Rob Wasserman’s Burger Brawl Hasn’t Donated Nearly as Much Money to Schools as He’s Said it Has

"It's complicated," says the Rouge owner, later explaining that "some sponsorships fell through."

Photo by HughE Dillon

Rob Wasserman | Photo by HughE Dillon

Restaurateur Rob Wasserman is best known as the owner of Rouge, the legendary Rittenhouse Square boîte that Neil Stein opened in 1998 and which Wasserman bought 10 years ago. But in recent years, Wasserman decided to add philanthropist to his business card, and Philadelphia magazine has learned that there is trouble in that department.

Each year, Wasserman brings together chefs from restaurants all over the city for the culinary competition known as Burger Brawl, which returns to XFinity Live on June 19th. Adult tickets for this year’s event start at $75, a notably drastic jump from last year’s $35 price tag, with sponsors that include everyone from Comcast to to SugarHouse Casino.

Burger Brawl was born five years ago as a modest fundraiser for William M. Meredith elementary, where Wasserman’s children were students. But with his familiar name and face and restaurant connections, the event boomed, and in 2014, Burger Brawl moved to the Xfinity Live complex.

That same year, Wasserman made a big and very public commitment to use the event to raise a ton of money for literacy programs for the schoolchildren of Philadelphia. Given the good cause — and the participation of a raft of A-list chefs and celebrity judges — Burger Brawl and Wasserman have received plenty of media attention and goodwill.

Alas, Wasserman hasn’t donated nearly as much money to the schools as he’s said he has.

In 2014, he stood in a classroom and held up one of those big photo-op checks, made out to the School District of Philadelphia for $400,000, while a bunch of cute kids smiled at his feet.

Then, after last year’s Burger Brawl was over, with Village Whiskey taking top prize, Inquirer veteran Michael Klein wrote that Wasserman told him that the 2015 event had “raised a record $208,000” for the schools. That same fundraising total is touted in a PhillyVoice story that is still linked on the website for the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, the nonprofit that handles charitable donations to the schools. And then there is the Burger Brawl website, which prominently trumpets $900,000 in donations toward literacy programs in the schools:

A screenshot of Wasserman's Burger Brawl website, which claims $900,000 in contributions.

A screenshot of Wasserman’s Burger Brawl website, which claims $900,000 in contributions.

But according to a document obtained by Philadelphia magazine, the Fund claims that Wasserman had as of January only donated $86,321 for the literacy program. According to this document, the Fund is aware that Wasserman publicly claimed to have donated some $200,000, and considers that claim inaccurate. Fund CEO and President Donna Frisby-Greenwood also told us that the Fund expects to be reimbursed for $33,603 that it spent to keep the literacy programs going while waiting for Wasserman to deliver on his pledge.

Wasserman doesn’t dispute that he’s only donated $86,321 to the schools during the period in question.

“It’s very complex,” Wasserman told us when we first asked him about the Burger Brawl finances. “Funds have been tight. But it comes down to the fact that this is an extended donation, and everything on my side is moving forward.”

Wasserman explained that the $400,000 photo-op check wasn’t indicative of a right-then donation to the literacy program, but, rather, a symbol of his four-year commitment. The philanthropic Olitsky Family Foundation also pledged $500,000 over four years at the same time that Wasserman made his promise, and the two pledges combined total $900,000, the amount proclaimed on the Burger Brawl website.

But a pledge is just a pledge until you actually come through with the money, and the language on the Burger Brawl site — “$900,000 donated towards literacy in Philadelphia public elementary schools” — would certainly indicate to the casual reader that this money has already changed hands. Far from it.

Less than two years into its commitment to the Fund, the Olitsky Family Foundation has already donated more than half of the amount it pledged, while Wasserman has fallen far short. In fact, the literacy programs in question would have been at risk if not for the contributions from the Olitsky Family Foundation, says Frisby-Greenwood.

We tried to press Wasserman to explain the discrepancy between what he said he gave and what he’s actually given so far. After all, this isn’t some new restaurant he’s trying to open, where fuzzy math might be forgiven or even expected. This is a public promise of funding for a charity involving literacy and public schoolchildren, so a certain level of scrutiny is appropriate.

Wasserman seems to feel differently. “You’re actually going there?” he asked, before telling us that he was going to get Philadelphia magazine’s president and CEO on the phone. After that, Wasserman wouldn’t offer any on-the-record comment or explanation for some time.

Reached again this week and asked why his pledged donations were lagging, Wasserman claimed that “some sponsorships fell through,” adding, “I am committed to meeting my obligations.” However, he refused to tell us which sponsors they were, or why he wouldn’t have known that those sponsors had fallen through by the time he gave his numbers to Klein, which was after last year’s event occurred.

Frisby-Greenwood has suggested that the reported $208,000 figure may actually represent the amount of revenue the 2015 Burger Brawl event brought in, but that that number does not factor the expenses required to put the event on. Presented with this possible interpretation of the discrepancy, Wasserman said, “Sure, absolutely,” adding “you would take in whatever your grosses are and then take down, obviously, your expenses.”

Sponsorships, says Frisby-Greenwood, are Wasserman’s responsibility — not the Fund’s — because it’s not a Fund event. “It’s his event,” she says. However, it may not be quite so cut-and-dry. Frisby-Greenwood explained that money from Burger Brawl ticket sales and sponsorships go directly to the Fund, and that expenses are paid by the Fund out of that. Neither the Fund nor Wasserman would reveal details about those expenses. Frisby-Greenwood suggested that future Burger Brawls might try to “take [their] expenses down.” She is optimistic that Wasserman will still come through with the money he’s promised.

“We think that he has a good plan for this year,” she says. “And we’re hopeful that people will continue to support the Burger Brawl and that he will be able to get on track to meet his commitment. So we’re hopeful for this year’s, and we’ll see what this year brings.”

One thing’s for sure: If next month’s Burger Brawl isn’t a resounding success, Wasserman is going to have to sell a whole lot of those $18 Rouge Burgers to make up for it.

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