A trio of Twin Cities food nonprofits eager to satisfy the appetites of a growing number of socially conscious consumers has branched out into the catering business.
Eat for Equity, Open Arms of Minnesota and Appetite for Change have started catering parties, corporate events, even weddings. The new enterprises — which are run like for-profits and compete with them — offer a way to expand the nonprofits’ missions, raise their community profiles and help their bottom lines.
And it’s paying off.
In its first year in the catering business, Open Arms took 10 percent of its $2.5 million in revenue from private catered events held at its Minneapolis headquarters. It also offered “Pop-up Dinners,” where guests bought tickets to a candlelit meal, and boxed lunches for mostly corporate clients. “We are always looking for ways to augment fundraising. We figured let’s focus on what we do best, which is making good food that people enjoy,” said Jeanne Foels, spokeswoman for Open Arms, established as a nonprofit in 1986.
When Anna Mahnke and John Greene planned their September 2016 wedding, they wanted nearly every aspect to reflect their dedication to family, the environment and social causes. They chose a farm setting, Mahnke’s mother hand-picked a wildflower bouquet and her father glided her to the lakeshore ceremony in the family’s old fishing boat.
And they hired Eat for Equity to prepare the meal.
“We wanted to throw a great party and have our guests enjoy themselves. We wanted to show our guests and our family what we care about, too,” Mahnke said.
The dinner for 200 was infused with meaning and brimming with locally sourced foods — mustard-roasted chicken, roast beef and a root vegetable medley.
“One of the things people come to us for is that sense of community connection and values,” said Emily Torgrimson, founder of Eat for Equity.
‘A culture of generosity’
The fundraising trend for nonprofits extends well beyond the food niche, said Terri Barreiro, who teaches philanthropy and social enterprise at the University of Minnesota.
“Nonprofits have been looking for ways to generate earned income that also contribute to furthering their mission,” Barreiro said. “More and more nonprofit organizations are looking for those kinds of strategies.”
Eat For Equity, which began in 2006 in Boston, hosts community feasts prepared by local chefs and donates its proceeds to good causes. Private catering work, which it beefed up two years ago, accounted for more than half the $100,000 in revenue it took in last year.
“Not only was it consistent with our mission to build a culture of generosity, it was something that we could be good at,” Torgrimson said.
Appetite for Change launched Breaking Bread, a north Minneapolis cafe and catering operation, in 2015. Along with its storefront dining, full-service catering and corporate box lunch service, Breaking Bread brings another important community service to the table: training in the food service industry at a time when several Twin Cities culinary programs have closed.
“We are providing a lot of on-the-job training for folks who want to enter food service,” said Molly Cherland, Appetite’s communications and development manager.
The Open Arms board decided to try its hand at catering in 2016. In addition to box lunches, staffers handle events at their building in the Phillips neighborhood.
Foels said their classically trained chefs use locally sourced ingredients to prepare meals and that prices are competitive, perhaps even a bit below market. That, coupled with its “Food is Medicine” mission — preparing and delivering 11,000 meals each week to people with life-threatening or chronic illness — has made Open Arms a hot events venue.
“More and more we are finding that this generation making the buying decisions — millennials — are really wanting to mobilize and advocate with their feet and their wallets,” said Lisa Lane, Open Arms’ senior director of development and community engagement. “They go to places where they know they are giving back.”
A typical Open Arms catered box lunch costs $12. After paying for food and labor, the nonprofit has enough left to pay for 1½ meals for its clients. The box lunches, marked with the nonprofit’s logo, offer a way to spread the word about its charity work.
Eat for Equity also tries to price its product a bit below market and avoids a lot of the add-ons that for-profit operations charge, such as fees for cake-cutting and corking. It offers clients free use of its dishes — the mismatched plates and Mason jar glasses typically used for its community dinners.
After the Mahnke and Greene wedding, Eat for Equity donated 10 percent of its catering charge to a charity of their choosing. The couple was so impressed, they’ve stayed in touch.
“It’s a neat thing to have become friends with them,” Mahnke said. “It’s easy when you have similar values. It was cool not to have this feel like a one-time business transaction. It really felt like community building.”
“We want to be generous with what we have and model that value,” Torgrimson said. “We share them with any client who would like them for free.”