A Recipe for Employment
Wednesday, 4th October 2017 at 9:04 am
Scarf is doing more than dining, writes Wendy Williams in this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
Hospitality can transform lives.
That is the premise behind Melbourne social enterprise Scarf.
Founded in 2010, Scarf partners with restaurants and other hospitality businesses to provide real-world experience, mentoring and employment opportunities to participants who have faced significant barriers to work.
In particular, the idea was cooked up to help young people seeking protection and those from refugee and migrant backgrounds get a start in the hospitality industry.
Scarf co-founder and general manager Hannah Colman tells Pro Bono News it started because she and fellow founder Jess Moran, knew heaps of young people hungry for hospitality jobs but that were facing barriers to getting them.
“We both loved the industry and we were meeting a lot of young people who were really keen to get into the industry… but we just saw consistently that there were barriers to getting that first job,” Colman says.
“I guess to be honest, back then we didn’t understand the complexity of the barriers. We were just really optimistic and wanted to try and find a way to bridge that gap.”
Colman, who had been working in restaurants “for about eight years at that point” and had also done some volunteering with the refugee community, says the initial idea was for the pair to start their own restaurant.
“You know we’d seen Jamie Oliver do it and we were like, yeah, that will be easy, we’ve worked in restaurants, we know how they work,” she says.
But following “a little bit of business planning” it became apparent Colman and Moran lacked some of the business skills and the money to start a restaurant.
“So we started getting a little bit innovative I suppose,” Colman says.
“We thought well why don’t we try running a pilot program. We got in touch with a bunch of friends to become mentors in the program and were able to borrow a friend’s restaurant when it was closed on a Monday night for a 12-week pilot program and that was where our model was born.”
Colman says the success of the first pilot showed them that they could make a positive difference to the trainees.
“Seven out of eight of them got jobs following the program and so we kind of thought, well maybe we don’t need to start a restaurant, maybe we should just keep borrowing other peoples, and it’s gone on from there,” she says.
“Obviously it has evolved and shifted along the way but essentially the main program that we’re running now is still very similar to that pilot program.”
The main aim is still to help people, which according to Colman is reflected in the name – which is “just like a scarf that you wear”.
“A scarf is something that is warm and comforting and it can be an expression of culture or a show of support, and there is also a saying ‘to scarf it down’, which is to eat very quickly, it is kind of a derivation of scoff. So that’s the food tie in,” she says.
Now Scarf pops up in a new Melbourne restaurant for three 10-week seasons per year.
For its latest spring program Scarf is at Auction Rooms in North Melbourne, offering diners a two-course set menu for $45 per head every Tuesday from 26 September to 21 November.
The menu has been designed for Scarf by Auction Rooms’ head chef Aaron Capes and chef Andy Hearden, with dishes such as ocean trout crudo with green gazpacho, and compressed honeydew melon almond milk or spiced lamb neck with butternut pumpkin, bean and crispy garlic salad.
But more importantly than what is being cooked up in the kitchen, is what is taking place front of house.
To date, Scarf has worked with 165 young people with 70 per cent of Scarf graduates going on to find ongoing meaningful employment at places like Maha, The Garden State Hotel, The Sofitel, Top Paddock and Two Birds Brewing.
Colman says trainees learn all the “elements you need to know about if you are going to work in the industry” from cocktail making to coffee making and formal service.
“So we have eight trainees who come into the program, and each week they do training in different areas,” she says.
“We also offer the responsible service of alcohol certificate, and we do some work on resume writing and interview practice as well. All of our training is really hands on, it is very much focused on industry relevant training.”
Scarf also has “a bunch of amazing hospitality trainers and mentors” who volunteer their time to share their skills and their networks.
“So it is a real functional restaurant with paying customers, usually it’s pretty busy, we have about 80 to 90 people per night, and we have a one to one trainee and mentor ratio,” Colman says.
“Each trainee will be paired with a mentor and that person is a volunteer who works in the industry… [and] they are bringing all their own experience and networks into Scarf which is great.
“The trainees get to work alongside them, so it is a supportive working environment, we don’t just throw them straight in the deep end. But in saying that, it is busy and it is a really great way to get that experience very quickly rather than hearing about it or reading about it, they very much get to do it.”
Trainees are also paid the restaurant industry award wage for their work during the dinners, which Colman says is important in valuing their contribution.
