It started with a simple idea of hosting monthly cooking classes at the CMHA, and grew from a side step into a full-on journey. The classes were instantly popular. A farm was donated. The classes turned into the Culinary Arts and Farming Education (CAFE) Program, a free program that inspires folks about food while preparing them to rejoin the workforce by gaining education in cooking and farming skill sets. It also includes creating access to long-term, meaningful employment to help them thrive.
The Start Fresh Kitchen was created to help support the non-profit partner society, the Start Fresh Project, which created a unique for-profit / non-profit social enterprise. Michael Buffett and Sarah Martin, co-founders and life partners, began their version of the classic entrepreneurial story.
Signed life away to get a loan. Close friend and advisor invested in project. Partnership created to secure stable, long-term customers. Worked 80-100 hours per week. Paid themselves last, or not at all. Laughed. Cried. Loved. Employed 22 people within 12 months.
Overnight success story, right?
About the Start Fresh Kitchen
Start Fresh (kitchen and society) exist collaboratively to create free unbarriered education and employment opportunities for those who have been excluded. Food is the vehicle to remove barriers to the social and economic ladder.
Start Fresh Project runs the CAFE program and manages the farm. This program provides a structured, nine month program for participants to learn farming and cooking skills. Ten participants received about 50 hours per week of education during the program last year. This year the program is currently underway and the new cohort is enjoying finishing up the first semester.
Start Fresh Kitchen hosts cooking classes every Thursday (which are regularly sold out) featuring local chefs from the community. They also provide catering services, private parties, long-table dinners, and a weekday diner. The Kitchen buys produce from the farm, opens its facility for use by the CAFE program, and provides an excellent communications platform to share the message of the Project.
The Kitchen currently hires about 25% of it’s employees straight out of the CAFE program run by the Project. Four of the participants last year now work in the kitchen. Employees are paid fair wages, receive benefits, and there is a big focus on the value of work-life balance.
It’s Not As Easy As the Instagram Photos
The picture perfect story comes with some hard lessons from the founders. Lessons not uncommon for many social entrepreneurs.
Bookkeeping matters. The fast growth company focused on great products, services, and community impact hit a cash crunch when an unanticipated tax bill arrived in the mail. “It took us from excited to terrified,” comment Michael and Sarah. “We had to lean on some trusted suppliers to give us a bit of extra time to pay our invoices.” While the crunch didn’t sink the company, the founders course corrected and have a renewed focus on financial management and forecasting. It was a tight couple of months.
Shiny dangly syndrome is real. As the company started to grow the opportunities seemed endless. Decision after decision about day-to-day operations while also trying to plan for future growth was exhausting. The quick lesson was that the opportunities all required money and time to evaluate. “I can’t do everything,” Michael admits in an even tone that only comes with the experience of trying to do everything all at once. “We can make this revenue line work, but we aren’t there yet.” Time turns out to be the most important resource.
Failing is okay. Building a social enterprise is a lesson in iteration and humility. Every moment, every day the founders and teams experiment with little and big changes to menu, process, program, partners, revenue, pricing, value, marketing, etc. Many of the changes and experiments fail. A few of them work well and contribute to the constantly evolving social and economic impact of the enterprise.
Sunny Days Ahead
Looking forward, changes are being implemented that come with experience and support. Refining menus, pricing, and operational process are underway. Setting strategic objectives and being accountable to key results to achieve them have been initiated. The Kitchen and the Project are also refining their collaboration to improve and extend the social and community impact.
If you spend time with Sarah and Michael you can hear the exhaustion of startup entrepreneurs, and the honesty of not-knowing the whole road ahead. But you can also feel the unbridled optimism that comes with seeing some hard earned success. And you can see the pride that comes with seeing and feeling the social and community impact starting to grow.
Start Fresh is a collaborative community kitchen to watch.
- With Start Fresh – Stop in at the diner. Order some catering. Volunteer on the farm.
- With Purppl – Join our social enterprise acceleration program. Partner with Purppl to help other social enterprises. Mentor or coach social entrepreneurs.