, hospitality, youth, and generosity.

And Barlow says it’s one of the brand’s favourite awards of all. “It goes back to the DNA of our brand; it’s how we serve our community.”

And community service will continue to be Mary Brown’s guiding light in the future. As for the company’s future philanthropic efforts, since golf was a success, it plans to host another tournament. Recent natural disasters have taught that it’s best to just be ready for when you’re needed. “I hate to say it, but anything can happen in our country,” says Barlow. He adds that Mary Brown’s is “ready to support at the drop of a hat” with any disaster that affects the Mary Brown’s community.

Mary Brown’s is embedded in Canadian communities. “For us, we’ve been around for almost 55 years, we’re a Canadian-owned and -operated company,” Barlow notes. “We’re not a multinational brand that’s come from the U.S. or another place, so we’re going to look after our community. That is singularly where our focus is when it comes to being a good citizen and being a part of the community.”

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