“We really want to set that benchmark for them in terms of that they’re valued and that after Scarf, they should be going out there and expecting to be looked after properly in whatever job they find themselves in,” she says.
The overall aim is that the trainees go on to find meaningful employment.
Colman says, as well as having a limited number of work placements following the program, they try to capitalise on the networks that open up organically through the partnering restaurants and mentors.
It seems to be working, as they find about 70 per cent of trainees find meaningful employment within six months after the program.
She says for some, that might be part time.
“So we very much work with everyone as individuals and look when they come into the program and when they’re finishing their 10 weeks what their goals are and what is realistic for them and what is going to be sustainable,” she says.
“We really try and work with them on finding the right employment for them rather than just trying to funnel everyone into a catering job or a hotel job. We’re really proud of that.”
Colman says they are also trying to look beyond the employment outcomes to “the more qualitative stuff around people’s confidence and their feelings of belonging”.
“We watch someone come into the program and they’re often quiet, their confidence is quite low and they’re quite unsure about what’s going to happen and then by week five or week six, the confidence has just skyrocketed and we’re seeing really amazing friendships forming between trainers and mentors, and even with the customers who come into the restaurant,” she says.
“We have such amazing support from the community, and so many lovely regular customers who come in and they write their feedback forms at the end of the dinner and things that come out of that often are really meaningful and you just see the trainees really taking that on and that belief in themselves really starts to increase.”
Colman says while they are very focused on the social outcomes, the enterprise still needs to run like a business.
But she says they didn’t set out to run a “social enterprise”.
“Probably to be honest, eight years ago we didn’t really understand what social enterprise was,” she says.
“We didn’t sit down and go, let’s start a social enterprise, we were like, let’s try and solve this problem.”
As they were starting out Moran enrolled in the School of Social Entrepreneurs and went through the program as they were developing the model.
“We started to understand ok well this needs to run like a business, but we also from the early days needed to get some grant money to be able to get things off the ground,” she says.
“I suppose now after many years of running a social enterprise, of course there are things that I might do differently if I had my time again.”
She says it is “really hard” to run a sustainable social enterprise, especially when you’re operating in hospitality where the margins are slim.
“It’s not an industry that’s easy to make money in even if you’re a for profit,” she says.
“Then you throw in the fact that you are reliant on so many partnerships and your main outcomes are about getting people job ready and into jobs and that takes a lot of work because you’re working with individuals, there’s not an easy cookie cutter model and there never will be.
“But I suppose what we found, by classifying ourselves as a social enterprise, we’ve got a lot of support from businesses.”
According to Colman, Scarf is about 65 to 70 per cent self funded, with 30 per cent reliant on philanthropy.
“As we’ve grown, that ratio has remained about the same but obviously now we’re much bigger than we were, but we’re looking at ways to close that gap,” Colman says.
“We’ve sort of tried lots of tweaks with our model and the way we offer drinks and things in the restaurant. We’ve tried to create ways to earn more money but as I said it’s not that easy. When you’re doing dinners on a Tuesday most people have one glass of wine.”
Colman says if she had her time over, she would “change a million things”, one of which would be having more confidence in the beginning.
“It’s hard to ask too much of people when you’re doing something new and you don’t actually know what the positive outcomes are going to be,” she says.
“I wish I had foreseen how great the outcomes were going to be and what the positive stuff was going to be so I had that confidence to ask for more from sponsors and restaurant partners and job opportunities for trainees and things like that.
“I think we were a bit too meek in those first couple of years which probably held us back a little bit.”
In terms of what the next course will be, Colman says they want to be affecting more change and making it easier for participants to get jobs.
“We’re really looking at how we can do more,” she says.
“We’re coming up to our third, Do More Than Drink campaign which runs in December, which is basically an awareness building and fundraising campaign that happens in Melbourne bars.
“We’ve started diversifying our program… and started building in a shorter course called Taste Testing Plate, which is a three day course which happens over a week, and is basically a condensed version of a lot of our training that we pull into a shorter course and the offer a work opportunity with a pop up dinner.
“And we’re looking at our operations for next year. This year we’ve worked with around 40 trainees next year we’re hoping to work with 70 to 80. We should be able to do that if we can pull off running three seasons and three Tasting Plates.”
She says they are in a “very healthy place”.
“Seven years feels like a milestone,” she says.
“It is very motivating to keep going for another seven and plus.”