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.

Bizarre Foods Food TV star Andrew Zimmern said Travail’s success is a “sea change,” but acknowledged the next 10 restaurants to try it might fail.

Zimmern, who said giving to a restaurant and charity aren’t mutually exclusive, adds that the Travail chefs “have ferociously cultivated” a large group of “passionate acolytes” by offering an experience unlike any other. Customers “want to feel like it’s their clubhouse,” he said.

The restaurant industry isn’t the first to turn to Kickstarter. Millionaire movie stars like Spike Lee, Zach Braff, and even Sylvester Stallone have collected millions to fund movies. In which they star.

Back to the $250 to skip waiting in line, which Travail called part of “democratizing fine dining.” As our food critic Rick Nelson pointed out in Taste on Thursday, it’s exactly the opposite.

How is a donation to skip the wait different from stuffing money in the maître d’’s pocket?

“People pay extra to be treated special,” said Brown.

Wadi points out that the restaurant industry regularly contributes a lot to local charities. That’s a great point.

So, congratulations to Travail for some crazy genius.

But this is where my challenge comes in: Bertrand Weber, director of Culinary and Nutrition Services at the Minneapolis Public Schools, has assembled a council of chefs and caterers who want to transform the public school lunch in Minneapolis. They’ve already been giving advice and sharing recipes.

Starting in Oct. 16, restaurants will adopt four schools and begin raising money to install salad bars in them. Weber estimates it will cost about $40,000.

My hope is that anyone who cares about good food enough to give to Travail would also consider contributing to a plan to provide good food to school kids, too. They aren’t looking for “food Nirvana,” just a salad bar.

For more information, contact Weber at Bertrand.Weber@mpls.k12.mn.us or 612-668-2821. The list of participating restaurants, which will host a variety of fundraisers, can be found at bit.ly/TrueFoodMap.

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