A Fresh Take on Hospitality
8 October 2014 at 10:27 am
A pop-up fine-dining model has seen an enterprising young duo tackle the challenges of operating in hospitality, writes journalist Nadia Boyce in this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
Called Scarf, the enterprise runs regular dinners open to the public, hosted at Melbourne restaurants such as Jorg, Easy Tiger and Union Dining. Customers pay $40 for a two course set menu prepared by professional chefs.
The fledgling social enterprise partners with the restaurants and concurrently runs a front of house training program, where trainees from marginalised areas work with the restaurants’ professional mentors to serve customers.
Its existence is the culmination of experience and a desire to make a difference for founders Jess Moran and Hannah Colman.
The pair had been working in the industry for eight and 10 years and saw that it had a lot of great opportunities, but that there was a bridge needed to get people through the door.
“We were working in a restaurant and doing volunteering with young refugee communities and were asked by a lot of people if we could help get them a job,” Colman says.
“We always set out to make Scarf focused on mentoring and really inclusive of people who had all kinds of different hospitality backgrounds, as well as young people coming from all different cultural backgrounds where were facing barriers.”
Now, as Scarf celebrates its fourth birthday, Hannah Colman is looking to the future – and to ways she can strengthen the foundations she has tirelessly built.
The Sustainable Table
Scarf has its foundations in sustainability, with a model based on pop-up locations to avoid overheads and leveraging corporate partnerships.
It was not always planned.
"The truth is,” Colman says, “when we first sat down and thought we wanted to do something in hospitality, we thought we wanted to run a restaurant. You think of Jamie Oliver. Of course, when we sat down and started crunching some numbers, we realised that was going to be really expensive and that we probably didn’t have enough business knowledge at that point.
"We decided to pilot a training program on Monday nights in borrowed restaurants when they were otherwise likely to be closed. We were applying for funding, none of which we were successful in!
“We gave it a shot and thought that we started developing business plans and ran the pilot program for 12 weeks.
“It worked! We had good outcomes. Seven out of eight of those first trainees got jobs following the program. And it wasn’t a total financial disaster!”
According to Colman, that small initial success ultimately formed the basis of what Scarf became.
“The program hasn’t changed that much. The training that we do, the hands-on focus, the mentoring – it’s just evolved. It was a blueprint, and we’ve just built on it,” she says.
“Most of our income is now self-generated but we also have had some philanthropic support over the last few years which has supported us with capacity building and operational costs. We’re about 70 per cent self-funded at the moment.
“It’s taken me a while to realise that’s not to be sneezed at. We are four years old, but I guess for those first couple of years we felt like we were in startup mode.
“Having all our alcohol donated is a massive part of how we are sustainable at the moment. There are quite good margins on alcohol and we’re not paying for anything to begin with.
“In saying that, we still meet a lot of significant costs, particularly on the catering side of things. In the past we paid an independent caterer, now we’ve moved to having the restaurants do the food themselves and we’re paying a significant price for that.
“It’s a tricky area to make money in, hospitality! When you’re doing a training program as well which has its own costs, it’s definitely a challenge, but we’ve had amazing support from the hospitality industry to get to this point.
“Partnership are absolutely key. Scarf wouldn’t exist without the restaurant and sponsor partnerships.”
Friends and Foes
Much of the support that has made Scarf possible has come from Colman and Moran’s own acquaintances, who were integral in the startup phase.
“We were lucky in the early says because we had some really good personal networks that we could call upon,” Colman says.
“For instance – the restaurants we borrowed in that first program, we borrowed them from people we knew. There was that trust there.
“We just asked a lot of people for a lot of favours. And a lot of them said yes. Once we had our first couple of sponsors it got easier and easier to get other people on board.
“I do look back and think ‘I can’t believe that we managed to get it off the ground!’ Even now – knowing how competitive it is, with other food-based social enterprises popping up, and so many causes to support.”
Colman believes experience and expertise in the field proved key.
“I think what it was for us was that Jess and I both had a background in the hospitality industry. We weren’t trying to do something we didn’t understand,” she says.
“That probably went a long way in terms of us having credibility because the reality was that neither of us had run a social enterprise, we didn’t even really know what a social enterprise was. We just knew we wanted to do something.
“I do sort of see sometimes people doing hospitality ventures who don’t have a background in it, so they’re not that confident in what they’re doing and it does come across.
Yet Colman and Moran have experienced struggles of their own – and confidence has not always been enough to win people’s support.
“Jess and I have always had mentors ourselves which has been a great way to access and information and knowledge that otherwise we wouldn’t have had. I think being taken seriously has been a challenge,” Colman says.
“There have been quite a few missed opportunities because we haven’t been taken seriously, but at the same time, we have been lucky to have so many people who have supported us.
“When we started out it was really bloody hard and we couldn’t pay ourselves, we were lucky we both had other jobs.
“It’s been difficult to juggle working for an income with trying to get something off the ground that didn’t provide any income. Working in a small team with limited resources is always going to be challenging. You have to be resourceful and get information from other people.
“Working out where to put most of my time and energy – we’re running a program with young people with different needs, it’s often difficult to take time away from them to work on business development and strategic planning.”
A Brand for the Future
With a foundation set, the time has come for that focus on strategic planning.
“We’ve been looking at doing a rebrand,” Colman says. “We’re focused on more strongly partnering with restaurants and showcasing their food, and we feel we need to step it up a bit.”
The organisation’s recent fourth birthday party also served as a launch for a new brand and website.
Nest Coworking has been supporting Scarf with pro bono membership and services from over 16 professionals, working on the organisation’s branding and business development as part of the ‘Boost’ social enterprise accelerator program.
More rigorous social impact measurement is also on the cards.
“At the moment about 75 per cent of our trainees end up in work after the program, with about two thirds of those in hospitality. We’d like to strengthen that and have more people getting into hospitality jobs.
“I don’t know that we do the best job at communicating those outcomes, and we need to know about about SIM and how to communicate it.
“As we’ve gotten busier, we’ve brought in more trainees to each program. Now that we’re getting in more customers and more consistent, we’ve got more space for young people.
“Long term,” Colman adds, “it’s really about developing the a business model and making the programs financially sustainable in terms of our core operating costs.’
“We don’t want to be reliant on grant money because it’s risky and time consuming so we’re really looking at strengthening partnerships and creating some new income generation streams – like some merchandising perhaps. Working with our wine sponsor to do some co-branded wine for people to take away from the dinners, and maybe looking at corporate functions or corporate tables at the dinners we do.
“In the short term – it’s just about getting the next program off the ground!”