A House Specialty
Max’s Restaurants Have Always Put the Accent on Giving Back
By MICHAEL REARDON
As the lunchtime crowd filled the restaurant on this recent crisp, sunny afternoon, Rosenthal was hesitant to take credit for the millions of dollars the Max Restaurant Group has raised in the Hartford and Springfield areas over the years for charitable organizations and other worthy causes.
“I don’t think about it too much,” said Rosenthal when asked about the legacy he was leaving through his organization’s philanthropic efforts. “We do it because it’s the right thing to do. We don’t pat ourselves on the back. We just feel like we always want to raise more money for these worthy causes.”
Rosenthal believes that successful businesses like his should feel obligated to be involved in charitable giving. His restaurants have been successful, he said, so giving back is the natural thing to do. To Rosenthal, philanthropy is just part of being a responsible member of a community.
“We became involved in charitable giving because people asked,” he explained. “You want to help because the customer really believes in what they’re doing, and you respect that.”
If Rosenthal is reluctant to take credit for his charitable work, other people are happy to shower him with accolades. As he was talking, Jane Albert, vice president of Development fo Baystate Health and executive director of the Baystate Health Foundation, joined Rosenthal and immediately thanked him for his fund-raising efforts.
“We have a wonderful partner in Max’s, and they make a significant contribution to our fund-raising effort,” Albert said. “It says so much about your organization.”
Since Max’s Tavern opened 10 years ago, Rosenthal has been enthusiastically involved in raising money in the Greater Springfield area, especially with Baystate Children’s Hospital, and most recently with the new Baystate Children’s Specialty Center. The annual Max Classic International Golf Tournament, held every fourth Monday in July, the first few years at Crestview Country Club in Agawam and now at Twin Hills Country Club in Longmeadow, has raised $1.2 million for Baystate since it was launched in 2004.
“The Max Classic is our biggest event,” Rosenthal said. “We usually have approximately 175 or so golfers; we sell sponsorships and hold an auction. We try to guide our funds to Baystate’s Children’s Hospital and its neonatal intensive-care unit.”
The Max Restaurant Group sponsors a similar golf tournament in Connecticut to benefit charities in the Hartford area.
Since 2004, money raised from the tournament in Western Mass. has bought beds and equipment for the neonatal intensive-care unit, as well as funding the Baystate Children’s Hospital asthma program, equipment for the pediatric intensive-care unit, and the pediatric care unit’s family waiting room and sleep room.
Albert said the money raised through the golf tournament has made the work of doctors and nurses at the children’s hospital more effective.
“The money raised by Max’s has saved the lives of babies who would not otherwise survive,” she said. “The money has gone toward resources we would otherwise not be able to afford. We have 720 babies in our neonatal ICU every year. With this funding, doctors and nurses can do a lot more to help these babies. These things would not be possible without Max’s corporate support.”
Max’s raised $150,000 during this year’s tournament, which will be donated to the newly opened Baystate Children’s Specialty Center at 50 Wason Ave. The money will go toward paying for the 34,000-square-foot building’s reception area.
The center will house the hospital’s 15 pediatric outpatient specialty areas, including cardiology, gastroenterology, neurology, endocrinology, weight management, and more.
For this issue and its focus on restaurants, BusinessWest takes an indepth look at how Rosenthal and his restaurants have put the accent on giving back to the community.
Philanthropy on the Menu
Rosenthal’s philanthropic efforts began in the Hartford area. He was an original member of Hartford’s chapter of Share Our Strength, the nationwide culinary organization dedicated to fighting poverty and childhood hunger, an effort he is still involved in.
“The restaurant industry overall should be applauded,” Rosenthal said. “I’d say chefs and restaurant owners give more time and money to charitable causes than any other industry.”
Among the other organizations in the Hartford area that Rosenthal has raised funds for is the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center (CCMC). Working with that facility inspired him to become involved with Baystate Children’s Hospital when he opened Max’s Tavern.
“We found in working with CCMC that they were a terrific organization,” Rosenthal said. “You always felt good about working with them, and it was somewhat personal for me. I had small children at the time. When we opened in Springfield, our goal was to do something local, and Baystate Children’s Hospital was a natural fit. They’ve been equally great to work with as CCMC.”
