Tevlin: Our generosity with for-profit restaurants knows no bounds

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 14, 2013 - 10:10 PM

Travail chef Mike Brown. « Any charity in the state would be delighted with an outcome like Travail’s. » Dana Nelson of GiveMn

Photo: Tom Wallace • Star Tribune,

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Last week, the cult status restaurant Travail held a fundraiser through the website “Kickstarter,” a vehicle for entrepreneurs, artists, independent filmmakers and the like to raise money for projects that may be hard to fund.

Friends, family members, fans and strangers pledge their money, not as investors who would get money back if the venture succeeds, but as donations.

Travail used Kickstarter to help fund a new restaurant in the works. Their results were stunning. In the first six hours, they raised $75,000. By Friday, they had raised more than $180,000 from nearly 800 donors, evidence of their rabid following.

Saffron and WSK owner Sameh Wadi expressed what most of the local food world was thinking: “It blew my mind,” said Wadi. “Happy for them and really excited that Minnesota supports small business like that.”

The restaurant business is brutal, so I’m always happy when talented people find a way to continue or grow. Now, here comes the part where I rain on the parade a little bit.

Travail has been a success since it opened its doors, with customers lining up for extravagant meals hours in advance. I’m guessing they do well financially compared to most other restaurants. Yet, hundreds of people are willing to give money to a wildly successful, for-profit company.

I don’t get it.

OK, larger donors get something tangible back, like a cooking lesson or private party or the ability to “jump the line” at the no-reservation restaurant, while smaller donors get their name on the wall. Welcome to the cool kids’ club — I get that.

I give money to local for-profit companies too, but the perks I get back are called “dividends,” not canapés. My “donations” go to things called “charities.”

Travail chef/owner Mike Brown passionately sold me on their model. “It’s our personal art project,” Brown said. “It’s humbling and heartwarming, and we will pay it back in sweat equity.”

Let me put Travail’s haul in perspective. During the largest fundraising day in the state, “Give to the Max Day,” the average donation was $242, not enough to let you butt in line at Travail.

“Any charity in the state would be delighted with an outcome like Travail’s,” said Dana Nelson, executive director of GiveMN, which organizes the November give-fest.

I’m not alone in my questions about the Kickstarter model in this case. While Travail was raking in the cash, WCCO journalist and Minnesota Monthly food writer Jason DeRusha had running commentary on Twitter.

“I think that’s great for you,” said DeRusha, who likes the restaurant. “And great for the restaurants! I just find it odd to essentially donate to a for-profit.” Previously, DeRusha wrote about restaurant fundraising in general, calling it “ludicrous.”

The Travail folks, talented as they are, want the extra cash to take their skills up a notch and buy new equipment that an individual investor might not want to front. “We don’t want to compromise the food we serve, the crazy things we do, or how many seats we have to include in our space,” they wrote.

Brown said the extra money allows them to run the kind of restaurant they want, and I was happy to hear that “I’m not going to go out and buy a Ferrari.”

Instead, they are thinking about a possible nonprofit to teach kids to cook, or maybe the money will help them keep a temporary “pop-up” restaurant in challenged north Minneapolis open longer. They may even be able to afford some health insurance.

“People contributed because people trust us,” said Brown.

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