Beyond the bottom line

Giving back to the community is a two-way street, benefitting businesses as well as the charities they help. Ellie Clayton looks at how the foodservice industry is learning from social enterprise

From April to early June, South London was home to yet another pop-up restaurant. Mazi Mas at the Ovalhouse theatre had a familiar premise: simple, flavoursome food sourced locally and rooted in rich cultural traditions. But what set this pop-up apart were the people in the kitchen.

Mazi Mas is a social enterprise dedicated to supporting women from migrant and refugee communities. It has been running for three years; the Ovalhouse theatre was the latest in a series of pop-ups from the group and the longest stint it has had so far. The enterprise gives women paid work experience, allows them to showcase, develop and formalise their cooking skills and helps them get back into work (see picture above).

It is far from being alone. Like Mazi Mas, the social enterprise Chicken Town in north London turned to crowdfunding to drum up support for its idea.

Fighting obesity

Chicken Town aims to serve healthy fried chicken – steamed chicken which is flash fried in rapeseed oil and served with sides like corn, coconut rice, sweet potatoes and coleslaw – to school children in Tottenham, north London, an area where one in three 10- and 11-year-olds is overweight. It will sell to young people at lunch and after school at cost price, competing with fried chicken chains.In April, Chicken Town exceeded its £50,000 Kickstarter target by more than £5,000 and is due to open in September.

These are just two examples of social enterprise in action. The body Social Enterprise UK puts the total number of social enterprises at 70,000, turning over £20bn to £25bn annually and employing close to a million people.

Nick Temple, the body’s deputy CEO, groups foodservice social enterprises into three main categories. The first is an emerging group that is addressing the issue of food waste, he says.

Organisations ranging from grass-roots groups and food banks, to bigger, more formal and national operations are showing increasing success in this area. In June this year, Tesco announced it was collaborating with FareShare, using the organisation’s distribution network to donate some of its tens of thousands of tonnes of waste food to local charities.

Other projects use food as a root to community, says Temple. “We’re seeing a niche subset where cookery and casserole clubs are starting to bring together different communities and trying to increase people’s cookery skills.”

The most well established group, however, is the one using foodservice as an opportunity to provide training and employment. Like Mazi Mas, The Clink, which opened its fourth restaurant this year, falls into this third category.

Training behind bars

The Clink charity has training restaurants based at four UK prisons – Brixton, Cardiff, High Down and Styal – providing inmates with skills and support before and after their release. The restaurants are open to the public, and the charity prides itself on its food quality – its Cardiff restaurant is top-rated on TripAdvisor. But its primary objective is to reduce reoffending rates.

The Clink’s reoffending rates are currently being audited. But, says Vic Laws FCSI, the charity’s group restaurant ambassador, it has been a “tremendous success”. More than 500 students have graduated since 2009 and, in 2014, around 40 entered into employment.

“We care about the number of people we get through the programme, the number we get into employment and the number that stay out of prison,” says Chris Moore, the charity’s chief executive. “Then comes customer enjoyment, and then comes anything else.”

Anna Dowrick, operations manager at Mazi Mas tells a similar story, one where the priority is somewhere other than customers. “Our main aim is to provide the chefs with a living wage – that’s the priority – and then to provide a quality experience for customers and quality training for chefs.”

There is no suggestion that training people to work in foodservice is easy, “Anyone who watched the first series of Jamie’s Kitchen will know that it’s a challenge to train up people,” says Temple. Yet the very challenges of the foodservice sector can make it even more valuable for the people involved in the social enterprise programmes.

“Half the battle with people who’ve been disadvantaged in the labour market is confidence and self esteem,” says Temple. “A restaurant is a good place to build that. You don’t get away with being late, lazy and difficult to work with.”

Working with food is also a marketable skill, says Temple. Mazi Mas, The Clink restaurants, and Chicken Town’s crowdfunding campaign all demonstrate the kind of success that can accompany being in the spotlight.

“Food is a consumer-facing industry, and is something everybody understands,” adds Temple. “A pop-up restaurant run by migrant women is easy to explain. That’s why Mazi Mas has got good press. People intuitively understand it, because they buy food and they eat food.”

Dowrick says: “Food is inherently a social activity and it’s accessible. Social enterprises make their money by selling a story people can buy into and feel empathy with. It’s about production and people can empathise with that too.”

The Clink relies heavily on collaboration with business, through work opportunities for graduates from the programme, and by offering time, equipment and services to the charity.

Benefits for all

FCSI and its Allied members have designed restaurants pro-bono, donated or supplied kitchen equipment at a reduced cost, and provided their ongoing support.

“Members can see the benefit to themselves – through their corporate social responsibility [CSR], to the industry – which is desperately short of staff – and to the individuals involved,” says Laws.

Getting involved with social enterprise benefits business beyond traditional CSR, says Temple. It helps to motivate staff and appeals to consumers he says, but equally the existence of social enterprises in the market challenges businesses to innovate.

Temple uses the example of Divine Chocolate, a farmer-owned fair trade chocolate bar that has made considerable impact without having grown enormously in terms of revenue in the past decade.

“What it has done is to help create a £300m fair trade chocolate market where there wasn’t one. That’s partly because the business recognised an opportunity. It can help with innovation, the bottom line, and can help win business.”

Ellie Clayton

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