Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

Food from Thought

Just as ubiquitous as a daily specials board, diners at any large-scale restaurant chain can expect to see a small card or a note at the bottom of the menu about “giving back.” It is expected that with profits and success comes a charity organization, foundation, or other mechanism to divert a small portion to those profits to those less fortunate. I missed the 2014 Bucket Run, and therefore, missed my opportunity to support the Rusty Bucket Ohio ProStart Scholarship Fund. But last year I ate at Bob Evans a couple times and directly supported the Bob Evan’s Harvest Fund, which donates unused food to emergency feeding agencies and shelters.

I also never eat all my hash browns, so I assume there’s a pile of hash browns somewhere with a little card placed on top with my name written in script.

Despite my cynicism, this foregone conclusion that any profitable corporation will donate to its community is not a bad thing. I imagine the 600 charitable organizations throughout Ohio that received over $130,000 of Donatos money last year would agree. With profits often in the seven- and eight-figure range, large restaurant chains investing some of that money back into the community can immediately pay for itself in PR alone.

The story is, of course, a little bit different when it comes to smaller independent outfits. In an industry where margins can be razor thin, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops often struggle to keep the doors open the first year. Despite enthusiasm to help those less fortunate, it isn’t always a financial reality. After all, you can’t tell the landlord that rent went to the YMCA instead. I think you would be hard-pressed to find a business owner who doesn’t want to give back, but the primary focus is carving out a highly profitable niche in the food and beverage world. If you’re successful, then it’s time to set up the foundation or scholarship fund.

But what about a reversal of that idea? Instead of including charity in your business plan, what if charity is your business plan and food and drink is the means to achieve it. Food and drink is no stranger to fundraising, like a table full of brownies, muffins, and cupcakes at the church bake sale or coffee and hot chocolate at the 5K fun run. Give us your money, and we’ll reward you with some calories. It’s a pretty simple formula, but no one is Yelping about the stale box-mix brownies at the bake sale.

Creating a product that gets people to line up down the block takes a bit more than picking up Sara Lee cake mix the night before. One man who knows this all too well is Joe DeLoss of Hot Chicken Takeover. “[The chicken recipe] probably took us three or four months of trial and error. It even continued to change after we opened,” he told me.

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In business for less than a year, Hot Chicken Takeover is being Yelped about—it is currently the highest-rated restaurant in Columbus—and up until its recent move to the North Market, it had people quite literally lining up around the block at an Olde Towne East pick-up window. That pick-up window, as well as the new location, is largely staffed by people struggling to find employment.

“Our intention is to hire folks who have a pretty substantial barrier to employment,” DeLoss said. “Primarily those affected by homelessness and prior incarceration.”

These folks make up 60 percent of the staff at Hot Chicken.

This is not the first successful venture for DeLoss. He previously founded the non-profit FreshBox Catering for Lutheran Social Services of Central Ohio. FreshBox serves boxed lunches to the downtown market and beyond while employing residents of Faith Mission Homeless Shelter.

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A few blocks away from the North Market lies Double Comfort, a self-described “fried chicken joint” and another welcome addition to both the poultry and charity worlds. Double Comfort has a mission of matching each meal sold with a meal donated to a local food pantry. And while both seem to find a connection between fried chicken and philanthropy, they also share the designation of being for-profit businesses, with a committment to also operate in a space largely populated by non-profit organizations.

“While we don’t have access to grants, in this [for-profit] setting we do have improved access to other types of capital. Investors, banks, and new forms of community investment, including PRIs,” DeLoss said. PRIs, or Program Related Investments, allow for more favorable debt terms associated with increased financial and social outcomes.

Both businesses fall under the umbrella term “social enterprise.” A social enterprise is an organization primarily focused on is the common good, rather than strictly on profit. This term is not only limited to for-profit organizations.

Freedom a la Cart is a non-profit organization born out of Doma International, operating a food cart and catering service that employs survivors of human trafficking. While it operates as a non-profit, it does not shy away from employing the techniques of many for-profit enterprises. According to their executive summary, Freedom a la Cart is “a form of hybrid enterprise that joins social purpose and business rationality. It is characterized by the deliberate and explicit harnessing of the capitalist, market-based system as a way to effectively address pervasive social issues.”

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It seems this method is largely successful. Since its launch, Freedom a la Cart claims to have educated over 20,000 community members and customers on human trafficking, as well as employing 19 survivors and managing to double revenue each year.

“Our intention is to hire folks
who have a pretty substantial barrier to employment. Primarily those affected by homelessness, and prior incarceration.”

Another outfit operating on the non-profit side of the coin is The Roosevelt Coffeehouse. With a location secured and construction well under way, Roosevelt may be Columbus’s first example of a non-profit organization opening up a brick and mortar shop in the food and drink industry. It’s a model that has been shown to be largely successful. Kenny Sipes, the man behind the vision, has seen similar concepts throughout the country. He points to Broadway Commons in Salem, Oregon, 1,000 Hills in Atlanta, Georgia, and Ebenezers in Washington, D.C. But Sipes’ brainchild didn’t really come together until he stopped into The Well in Nashville, Tennessee. The Well was his first example of a non-profit coffee house that was not planted by a church, an aspect he believes will be key to the Roosevelt’s success.

This may seem like an odd sentiment when you find out that Sipes has spent the last 12 years as a youth pastor at Jersey Baptist Church and remains a devout follower of Jesus.

“I’m a church guy, but if the church planted [The Roosevelt], we were alienating 90 percent of the people,” Sipes said. He’s not looking to alienate anyone, because just as it is within the for-profit sector, getting people in the door is the first step. Once in that door, customers can expect to experience coffee from One Line and Portland’s Stumptown roasters, single-origin pour-overs, local pastries, and everything else you might expect to find in a high-end conventional coffee shop.

The three-fold mission of clean water throughout the world, fighting human trafficking, and fighting hunger, is what the coffee house was founded on, but your level of engagement with that mission will be up to you. “We want our customers to experience the impact,” Sipes said, “but at the same time being mindful that some customers don’t care. Not in a callous way, but they just go, ‘You’re serving Stumptown? Dude, I want some Stumptown.’”

Engagement is big in the non-profit world, and many old-school charity models are playing catch up with the next generation of consumers with disposable income. The inescapable ALS Ice Bucket Challenge throughout July and August of last year, 5K color runs, and the annual Pelotonia bike event, are all examples of slick PR and marketing to create engagement with many who are uninterested with telethons and Christmas bell-ringers at department store entrances. Whether you’re providing a chance to ride a bike, get covered in pigment, or pour water over your head to the amusement of your social media contacts, expectations are higher than ever, and the bar is being raised as more and more hands attempt to dip into potential donors’ pockets. The story is no different in the for-profit and non-profit restaurant world. For consumers who place value in culinary buzzwords like farm-to-table, artisanal, and organic, a slice of cake at a church bake sale can be a bit hard to swallow. 

Photos by Chris Casella & Megan Leigh Barnard.

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