There were only a couple ways to get tickets for Next’s elBulli menu. Be one of the lucky few who got season tickets or donate between $4,000 and $5,000 to the University of Chicago Cancer Center for a table for two. It took only four days to sell out every table for charity and raise $339,000 for cancer research.
Perhaps lost in the hoopla around season tickets was the grassroots movement by the Next Facebook fans led by Charles Hetzel. Hetzel, a regular at Alinea and Next, harnessed fans' enthusiasm to give back to a restaurant they’ve become devoted to. “My hope and intent was to gather enough donations and people to purchase one table and donate the two seats to people battling cancer or cancer survivors," Hetzel told Eater. "What came next blew me away and I am still in awe.”
The early response to the idea garnered interest from 30 people and donations up to $2,000. But when the charity tables were released another Next Facebook regular, Lou Stejskal, called Hetzel to encourage him to continue promoting the idea to the group. A Facebook event page was created and suddenly the flood gates opened wide.
One of the first to support the page was Todd Arkebauer, who not only donated a significant portion to cover the first table, according to Hetzel, but also helped run the page. The two men have only had exchanges through social media, but the bond of a common good deed brought them closer together. Many of the donations were $25 to $50 and came because of the inspiration shown by chef Grant Achatz and the generosity he was giving to support the cancer research donation program.
The momentum that blew Hetzel away came from the influx of donations within the first hour allowing them to not only buy that first table, but also to get a second. His son, Will, and wife, Sarah, helped monitor the Facebook page and coordinate donations allowing them to buy the extra tables.
The fight against cancer struck close to home for Hetzel and many others. In addition to the donor pledges, emails flooded in with stories of individuals with cancer and candidates for recipients of the tables who are battling all kinds of cancer. "The stories are incredible," Hetzel said. "I have over 15 emails from individuals who have lost spouses, parents, siblings or best friends from cancer. I recently lost my grandmother to brain cancer back in September 2011. People wanted to contribute to this worthy cause and to help brighten a few people's lives." He mentioned many just sent donations to him through PayPal never acknowledging their donation on the event page.
The tidal wave of support continued with the final donations to date coming from 148 donors amounting to $17,591.55 and equaling four tables for the Next El Bulli menu to go to eight people who were currently battling or had beat cancer. Every penny will go to the University of Chicago Cancer Center. Hetzel and his team are working with Next and the University of Chicago to match the dates in early March and April with the soon-to-be-surprised diners. They’ll continue to update their Facebook fan page to keep everyone informed of new information.
· Next Season Tickets Sell Out Quick; Over 6,660 Queue Up [~EChi~]
· Next Starts Charity Auction; Raises Over $224K So Far [~EChi~]
· Next Facebook elBulli Tables Donation [Facebook]