Caspers Cares spreads smiles through its golden arches

What’s more iconic in modern American culture than the golden arches behind the infectious smile of everyone’s favorite clown, Ronald McDonald? Yet, behind the scenes, the global brand of McDonald’s has long been committed to making a difference across its local communities.

The Tampa-based McDonald’s franchisee Caspers Co., a third-generation family-owned enterprise, has been supporting the greater Hillsborough County community since 1958, when the first McDonald’s opened on South Dale Mabry. Its community outreach is housed within its own organization, Caspers Cares.

“For us, community relations starts with our 4,000 employees, because they’re really our face in local neighborhoods,” says Dustin Portillo, who manages community relations for Caspers. ”Part of our efforts with Caspers Cares is to recognize our crews out there in the trenches, because they’re the face of our company.”

Caspers Cares does much more than support McDonald’s staff with employee recognition, and outreach, programs. They’re also one of the most significant contributors to important infrastructure around the Tampa Bay area.

“We have three pillars of our giving-hand, education, first responders and the military,” Portillo says. “We’ll salt and pepper, throughout the entire year, with other organizations, different charities and businesses but the foundational support of our community starts with those three areas.”

As a founding sponsor of Hillsborough County’s Teacher of the Year, launched more than 30 years ago, Caspers Cares continues to make schools a priority with various on-going programs or one-time initiatives. From aiding school board members in their specific book drives or providing donations, or money, for classroom supplies to its custom coupons program, Caspers Cares finds ways to actively support education.

“Our custom coupons are for free menu items and we have seven different categories that the teacher, or administration, can choose from within a school, rewarding students for areas like character, citizenship or honor roll,” Portillo says.

Last year, Caspers gave out more than 540,000 coupons to area schools, and Caspers Cares is currently working on a digital coupon system to update the program.

Bay area first responders, and military, also benefit greatly from Caspers Cares. During the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, it delivered more than 105,000 meals to local hospitals and has been active in supporting local veterans, including contributing to the Honor Flight initiative.

The Honor Flight Network is a national nonprofit organization that organizes trips for veterans to fly to Washington, D.C., to see their respective war memorials in person. Caspers Cares shares this special journey with local vets, a part of 39 Honor Flights, and counting, for Bay area veterans.

“We start our day at 3 a.m. to set up a hot buffet for the veterans and their  ‘angels,’  or accompanying guides, usually about 120 people in total,” Portillo says. “They take off from Clearwater International Airport and it’s such an honor to see the veterans coming through the terminal, on their way out for this meaningful journey. We have about 10 of our employees, and office staff, on hand to greet them with a hot meal buffet.”

Portillo’s smile, when he talks about his work, is as infectious as America’s favorite clown, and that’s no metaphor. His background has uniquely led to his current position. At 18, Portillo fulfilled his childhood dream by joining Ringling Brothers Circus, as a clown.

“As a family, we used to go to the circus every year in Kansas City and I told my parents at 4 years old, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a clown. And I lived the dream. I toured for exactly seven years and performed over 3,500 shows, hundreds upon hundreds of publicity appointments, interviews with TV, radio and newspapers. The clowns were the ambassadors of the circus because we were the English-speaking performers out of the 17 different countries represented. And I loved it.”

For his last four years with Ringling, Portillo was promoted to manager of the clowns with increased creative, and public relations, responsibilities.

The travel and repetition took its toll, however, and when Portillo was ready for a new challenge, he was headhunted by McDonald’s to become Ronald McDonald in the Tampa Bay area, representing the corporate brand and their mobile franchisees as an independent contractor. Working as the human embodiment of McDonald’s, as Ronald McDonald, Portillo fulfilled more than 250 contractual obligations each year, with more than 50 events with Caspers Co.

“I didn’t realize it, at the time, but being a performer is very much like community relations. As performers, we’re doing the interviews, actively engaging with publicity and then with Ronald McDonald, you’re a walking billboard for the company,” Portillo says. “You have to know what to say, and how to act, and you must believe in your company. What I do now with Caspers Cares is similar, except my stage went from being in front of 15,000 people to much smaller audiences.”

When McDonald’s corporate phased out the Ronald McDonald division, Portillo joined up with Caspers Cares full time.

Whatever his stage, Portillo’s goal remains the same: to spread the word on Caspers Cares.

“I believe that what we’re doing out there has a huge, positive impact on our sales, on our image of excellence and our employees as well. Everyone wants to be part of a company that gives back to the community. We make sure that happens at Caspers Cares.”

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