The idea for Community Connections fundraising dinners grew out of involvement with Camden Rotary Club, according to Leni Gronros.

Gronros — along with Graffam Bros. Harborside Restaurant co-owner, fellow Rotarian, and wife Kim Graffam — had previously toyed around with hosting fundraising dinners to help support the volunteer service organization's efforts.

"We had a place for it, [why not] do it here?” Gronros said they asked themselves after the restaurant's 2012 opening.

Gronros and Graffam started with some of their favorite local organizations, including the MidCoast Interact Club — a youth service group to which Gronros is Rotary advisor — and expanded to encompass 10 local nonprofits.

"It sort of grew naturally," said Graffam Bros. Director of Social Media and Marketing Erik Karas. "Basically it ended up being whoever could commit to a date first got the date, and that’s how we did it.”

Karas said 50 percent of the proceeds from each Community Connections dinner "went directly out" to each nonprofit group, for a total of more than $11,600 raised during the winter to support 10 organizations.

"Some people knew we were doing something every Tuesday," Gronros said, adding that one couple attended all 10 of the fundraising dinners.

"They made it their Tuesday night thing," Karas said of the couple.

According to Karas, the "vast majority" of each dinner's patrons — typically about 130 people, Gronros said — attended the dinners specifically to support that week's charity.

"It all depended on what [each] organization did to encourage their people to come," Gronros said of the varied turnout.

Karas provided social media support to each of the 10 groups, encouraging them to start raising awareness of the events through social media and email.

"If they did that, they had a good turnout," Gronros said.

“It was combination [of] how much that organization is loved, and how much that organization let people know this is the night," Karas said.

Gronros said the fundraising dinners also helped support restaurant workers during Graffam Bros. Harborside's first winter season.

Gronros said although the restaurant's Bay View Landing location is good for tourist foot traffic during the summer, it wasn't widely patronized by locals the area during the off season, in part because many may have assumed the restaurant was closed.

"[We] don't have the drive-by factor," Karas said. "The fact that we’re open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner is also another big challenge, because it’s not the norm."

"Huge" staff turnover created another obstacle, Gronros said, as did the family-friendly restaurant's proximity to the Grand Harbor Inn.

“I think a lot of people come there and assume that super high-end upstairs makes equal super high-end [downstairs]," Karas said.

“We’re a victim of perception," Gronros added. "We’ve got a beautiful-looking restaurant, we have great food, but what they want is the Food Network perception. And that’s not what we set out to do.”

Karas says it’s been a “tough reeducation," but people are "coming around" to Graffam Bros. Harborside Restaurant's traditional fare.

“We’re going to have to rework next year a little bit, because we did have to actually add servers and kitchen staff on for those nights," Gronros said of the Community Connections dinners.

According to Gronros, the restaurant's staff "all loved it, they all thought it was great — because a busy restaurant is a much happier restaurant…They all want to work Tuesday night.”

Gronros said while the dinners will be re-instituted in fall 2013 or winter 2014, many factors are "still up in the air." Due to the events' popularity, he said he will have to employ selection criteria to choose between many local nonprofits already interested in the next cycle of fundraisers.

Karas said selection criteria will likely be based on each organization's community following and staff infrastructure, “[j]ust so we can maximize all of those ‘win’ factors — maximize what the servers will end up with at the end of the night, maximize the exposure for us, maximize the donation for the nonprofit.”

Gronros said the restaurant may institute a sliding scale wherein more event patrons means a greater percentage of profits donated to that organization.

"[We] want to get as much bang for the buck as we can in all of those areas, and we can do that best when we have a big crowd," Karas said.

Nonprofit organizations interested in participating in Graffam Bros. Harborside Restaurant's Community Connections fundraising dinners should contact Karas, who he will begin finalizing nonprofit participation after Labor Day.

Karas said he has recently noticed other restaurants implementing similar charity partnership events.

“[That's] great, if it sort of pays forward and other folks come on board to help support the community. I mean, that’s another win to add to list of wins that we already have,” Karas said.

Camden Herald reporter Bane Okholm can be reached at 236-8511 ext. 304 or by email at bokholm@courierpublicationsllc.com.