The Town Kitchen is a business-to-business food delivery company based in Oakland, California with a commitment to uplift and empower formerly incarcerated youth and young people coming from foster care by employing them and giving them professional skills that will allow them access to opportunities. A woman and minority owned business, the for-profit company demonstrates their commitment to social justice and responsibility in multiple parts of their business model—from human capital to their supply chain, down to their packaging. We sat down with CEO Eric Quick to learn how their efforts to maximize their social and environmental impact has served as a key advantage in growing their business. Read on to learn more about the value proposition of being a mission-driven company, as well as the advantages and options in raising capital as a social enterprise:
How and why was the Town Kitchen founded?
The Town Kitchen was founded in 2015 with the intent of creating a for-profit business focused on combating social justice issues plaguing youth individuals in the re-entry and foster care communities. The founders concentrated on building a food business that provided exposure, access and opportunity for its youth employees to the corporate world. Through employment at The Town Kitchen, young individuals would be provided training in the culinary arts, customer service, operational logistics as well as many soft skills necessary to increase the likelihood of opportunities for higher-compensated jobs in the future. The founders’ commitment to social and food justice issues whilst dedicating themselves to support underserved individuals, have shaped a sense of community to continue to raise awareness on the social issues plaguing our local economy.
Historically, our company is hired to work with Fortune 500 companies. Our employees are getting exposure into those environments by working with us, and I love that our work has the ability to reach out to young people in this way.
If someone wanted to create a model like yours, what are the steps they need to take in order to make it happen, and how do you create working environment + culture that truly uplifts them?
One of the things that’s most critical in being able to serve our youth is having strong non-profit partners in the community. They not only help connect us with new talent, but they also provide case management, so that we can evaluate each situation and place employees on a track that sets them up for the most success. Case managers help us understand what is influencing the youths’ lives outside of work, and it’s a very important piece that ensures that they will be successful both professionally and personally. Having partners like this is critical to helping us serve our mission.
One of the things that we’ve done over the last year is catalyzed our own program to make sure that no matter where individuals are coming from, there’s a pathway and a structure within our organization that still allows for flexibility to address each individual’s wants and needs. This way, they can have access to the right experiences so that impact can happen by design, and not by accident. We want to create a roadmap that we can go back to so we can replicate it for future employees.
We also pair them with a cross-disciplinary mentor, so even if they come into the culinary track, it doesn’t mean that it needs to be their end goal. They might later decide that front of house is a better fit; this is where the mentor comes in to help steer them in the right direction. Mentors guide them so they can get better at what they’re doing day-to-day, but also give them exposure to things outside of that role.
We’re growing pretty quickly. So we’re partial to helping them grow internally, and being promoted up to higher paying roles within the organization. We had four promotions just in this last quarter, and employees have taken on newer leadership roles. We had an employee that ended up getting taken on by Brex’s food and beverage team in a larger role. They are continuing to grow, and ultimately, this is what we’re proudest of.
Do you think that your mission is a key reason why your clients are drawn to your business?
Absolutely. We primarily sell our services to companies, and what we found is that a lot of these companies are being influenced by Millennials and Gen Z employees, who are very cautious and conscious of who they’re working with, where their money is going, and how that money is being spent.
We expose our customer partners to the social impact that they’re creating by working with us, and our clients are really happy to see that translated into tangible numbers. Each quarter, we aggregate the information, and quantify how our clients are impacting their community by putting their dollars into our social enterprise. It’s powerful communication for us, because it creates an emotional attachment, and as a result, it gives us more word-of-mouth recommendations.
In relationship to sustainability and social responsibility, what are some of the trends you see happening in the food industry, and how can companies stay ahead of the curve?
We were founded by 3 minority entrepreneurs (two of them being women), and we continue to see a lot of traction in the field supporting minority and women-owned businesses.
One of our core tenets or our company is to support minority and women-owned food businesses, especially those that share our values in hiring individuals with criminal backgrounds and individuals from the foster care community. Those are all metrics that I report out on a monthly and quarterly basis to our investors, and it’s something we continue to see in the marketplace today: our clients are constantly thinking about what’s really happening out in the world, and the part we play in that.
We are constantly thinking about how we support women and minority leaders. For us, it’s a core tenet of what we do, and we realize that we need to share more about how we’re doing that.
What has been your primary way of raising capital for your business?
Historically, we’ve raised money through impact investors. We’ve raised capital from Better Ventures here in Oakland, as well as Urban Innovation Fund. We’ve also raised money from Slow Money Angel Investors. We’ve had options on this, so that would be on the equity side. On the debt side, we’ve been able to raise some money from a couple different entities, some of whom focus on my minority and/or women-owned founders. SheEO provided a low-interest loan to support our early growth, which was a very flexible, and very low interest. It really helped get us going through one of the growth cycles that we had. I-Seed was focused on minority founders, and they also provided us a loan that had pretty favorable repayment terms on it.
Most recently, we’ve been able to secure a loan through what Community Vision Impact Fund (previously Northern California Loan Authority). Their favorable payback terms typically work in the non-profit space, but because of our social mission, being a public benefit corporation by legal structure has really allowed us to have discussions with people that are aligned with us from a values-perspective and aren’t your typical full recourse lenders.
Most of these individuals wouldn’t talk to me if I was just a for-profit food delivery company. At the end of the day, you don’t have those options at the table if you’re not running a good business. We also found that traditional VC models don’t work really well with mission-based companies, and some of that reason is because the social impact investor ecosystem is still growing to be able to write bigger checks.
We recently signed up with a crowdfunding platform called Republic, and it allows you to raise capital equity from accredited and non-investors on the same platform. It’s a great way to involve your community, individuals who may not have a million-dollar net worth, but want to invest in the company to see it grow.
What are other ways that you incorporate social and environmental responsibility in your business?
There are a couple key things that are top of mind for us on any given day, and it goes back to our values as an organization. We’re heavily focused on sustainability from a packaging perspective. We’ve evolved our model quite a bit, going away from compostable, and now using reusable. Second thing that we’re focused on is food waste –we know inherently that because we’re doing bulk meals for our customers, we need to ensure that there’s not a lot of food left over, and if there is, that we have a way to repurpose it for the homeless or other shelters around Oakland.
I also mentioned earlier that we place a large focus on minority and women-owned businesses in the area. Overall, we want to elevate the local ecosystem, and help small businesses thrive.
What inspires you about being part of the SVC community?
What I love about it is the ability to share best practices with like-minded individuals that have aligned values. I want to associate myself with people that are trying to tackle bigger issues, not just running a business for profit. I continue to be inspired by the problems people are trying to solve- at SVC, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hesitation on whether somebody’s going to tackle it or not. They just do it.
Meet The Town Kitchen and other Sustainable Food Leaders at One World’s Hacking Food Event in San Francisco on July 24th! Learn more and register here.