Besides its major philanthropic endeavors, the Max Restaurant Group has a component called Max Cares, which hosts charitable events, like wine dinners, and gives away gift cards. The Max Cares link from the Max Restaurant Group website features a form to request a donation and the reason for the donation.
“Max Cares was started early in our operations,” Rosenthal said. “It was really a name we gave our donation arm because of the Internet. We get about 100 requests for donations a month company-wide.”
Rosenthal started working in restaurants when he was 16. He grew up in West Hartford and graduated from Hall High School, before attending Bentley University, graduating in 1981. He continued his education at New York Restaurant School in Manhattan, where he trained as a chef before graduating in 1983.
“I knew I wanted to be a restaurant owner, but I also realized I wanted to learn to cook,” he explained. “I worked as a chef for four years after I graduated, three in New York City and one as a chef and manager in Newport.”
Although not the owner, Rosenthal was involved with the opening of a restaurant called the Main Brace in Newport, R.I. He called the endeavor “extremely unsuccessful” because of a number of factors, including the location, lack of funding, and the timing of the opening. “Although the restaurant failed, I learned a lot,” he said.
While out of work in Newport, he decided to move back to Hartford to open a restaurant on familiar turf. “The Hartford area was booming at the time,” he said. “It was a town on the upswing. There was a lot of enthusiasm for the city. I had a base and contacts there.”
On Nov. 14, 1986, Rosenthal opened the first restaurant in what would become the Max Restaurant Group, called Max on Main, later to be renamed Max Downtown after it moved to Hartford’s business district in 1996. He now owns nine restaurants and will open his 10th in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. in March.
When Rosenthal heard that the Basketball Hall of Fame was being built in Springfield, he decided to become involved in the project and opened Max’s Tavern in 2002.
Since expanding into the Springfield area, Rosenthal has become immersed in charitable giving beyond his organization’s efforts on behalf of Baystate Children’s Hospital. Besides sponsoring the Max Classic Golf Tournament, the Max Restaurant Group has raised $63,000 for Ronald McDonald House of Springfield, 14,000 for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Springfield, $11,000 for the Longmeadow Educational Excellence Foundation, and $3,100 for Massachusetts Special Olympics.
Springfield’s Ronald McDonald House has been supported by the Max Restaurant Group for nine years. Enix Zavala, house manager and associate director of planned giving for Ronald McDonald House, said Max’s contributed $15,000 for a room in the 22-room house.
Meanwhile, Max’s Tavern has been involved with fund-raising for Ronald McDonald House of Springfield in a couple of other ways for several years. The restaurant has sponsored fund-raising events like Martini Magic, a martini-tasting event that, up until two years ago, had gone on for seven consecutive years. AnnMarie Harding, Max’s Tavern’s public relations director, is a member of the Ronald McDonald House board of directors.
The current major event sponsored by Max’s Tavern to raise money for Ronald McDonald House is the Teddy Bear Brunch, an event that’s been held for the past four years. The popular event will take place this year on Dec. 8 and has long been sold out.
“All the children who attend the Teddy Bear Brunch bring an unwrapped toy, which is donated to Ronald McDonald House,” Zavala said. “We had 250 toys donated last year, and we expect to exceed that this year.”
The Teddy Bear Brunch is a family event that features a brunch buffet, candy buffet, face painting, crafts, and other activities, and children who attend go home with an 11-inch stuffed Max Teddy Bear. During the brunch, Max’s Tavern also sells 100 loaves of multi-colored Rainbow Bread for $5 each.
“We’re doing what we can to create revenue for this event in new and exciting ways that people can respond to,” Harding said. “All the money from selling the Rainbow Bread goes to Ronald McDonald House.”
Recipe for Success
According to Zavala, children sometimes stay at Ronald McDonald House for up to two years, and often miss celebrating big events like holidays and birthdays at home. She added that many families come from different parts of the U.S. or other countries and are unfamiliar with the area and sometimes have a language barrier. Having a partner like Max’s Tavern to help create a comfortable and welcoming place to stay while children get much-needed medical treatment is invaluable.
“Without the support of Max’s Tavern and other types of community support, we couldn’t be able to continue our efforts to support these families,” Zavala said.
Similar words have been spoken by the directors of several other area nonprofits. Their specific goals and needs vary, but the common denominator is that they’ve benefited in significant ways from a restaurant owner who has made philanthropy a house specialty.