Feeding Vancouver's poor a foundation for business

For Save On Meats owner Mark Brand, launching a charitable foundation could be the key to making his social enterprise profitable

Mark Brand, owner of Save On Meats: giving back to the community has been costly for his business

The owner of historic Save On Meats in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES) hopes creating a charitable organization will provide stable funding to the business' subsidized meal and employment training programs.

Entrepreneur Mark Brand plans to launch A Better Life in February 2013, a foundation that will take over funding and running the programs.

In a recently aired episode of CBC's The Big Decision, which features Dragons' Den star Arlene Dickinson evaluating and deciding whether to invest in struggling small businesses, Brand scored a $250,000 investment for his butcher shop and restaurant.

The 55-year-old business, which Brand bought in 2011, has a strong social enterprise component. As well as the discounted- food program, which currently serves around 450 people a day, some of his employees are DTES residents who have barriers to employment. And Brand recently hit the headlines by introducing a sandwich token worth $2.25 that can be bought from Save On Meats and handed out to hungry people on the street. The token system, launched three weeks ago, has already proven to be a huge hit, as people can hand them out knowing that they will be traded for food rather than drugs.

Brand tweeted last week, "Just got an email from a @VancouverPD officer who has taken to carrying the tokens, as has her team. This is the integration we dreamt of."

But Save On Meats has been struggling under debt incurred in part to pay for the cheap meals. On The Big Decision, Dickinson took Brand to task for paying for the program out of his own pocket – something he admits he's still doing.

Brand told Business in Vancouver that the financial situation wasn't so much "dire" as "exciting."

"We definitely needed some help," said Brand. "We needed an injection, but we're also partnered with the City of Vancouver, the Vancouver Foundation and Vancity."

He added that creating a non-profit organization will relieve pressure on the business.

"The social pieces don't pay rent," said Brand. "The employees are paid by me, for profit. The guy who does my meal program, Kyle, is on my payroll. He's doing a not-for-profit piece but being paid for-profit. All the ingredients, all that stuff is basically a burden on the butcher shop."

The foundation will provide structure and more resources to programs that are now run by a shoestring staff, as well as formal tracking of how well the programs are performing. Brand has ambitious plans to expand the social enterprise mandate. He wants to expand the food program to serve 1,500 people a day, serve more people in DTES hotels (he currently works with Atira Women's Resources Society, which operates several housing complexes in the neighbourhood) and increase the number of people in the employment training program.

Brand also sees a role for the foundation to work in low- income schools, providing food and education about gardening and cooking, and farther down the road, programs for elderly people living on a fixed income.

Dickinson continues to mentor Brand, and the two have discussed taking the Save On Meats model to other North American cities.

"If we feed more people," said Brand, "we've already seen the reaction to them getting better and also having the peace of mind to rehabilitate and work their way back in." •

The challenges for social enterprise businesses

Businesses with a social enterprise mission often face a few extra bumps in the road, said Liz Lougheed-Green, manager of community investment at Vancity. The first three to five years are particularly challenging for these businesses.

"They have to not only cover the cost of their operations in the long term but also cover the cost associated with their mission ... their scaling-up period is a bit longer than your conventional business," said Lougheed-Green.

Social enterprise businesses can benefit from specialized mentorship and "creative strategies for helping them bridge the funding gap present at critical stages in their growth," said Lougheed-Green. The credit union has partnered with several social enterprise businesses now operating in the DTES, including Save On Meats, Potluck Cafe and property maintenance company Mission Possible.

"The field has really been ramping up within the past five years," said Lougheed-Green, who said Vancouver has one of the healthiest social enterprise communities in the country.

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