• Commentary: Restaurant operators can help a fallen soldier's family

    Tags: Commentary
Commentary: Restaurant operators can help a fallen soldier's family
In August I attended an American hero's funeral.
Sgt. Ryan Jopek, 20, was the All-American boy. He drove a 1966 orange Chevy pick-up truck, played high school basketball and owned more Chicago Bears attire than the team's only Super Bowl coach, Mike Ditka. His confident grin melted girls' hearts and made old men envy his youth and pure zest for life.
Ryan followed his father's footsteps when he joined the Wisconsin Army National Guard. In fact, Staff Sgt. Brian Jopek (Ryan's father) and I served together in Mosul, Iraq, just a year and a half ago. When we returned to American soil in January 2005, Ryan's unit was preparing to leave for the place we military folks call the "Big Sandbox." Brian was proud of his son — for his service, for his courage and for his selfless nature; not many fathers can say that their boy saved countless lives.
Ryan was killed by a roadside bomb in Tikrit, Iraq, Aug. 2. Like many brave men and women serving there, Ryan experienced more world-changing events in 20 years of life than most people will in a full lifetime. But no family loss is easy to grasp, even if the deceased is a hero.

No matter your political beliefs, you make a statement about your brand if you assist a fallen soldier's family.

I spent the better part of two weeks consoling the family after this tragedy, and I was truly honored to be selected as an honorary pall bearer. Words cannot express the Jopek family's pain. As a combat veteran, I have lost many friends in the War on Terror. But most of them were killed while I was there, not while back in the United States. In the Middle East, soldiers mourned our losses, but we still had to focus on the mission, which never stopped. Here, there is nothing to detour the pain. With that said, communities and local businesses can rally around the fallen's family to provide support and give them a snippet of comfort.
In the towns of Merrill and Antigo, Wis., nearly every business hung a "In Memory of Sgt. Ryan Jopek" poster, all the signboards honored Ryan and the towns' homes sported beautiful American Flags. What's more, the area's Pizza Hut operator donated several pies to the families (his parents are divorced). The Jopek family probably would have paid for it because they like pizza, but the manager refused. Subway chipped in enough sandwich meat, tableware, cheeses and breads to feed them for a week. Again, the family or the military would have paid, but the operator refused, saying, "It's the least we can do." Every grocery store in town — two major chains and an independent store — brought fresh vegetables, donuts and coffee to the households.
But there were businesses that opted not to help the family, citing costs and expenses as excuses. "I will get people anyway for the funeral, so why donate rooms?" one motel owner said. "I can't afford to let people stay for free."

Sgt. Ryan Jopek hugs his brother, Steven, prior to leaving for training for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Ryan was killed Aug. 2. Steven and the rest of the Jopek family were showered with gifts and gratitude from their community. (Photo provided by Wisconsin Army National Guard)

This motel owner could have at least offered a discount to family, but he didn't. Like Mr. Scrooge would have, he saw dollar signs when he heard people from all over the country would attend this funeral.
As a business journalist, I understand the need to make a profit. But there are times when nurturing the human spirit supersedes the bottom line. I believe the likes of Chick-fil-A's Truett Cathy and the late In-N-Out founder Esther Snyder would agree.
When a police officer, fireman or serviceman is killed in the line of duty, their families should be revered as heroes. After all, their loved ones gave the ultimate sacrifice for the United States; their loved ones died so we may enjoy the fruits of capitalism, free religion, free press and the right to vote. As leaders in your community and the hospitality industry, restaurateurs can greatly impact these families who have given so much.
On the national level, no industry gives more to charity than the restaurant industry. While franchisors and organizations can be the fundraising leg of helping others, the franchisees can be the extended arm to the families feeling the pain. Never underestimate the need for human contact.
Like Pizza Hut and Subway did with the Jopek family, restaurateurs can offer food to the family. If you don't want to take a hit in food costs offer to clean the family's kitchen or mow the grass or donate a box of plastic cups. No matter your political beliefs, you make a statement about your brand if you assist a fallen soldier's family.
Although the hotel franchisee did not speak for his national brand name, he hurt the chain's overall image when he declined to help the Jopek family. The sheer lack of compassion in the operator's voice was enough to keep a handful of friends and family from ever patronizing the major hotel again. But I will always fondly remember the hotel that gave the family free rooms to the point that I will go out of my way to give them my business. I will also recall the stacks of empty Pizza Hut boxes sitting in the corner after we devoured every last slice of pepperoni. And then there's Subway. After I told a joke, Brian — who laughs like a hyena — smeared sauce on his chubby face. As he patted the Subway napkin against his lips, he smiled.  
During my stay with the Jopek family, hundreds of people offered their condolences and asked, "Is there anything we can get you?" Normally the answer was, "Well the coffeehouse gave us muffins and Subway brought sandwich meat and Pizza Hut fed us pizza yesterday and Copps keeps bringing brownies, vegetables and fruit, so we're good."
Sure, the family didn't think of who donated a sandwich or box of cups when the flag was draped over the coffin and the Honor Guard executed the 21-gun salute. But those brands, those operators will always hold a special place in my friend's heart. Those businessmen didn't care about the Republican Party or Sen. Hillary Clinton's Iraq stance. They just wanted to help a hero's family in the time of need. They desired to lend a helping hand, to give back to people who have already given so much.
Fred Minnick is managing editor of PizzaMarketplace and a veteran of Operation of Iraqi Freedom.

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