A Taste of Community
Wednesday, 15th July 2015 at 11:46 am
A unique social enterprise running food tours in Sydney’s forgotten suburbs has taken the bold step of cutting ties with its parent Not for Profit, writes Nadia Boyce in this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
Taste Cultural Food Tours this month ended its affiliation with the Benevolent Society to step into the marketplace as an independent entity, having outgrown its parent organisation.
It was a fond farewell – Benevolent Society CEO Joanne Toohey said the organisation had gained its wings and that she was happy to see it leave the nest and become a fully-fledged community-owned business in its own right.
Now Taste will strive to leverage the foodie movement and succeed in the marketplace with five years of operational knowledge behind it.
Its new Chair will be Cathy Quinn, formerly the manager of the social cohesion project at the Benevolent Society that sparked the organisation’s experimentation in the food tour market.
Pro Bono Australia News spoke to Quinn about how Taste’s tours are transforming some of Sydney’s disadvantaged communities, building cross-cultural understanding while offering employment and training for those in need.
Building a Business
The first tours were launched as part of the Bankstown Bite Food Festival in July 2010, with the intent of meeting the goals on the Benevolent Society’s social inclusion project.
“[In 2010] we were based in Bankstown, and one of the things we were trying to achieve was social cohesion outcomes. One of the key things there was cross-cultural connection, and food seemed like a really good way to try and achieve that,” Quinn says.
“Prior to coming to the Benevolent Society I’d worked at Bankstown Council and I’d seeded tours as part of Sydney International Food Festival, so we were really lucky in the sense that the market research had been done to ascertain market need. We had the information, the price points, things like that.”
Quinn laughs as she recounts how much the program has grown in sophistication.
“The first tours that we ran, when I think back, it was like amateur hour! We had little brown paper bags that had been donated, we were taking bookings by fax and we were doing cash transactions on the day! We were only running two different tour types, and we were just basically giving it a go, and it was all being run with the help of volunteers from the community.
“It just went from strength to strength! The next six to 12 months was all around systemising it, and we started to get a full house. We found our right number, which was 14 people on a tour, and then we realised, that to really build social cohesion, we couldn’t be running them ourselves and people really needed to be paid.
“[We realised that] it shouldn’t be a volunteer activity – it had the potential to be a business. So we sat down, and we reinvented it, and we thought, what does this look like as a business model?”
Information sessions, an expression of interest process and a partnership with Bankstown TAFE were all results of the discussion. The TAFE customised a course to train tour guides and guest presenters were brought in to teach prospective guides voice projection and presentation skills.
“Every year we have a new intake and to date we've trained 38 people,” Quinn explains. “Some of the guys with us from that very first intake are now on our management committee. It’s really come full circle.”
“Typically [guides] would have been long-term unemployed, or never in paid employment. They’re predominantly female, but not always, and they’re looking for an entry point into employment, and for whatever reason they can’t pick up employment in the Australian workplace.
“Any profit that we’ve ever made has gone directly back into training. Our biggest expense is actually training the individuals. Not every guide we’ve trained has stayed with us.”
Cooking Up Community Spirit
Quinn says the tours leave a mark on the communities they visit, building social capital and breaking down stereotypes. Many tours visit hidden Sydney suburbs, including those typically portrayed as dormant or downtrodden.
“Typically there’s going to be multiple languages spoken,” Quinn says of her target suburbs. “Both Fairfield and Bankstown are examples of areas where more than 60 languages are spoken.Typically they’re marginalised in terms of economy, so it’s a big multicultural melting pot, lots of economic disadvantage.
“Particularly in the communities, that we pick, they’re hard to get to by public transport, so they are socially isolated, and hard to find. They’re not drive-through suburbs. We like to call them hidden gems! You would have to seek it out, you would have to know they were there.
“They’re also the type of suburbs where if you Googled them, the type of stories would be about the high crime rate. They get negative media coverage. They tick all the boxes you don’t want to tick.
“Social capital, without doubt, is the intent. It was the original intent, and it’s as true today as it was then.”
Impact measurement projects undertaken by Quinn and her team suggest the tours are achieving that intent.
