The online petition site Change.org could be seen as both a blessing and a curse for restaurants. On the one hand, it's an easy way for customers to communicate to businesses what they want. On the other hand, it's an easy way for customers to communicate to businesses what they want.
Restaurants, such as In-N-Out, Chick-fil-A, Sizzler, Chipotle, Wendy's and others, are being targeted by Change.org petitions created by customers and other individuals with varying concerns including civil rights, animal rights, environmental sustainability and worker safety.
"Within the past year, we've seen a real uptick in all kinds of corporate accountability campaigns, including to food chains and individual restaurants," Michael Jones, campaign director for Change.org, told The Huffington Post. "Petition victories have spawned people who want to want to take action and start new petitions."
The latest such petition to get media attention is that of Los Angeles vegan Ari Solomon, which is calling on In-N-Out to add a veggie burger to its menu. Posted on Aug. 23, the petition currently has 6,846 signatures. Every time someone signs the petition, notification is sent to six individuals from In-N-Out, including COO Mark Taylor, Jones told to HuffPost.
The jury is still out on whether or not it will work, with In-N-Out officials saying that while they are aware of the petition, they have no official statement about it.
But according to Jones, the longer a business waits to respond to a petition -- especially if it's gaining signatures and media attention -- the more damage can be done to the company's reputation. He gave the example of Chick-fil-A, which recently came under criticism for its president's anti-gay statements. Since July, more than 50 Change.org petitions have been started by students urging colleges to remove Chick-fil-A franchises from their campuses, according to Jones.
"The more campaigns we see from various campuses, the bigger problem that’s going to be for the company in the long run in terms of its brand identity and how its perceived by the public," Jones said. So far, only a petition targeting Northeastern University was successful in getting the school to quash plans to allow a Chick-fil-A store to open on campus.
At the same time, companies that do respond to campaigns stand to enjoy praise and an improved reputation among customers and petitioners. This was the case with 10-year-old Mia Hansen's petition asking the smoothie chain Jamba Juice to stop using polystyrene cups. Jamba Juice was the Carlsbad, Calif., fifth-grader's favorite treat to get with her mom after basketball practice, but she was disappointed that the company was using non-biodegradable cups.
While Jamba Juice said they had already decided to stop using the cups, the company announced it would complete the transition by the end of 2013 after Hansen's petition gained attention. Jamba Juice clearly recognized the power of the petition, and Hansen was even asked to serve as a "healthy communities ambassador" for the company.
Petitions started by devoted customers and people with personal stories like Hansen's have been among the most effective, Jones told HuffPost. "There's an authentic voice there that is often lacking when an organization, company or a politician tries to weigh in."
Similarly, Paul Kalinka started a petition urging Dunkin' Donuts to stop using polystyrene coffee cups. Kalinka, too, started his petition not as an adversary, but as a loyal fan of the company's products. "Believe me; I love the coffee at Dunkin' Donuts. I get my coffee there every day," he wrote on the petition, which now has 87,830 signatures. The company responded that its number-one sustainability priority is finding an alternative to its polystyrene cups, and that it's currently researching a recyclable or compostable cup that will keep customers’ hands cool and coffee hot.
Other successful campaigns targeting restaurants include a petition that got Starbucks to stop using cochineal extract -- a red dye made from dried insects -- to color its strawberry-flavored drinks, a petition that got Taste-See Restaurant to cancel its lion meat dinner, and a petition that got Domino's to stop its guaranteed thirty-minute delivery, which was resulting in worker deaths in South Korea.
However, not all companies have responded as positively, with some simply ignoring petitions and others even pushing back. In response to a petition to get Domino's to stop buying from pig farmers who use gestation crates, company officials balked.
Jones said that, in some cases, business executives don't take petitions seriously because they have no way of knowing how many signatories are actual customers.
But Jones said that approach is unwise. "There's a brand awareness here that has much bigger impact than the 1,000 or 2,000 signatures on the petition. Especially if it spreads on media or social media," he said.
This new kind of consumer-driven corporate accountability is showing no signs of slowing. There are 15,000 new petitions and 2 million new members at Change.org every month, according to Jones. And while it's already available in nearly a dozen languages, the site is quickly adding more languages and spreading to more countries. "Internationally, this could be a whole other ball game in a couple years," Jones said.