It was a Tuesday afternoon, a day when John Patterson, president of OC Auto Team, normally would be hustling to sell cars. Instead he was hoisting 50-pound bags of red onions onto a sorting table in Second Harvest Food Bank’s vast Irvine warehouse.

Next to Patterson, one of his top salesmen divided the produce into smaller packages. At other tables, a dozen more workers from his Mazda and Hyundai dealerships grabbed fistfuls of potatoes from huge cardboard boxes, tossing them into plastic bags.

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“Its one thing to bring in a couple of cans for a food bank,” said Patterson, who owns busy outlets in Tustin and Huntington Beach. “It’s another thing to see where the food is going. This gets everybody into the spirit of giving.”

Employees of more than 1,000 Orange County companies ranked their companies in the Register’s Top Workplaces survey this year. For the first time, the poll included a question asking how “socially responsible” their bosses are.

OC Auto Team took first place in social responsibility among midsize firms. Besides volunteering and contributing to Second Harvest, the dealership sent 28 workers to a “Walk for the Cure” juvenile diabetes event last month, donated 1,000 diapers to the homeless nonprofit Home Aid, and gave free vehicles to two hospitals.

The Montage Laguna Beach hotel, where employees raise money for lymphoma research, ranked highest among large companies. Employees rated Zumasys, an Irvine technology firm that donates 1 percent of its revenue to nonprofits, the top small company for social responsibility.

In Orange County, as in the nation at large, workers may want generous pay and benefits. But many also look for their employers to be good corporate citizens, beyond the call of capitalism.

For OC Auto Team workers, the camaraderie was as important as the charity. “Its fun,” said Troy Kerth, general manager of Patterson’s Tustin dealership, who was bagging potatoes. “It’s teamwork for a good cause.”

That companies get a tax deduction for contributing to charity is the least of it. More importantly, community outreach has become integral to business strategy, marketing and employee retention. On their websites, firms prominently showcase philanthropic initiatives.

Alison DaSilva, executive vice president of Cone Communications, a Boston-based firm that advises companies on social responsibility, calls the trend “the ribbonization of America–where it’s near impossible to walk down a store aisle without spotting a cause.”

Whether they’re supporting breast cancer research or contributing to save the rainforest, 54 percent of Americans bought a product associated with a cause over the last 12 months, a jump of 170 percent since 1993, according to Cone’s annual surveys.

Often, corporate philanthropy aligns directly with a business mission.

Veterinary Pet Insurance Company, a Brea-based firm, has donated $34,000 to Vested Interest in K9s, a nonprofit that provides protective vests for police dogs. Iconosys, a San Clemente company, markets an app that automatically responds to texts when the user is on the road. The firm also started a nonprofit called TextKills to publicize the dangers of texting while driving. TextKills’ K-Jam concerts sponsor local bands that perform for teenagers and promote safety.

At Applied Medical, a surgical instrument manufacturer in Rancho Santa Margarita, employees raised $35,000 for Irvine-based Free Wheelchair Mission, which serves the low-income disabled in developing nations.

Applied Medical, with 2,700 employees, ranked second among large firms in the Register’s survey for social responsibility. “We don’t just write a check from corporate,” said Vice President Mary Jo Stegwell. “A lot of our donations are from our own people’s pockets and involve their own time.”