“We have feedback forms that we do at the end of every tour, and what was really coming through was that while people were booking for the food experience, what they were really getting out of it was that connection to place and culture,” she says.
“They’d say, ‘I had no idea! I would’ve been too scared to come to Fairfield, or come to Bankstown. I would have been too scared that my wallet would get stolen or my car would get keyed. I would have been worried that nobody could communicate or speak English!’
“All those types of stereotypical wrongs, and they would come, and they would meet the people…the businesses are really friendly, and they start to feel that connection.
“We also measure return visitation. We actually do twice yearly surveys and we get a sense of how often people are returning, and how they are spending upon their return. So we get a really informed estimate of the impact on the economy of that place.”
Tours vary according to theme, but they see participants go to a mix of grocery stores, restaurants and fresh food stores.
“Sometimes we’ll go to the butcher shop, sometimes we’ll go to a fish-monger. Some tours we’ll even go and try on clothes! Little India, it’s one of my favourites! We go sari shopping. It depends on where you are and what you’re doing,” Quinn says.
“The [local shop] owners, they go, ‘are you really going to turn up with 20 people?’ And you turn up with 20 people on a Saturday morning, and they become consummate performers at sharing their stories of what it was like coming here and their connection to the food, like how their mum taught them. It just happens, it just bubbles up!”
Refreshing the Recipe
A carefully developed operational model has seen the tour program grow sustainably, enabling the organisation to move in its own direction, Quinn says.
“Often we’ll partner with a local council or chamber of commerce and we’ll present a business case to tell them why it’s a good thing for them to do in their location. They would typically fund the product development piece of the work – for us to go and do the scoping, and train the guides, that would be covered by that, and we then a provide a business case on what the return on investment would be.
“Because we have our return visitation, we can say to Council X, ‘if you invest $10,000 in developing tours in this location, that’s going to return $150,000 in five years’ – so for them it’s a good investment.
“For the first few years we were subsidised by the Benevolent Society, they were picking up the shortfall…going through that development phase, enabling us to develop enough product to get over the seasonality hump. So we had that backbone support.
“We’ve gotten now to the point where we’re able to stand on our own two feet.
“[In the] Benevolent Society – the cost of operating within an organisation of that size is that they’ve got a fixed overhead. When you've got a startup, it’s not really sustainable for the startup to incur that level of overhead.”
Other costs, Quinn explains, are necessary to incur for long-term survivability.
“We pay for all our food samples…businesses will say they’re happy to provide it for free, but the reason we don’t do that is for the economic viability of the business – for the long-term viability of the tours, for it to work, everybody needs to get their piece, otherwise it’s not really a social business, it would be a program,” she says.
“We actually want people to benefit economically from the tours. It’s the same reason we wanted a paid guide system and not a volunteer guide system.
“Moving forward, it’s the same [priorities] as any other business: sales. Getting the message out there. Because we’re a social enterprise, we don’t really have a huge budget to spend on marketing. We rely really heavily on social media, media and word of mouth. Those are the key three tools and they always have been.
“We’ve never really spent much on advertising. Typically our paid advertising budget would be something like 5000 a year, it’s all word of mouth. And then the rest of it is direct selling, when we’re selling into corporates and schools, it’s selling your product face to face.
“The challenge for us moving forward is volume – so selling enough of those to ensure we’re sustainable. I think we’re price pointed well. There are some entry level products in the markets which sell in the 40-45 dollar range, but you’re not always getting a big feast if you like. At the other end of the market, there are tours by competitors for 150-200 dollars a ticket. We’re around the 100 dollar bracket, so at the middle of the range.”
Quinn forecasts a big future for the model she has helped create.
Ït’s completely transplantable,” she says. “We’re actually well down the road in negotiation to do a similar sort of thing [elsewhere]. It’s completely transferrable – if you think of the foodie havens that exist, in South Australia for example. That would be our long term goal, to work how to franchise the model.
“I just think there’s so much potential, particularly for people from refugee and migrant backgrounds, where a lot of our guides come from. They bring this unbelievable wealth of knowledge, and when you tap into it, social enterprise is a marriage made in heaven for people with those kinds of skillsets.
“Food is just one opportunity, and I think there’s many, many more.”