I led with the most obvious question: Why Cheesecake Factory? Why not an Olive Garden, or a Red Lobster? Sara Benincasa’s answer was a sweeping, but wildly assertive one: “I believe it is actually the only restaurant. I believe everything else is just a cafe that’s trying too hard.”
The comedian, writer, and actress is one of the restaurant’s most ardent fans, and she is using that enthusiasm for good with the help of an unlikely ally: science fiction writer Neil Gaiman. Yup, the one you’re thinking of. The affectionately nicknamed #neilcake fundraiser, determined to raise $500,000 for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, has set the most unlikely of rewards for hitting its goal: a dramatic reading of the Cheesecake Factory’s mammoth menu, by Gaiman himself. The idea, borne from what Sara calls “a fugue state” brought on by coffee deprivation and the romance of a recent date at the restaurant, was proposed on Twitter, endorsed so matter-of-factly by Gaiman that she reached out to confirm that she hadn’t imagined it. “I messaged him back and said, ‘Really!?’ He said yes, so long as the money went to UNHCR.”
The United Nations High Council on Refugees was formed after World War II with the goal of serving a much smaller population of refugees and other misplaced individuals who may not fit their operating definition of “refugee.” But now that they support over 10,000 employees serving 21.3 million people in 128 countries, their support often outpaces the need they’re addressing. Celebrities like Ben Stiller, Kristin Davis, and Gaiman have partnered with UNHCR in recent years to raise visibility and aid for their work, and #neilcake is the latest – and in some ways the silliest – project highlighting their work.
Buoyed by the unexpected payoff of her gamble, Benincasa worked quickly to partner with the fundraising platform Crowdrise to host the project. “Since Crowdrise not only does a lower fee than most, but also offers participants or donors the opportunity to cover the processing fee, which is a relatively small amount, [it] was attractive [as a fundraiser host] to me.” She was quick to add that, unlike other crowdfunding platforms that return donor pledges if the goal isn’t reached, “[with Crowdrise] all of the money donated after you cover your processing fee goes to the charity, even if you don’t hit your target.” The unusual nature of #neilcake quickly got the attention of food press outlets like Eater and Food and Wine, who found some crowdrise.com humor in reverence for The Cheesecake Factory. But as donations started pouring in, more press inquiries and online attention followed from The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and dozens more…which means Benincasa now has quite the project on her hands.
With that said, she’s quick to point out that the magnitude of the project has uplifted her in the best of ways. Her Instagram stories in the weeks since #neilcake’s launch have included her incredulous reaction to FremantleMedia North America (producer of the Gaiman-inspired American Gods)’s $5,000 donation, and her emotional shock over an anonymous donor’s $10,000 donation. This generous benefactor, who wished to remain anonymous, donated under the name “Max and Kinga,” named for Patton Oswalt and Felicia Day’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 characters, proof that what Benincasa calls a “goofy hook” is making a significant financial impact. Which brings up another fun quirk of the project: the fun pseudonyms under which people have been donating:
Somebody donated as “Sara’s favorite flavor of cheesecake,” which I was really excited about. I like the Oreo (registered trademark) Dream Extreme Cheesecake, so I just pretended it was that. But a lot of people donated as Avocado Egg Rolls because I think I’ve mentioned those a few times in interviews, that I think they’re a spectacular item […] I think three or four people have donated as Avocado Egg Rolls. Shout out to the person who donated as “Avocado Egg Rollz,” that was sassy.
The idea that something so goofy could inspire people to give for so many reasons seems to continually surprise Benincasa. “I probably get emotional about it twice a day. I also have a really good laugh once a day.”
Considerable lump donations aside, most donors have given $25, and cited a number of reasons for doing so. “Even a little bit really means a lot. Somebody just donated $10 in memory of someone who just passed away that he cared about. I’ll never know all the stories of why people are donating,” she notes wistfully. “At first I thought, ‘Oh, they’re Neil’s fans.’ And they are! And as the refugee angle came out, it’s people interested in doing good in the world and are frustrated that they can’t do more or just want to help.” Benincasa is also quick to mention how many people have lamented not being able to give more; for them, she hopes to drive home the impact of what even the smallest contribution can do for refugees and other displaced people around the world, as told to her by Gaiman and the UNHCR:
[T]hey shared that $2 can provide a sleeping mat to give someone a little bit of cushion between themselves and the freezing ground. And two bucks is about enough to provide a year’s worth of soap to a woman so she can stay clean. It’s really amazing. Around $17 can provide a plastic sheet to protect refugees from bad weather. It’s very interesting to think about that. So again, I can’t say where my $100 goes – does it go to Syria? Or someone in Somalia? But these kinds of things really drive home to me that my dollar can go pretty far elsewhere if it’s deployed properly for people in need.
The #neilcake fundraiser runs through June 20th, a deadline that coincides with World Refugee Day. If the $500,000 goal is met by that date, plans will commence for Gaiman to participate in the agreed-upon reading, with the possibility of special guests to assist him if the goal is exceeded; while no plans have been solidified yet in that vein, John Hodgman is being eyed as a potential collaborator on the drinks menu portion of the reading. And if you’re truly not in the position to give, Sara has a few action items just for you: