Outback’s charitable alchemy

Popular Chico steakhouse turns food into funds for good causes

Outback Steakhouse doesn’t open until 4 p.m., allowing owner Frank Kennemer to use it for benefit luncheons.

Outback Steakhouse doesn’t open until 4 p.m., allowing owner Frank Kennemer to use it for benefit luncheons.

Photo By Robert Speer

Not long ago, Frank Kennemer, the owner of Outback Steakhouse in Chico, threw a benefit for the Chico Community Scholarship Association. As he explained it during a recent interview at the steakhouse, this was the deal he made with the association: It would invite people to lunch at his restaurant, collect $25 from each of them, and keep the money. All of it.

More than 200 people showed up, adding more than $5,000 to the scholarship fund.

“I can take a thousand dollars in food and help you raise several thousand,” Kennemer explained with a smile. He’s not crowing about his generosity; he’s just tickled that he can work such charitable alchemy.

He does 15 to 20 such benefits a year—for the Boys and Girls Clubs, the American Legion baseball team, the Esplanade House, the Jesus Center, you name it. In the 13 years he’s owned the restaurant, he figures, he’s helped raise more than $500,000.

In the coming weeks local firefighters will do their “Boots for Burns” fundraising, standing on the corner of East 20th Street and Forest Avenue in front of Outback, asking passing motorists to put money in boots to benefit a couple of camps for kids who’ve suffered burns. Kennemer will feed them for the duration.

“It’s been tough for us [during the recession], like everybody else,” he said. “We survived, and a lot of it is due to the loyalty of our customers.” And that loyalty, he believes, is partly attributable to the fact that he and his employees are committed to helping others.

Before every benefit, Kennemer posts a sign-up sheet for workers who wish to volunteer. The response from the mostly young people is always tremendous, he says. “I’m so proud of them,” he said. “When people say this generation doesn’t get it, they just don’t know.”

Kennemer’s wife, Melinda, and 13-year-old daughter, Taylor, also pitch in.

“If you act like a leader and do the right thing, it makes others do the right thing, too,” he added.

Kennemer’s from West Texas, raised in Midland, “right out of Friday Night Lights,” as he put it. In college at Texas Tech he studied to become an architect but worked in restaurants and got hooked on food service. He also met Melinda there.

She was from Chico, a member of the Powell family famous for its handmade bamboo fly rods. After rambling around on the East Coast for a while, they moved to her hometown to be close to her relatives, and in 1997 he opened his brand-new franchise.

For offsite catering, Kennemer uses a mobile grill that can be hitched to a truck. He bought it specifically for a benefit for the Boys and Girls Club, and for a while used it strictly for charity events. It proved so popular, however, that he now uses it for paid dinners, as well.

During our interview, I mentioned Camp Okizu, the remarkable summer camp for children with cancer and their families located in Berry Creek. He’d never heard of it, but when I described it, he immediately wanted to know how he could contact camp officials.

“Maybe we could go up there and cook a special dinner for them,” he said, beaming at the prospect.