I live next to the best bakery in Toronto. On Saturdays, people line up for the sourdough. But good luck buying day-old loaves for making breadcrumbs or panzanella — all the leftovers go to The Good Shepherd, a local shelter that provides more than 1,000 meals a day.
There’s nothing on the bakery’s website about this, just as there’s nothing trumpeting that full-time staff get health insurance (a rarity in the hospitality business). Blackbird Baking Co. just does it, and quietly, because it’s the right thing to do.
And despite razor-thin profit margins, plenty of other kitchens across Canada are doubling as full-time social enterprises.
In Toronto, Hawthorne restaurant trains people living on social assistance for hospitality jobs, while Depanneur’s Newcomer Kitchen program invites refugees to cook and sell food through the restaurant. In Halifax, Fireside Kitchen offers job training for people with intellectual disabilities.
While Vancouver is notorious for its soaring real-estate prices, in the Downtown Eastside, where rates of homelessness are high and drug addiction is rife, storefronts sit empty. It’s there can find Save On Meats, a combination diner, butcher shop, and community hub.
The business uses whole animals only. When a cow is butchered, the prime cuts (ribeye, striploin, etc.) are returned to the farmer, who can sell them to other clients at a premium. This allows Save On to pay the rail price (the whole cow, by the pound) for the off-cuts, which are then made into sausages and hamburgers. For anyone hesitant to give money to people on the street, Save On offers $3.50 tokens that can be redeemed for a breakfast sandwich. The kitchen also feeds 1,000 people a day by delivering hot, nutritious meals to women and children fleeing violence, to street-entrenched youth, and to people living well below the poverty line.
“Our token program is our most visible,” writes managing director Ash MacLeod in an email. “But we also have an employment program that hires folks with traditional barriers (mental and physical disabilities, history of addiction, criminal records) and offer them the support they need to succeed. About 30 percent of our staff identify with having a barrier to employment.”
Back in Ontario, Ruth Anne Van Holst, who owns the Hamilton-based catering and wholesale business Mes Amis, has five full-time employees and another seven part-timers, all of whom would face employment challenges otherwise.
Van Holst suffers from borderline personality disorder, which had always made it difficult for her to find employment. She wanted to help others like her, so she staffed Mes Amis with people with mental-health issues. The company, founded in 2012, supplies gluten-free salted maple pecan cookies and chocolate almond blondies to nearby businesses. Mes Amis also runs food and art classes for kids and teens, plus a crepe and smoothie bar.
“One of the big things for me in being a sole proprietor is that if I don’t show up, the business stops, and my employees don’t receive their paycheques. And that pressure, when I’m in the midst of a suicidal crisis, keeps me really motivated. Whereas if I could just walk away, it’s a lot easier to walk away from my life as well.”
The business often pays for employees’ counselling and lunches. Employees are paid in cash if their bank accounts are frozen for having insufficient funds. Some employees don’t have bank accounts.
“We have one staff who gets angry and quits and then a week later apologizes and comes back. If we did payroll, she would actually have to quit, with all of the implications of that. We wanted the freedom to do what’s best in these unique situations.”
Though Van Holst has not taken advantage of them, Ontario provides some incentives for these types of businesses — the Social Enterprise Demonstration Fund and the Social Impact Voucher Program.
- If entrepreneurs want to combat food insecurity, they need to get their hands dirty
- The Agenda: City food: Grow it yourself
But Canada does not have a legal framework for what in the United States is known as a benefit corporation — that is, a company designed to consider stakeholders (which includes employees, consumers, the community, and environment) in addition to shareholders.
“A benefit corporation is a for-profit company that takes into account people, profit and the planet,” explains corporate lawyer Dennis Tobin, partner at Toronto firm Blaney McMurty. “Companies have character. The advantage of the benefit corporation is that you can make these values part of the character of the company. So if a corporate raider comes along, they have to live with that or change it.”
Whatever their intentions or values, it's common for entrepreneurs to "Columbus" a neighbourhood: open up cafes/bars/restaurants where the rent is low because residents are poor, then act as if they’ve discovered the land and complain about the very people who make the area affordable.
In Vancouver, Save On Meats’ approach has resulted in a modern business that’s integrated into the existing community — rather than one that exploits it.
“It is the responsibility of everyone to be a good neighbour,” says MacLeod. “That might mean very different things to different people. But no matter what business or service you offer there is a role to play in making your community more livable for everyone.”
May we have a moment of your time?
Our public funding only covers some of the cost of producing high-quality, balanced content. We depend on the generosity of people who believe we all should have access to accurate, fair journalism. Caring people just like you!
Get Current Affairs & Documentaries email updates in your inbox every morning.