The 80-plus faculty and staff at Hixson High School get an early Christmas present Friday when the Hixson Pike Huddle House serves them breakfast.
"They really do it up right," says Hixson High teacher Suzanne Rushworth. "They set up a buffet, teachers come through the line and they make us feel special. They ask us, 'How do you want your eggs cooked? Do you want pancakes? Syrup?' ... It's really nice, and they treat us well."
The appreciation breakfast is just one way in which Huddle House owner Gregg Hansen is building relationships with the schools in various communities. Hansen owns eight Huddle House franchises in Tennessee and Georgia and two in Kansas, and all are partnering with their community schools to honor teachers, provide incentives to students to do well in school and encourage literacy.
"We make it our business and our practice to develop multilevel partnerships with our schools," he says. "We just feel as though we have some obligation to partner with and help our community, to give back.
"We do a lot of things with Spring Creek and Hixson elementary schools. At Brainerd High, we provide some teacher incentives, student incentives and cook breakfast for them, and we just started helping Dalewood Middle School.
"We have a strong relationship in Calhoun, Ga., with Calhoun City and Gordon County schools. We just cooked breakfast for all Calhoun City Schools, a different school each day over a week. The Dunlap (Tenn.) location has partnerships with schools there, and we are establishing relationships with Dade County schools at a couple of new locations in Trenton, Ga."
Dr. Ed Meek of Oxford, Miss., was impressed by the literacy outreach when he passed through town while visiting his grandson, a student at McCallie School.
"I never have heard of a small restaurant owner - or any business owner for that matter - giving such support to a local school in need," Meek says in an email.
Hansen has initiated the partnerships on his own and his employees have enthusiastically supported them; nothing is required of him or his employees by the company, he says.
One of the most popular initiatives is Write to Win in which elementary students write essays for topics assigned by their teachers. Each school selects 16 samples of student work to be framed and displayed on tables in its partner Huddle House for diners to enjoy. Each framed essay is accompanied by a notebook in which customers may share their thoughts about the essay or encourage the young writer.
"My students especially love getting readers' responses back in the little notebooks placed with their writing at each table,"of say Connie Rutherford, a fourth-grade teacher at Hixson Elementary School whose students have participated in Write to Win program for four years.
Rutherford says she chooses the essay topics and this month's was to write persuasively about their favorite dessert.
After reading the submitted writings each month, she chooses one winner from her room, as does each teacher at the elementary school. The school principal announces each class' winner, who gather at the office to be congratulated by Hansen and receive their free meal coupons.
"They are always very excited to win," says Rutherford. "I had one student jump up and down, another just sat with wide eyes and both hands covering her mouth in surprise. Then they read their writing to the class."
She believes the program has encouraged good writing skills in her students and builds self-esteem in their accomplishments.
"I'm grateful that the community gets to see what our budding young authors can do," she says.
Hansen says the program was born from a recurring theme he heard from his wife, a teacher in the Ooltewah schools.
"I would always hear her talking about wanting to publish her students' work or have a little celebration in her classroom for students to display their writing and parents to see it. She wanted to do something with their writing so they got encouragement from it," he says.
Hansen says students whose writings are selected receive a pass to eat free any time during the month their work is on display - whether that's once a month or once a day.
"Our customers write some great notes and make nice connections with the writers. It encourages students to write, and rewards them for good writing," says Hansen.
Hixson High School wrestling coach Garrick Hall jokes that he eats at the Hixson Huddle House so much, the other school coaches have nicknamed it "Hall's House."
"When the Hixson Huddle House first opened, I would go over with a few of the coaches after home matches to talk over the match," says Hall.
He was there so often, he and the manager soon struck up a friendship and she introduced him to Hansen. Now the Hixson diner has become a strong team supporter.
"They've held three spirit nights for the team," Hall says. "We'll promote it on Facebook, asking people to eat at Huddle House on a specific night and a percentage of sales goes to the team. Gregg has also had employees put out tip jars, our boys go in and bus tables, sweep up, wash dishes, and tips come to the program."
Proceeds have helped fund necessities such as food for the wrestlers to eat at tournaments. Concession stands at the tournaments sell nachos, pizza and other foods that wrestlers trying to maintain a specific weight must avoid. So he purchases healthy snacks to have on hand for his team.
When the Hixson wrestlers won the 2009-2010 state title, Hansen had already posted congratulations on the sign outside the Hixson Pike restaurant the day they returned to town. Proceeds from Huddle House fundraisers that year helped the wrestlers buy their state championship rings.
"The rings were nearly $200 apiece and the kids only had to pay about $75," Hall recalls.
Contact Susan Pierce at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6284.