Be your own change

Q&A with Mark Brand, one of Canada’s foremost social-impact entrepreneurs
by Joanne Will

In Vancouver, Mark has created restaurants, lounges and a food community with a heart. From high-end dining to chic bars and a street-level token program to provide sandwiches to those in need (now being replicated in cities across North America), we talked to Mark about the gamut of his work.

Can you provide an overview of your businesses?

I’ve been in Vancouver for 11 years. I’ve created 11 businesses over my tenure in Gastown, which is coming up on what will be nine years. I currently operate a creative agency, our charity A Better Life Foundation, Save On Meats and all the sub-entities within it, and also Persephone Brewing and The Diamond.

We’ve served over a million people out of Save On in four years, and that’s people in our community. We’re extraordinarily proud of that number and of the amount of people who have come through our doors who have moved past needing Save On. Amongst the failures, there are so many successes that we’re incredibly proud of.

Tell us more about your charity.

A Better Life Foundation was created specifically to provide opportunity, through food — first of all to get people fed. Our thing is to feed and train employees. This is a 5-, 10-, 15-, 20-year plan, so we’re going to be around for a very long time. Our base work right now is feeding. And two, to make sure that people have the clearest minds to be able to do the work they need to do. And so we work with creating programs for large SRO (Single Room Occupancy) groups. Atira [Women’s Resource Society], we’ve been working with pretty much since Day One. We just started working with the Lookout Society with a prototype in one of their buildings, and they saw marked results. They’re blown away with the difference it makes. So we’re proving those metrics. And then people come to me: Youth Unlimited, an incredible organization — they do outreach, they’ve got buses that go out in the streets and meet youth where they are and do the work. I love these guys! They asked: hey, do you think you could provide food for our visits when people are coming because ultimately they’re starving and food is also a great way to get people in the door. Yes, of course, we’ll get food for you. And all these other places. The DTES Women’s Centre, when they have a problem, they come to us and say, can you help us? We need these things. That’s what A Better Life is there to do: at the moment of crisis, to step up. Last year at Christmas, somebody stole the entire set of Christmas meals off the back of a truck before they were going to be delivered to an SRO that day. Those are the phone calls we get. “Hey, we’ve got 130 hungry people!” — and we swing into action. A Better Life will provide the funding for the group at Save On Meats to get to work: to get the food and get people fed.

You’re operating at the edge of the Downtown Eastside (DTES), a community struggling with homelessness, addiction, poverty. How did you come to care so much about this neighbourhood and the issues?

I was working in it. I was working with people in it. I got to know folks. I donated to a lot of agencies. I got to know the agencies and understand their work, and then I knew that this was my purpose. I just knew it, in my gut. I was like, okay, I know what I’m supposed to do. I speak everybody, that’s my language. I’m really good at understanding all kinds of problems and building systems and weaving the fabrics of communities together. That’s my skill set. I know if I don’t apply this, I’m doing myself a disservice first of all because I won’t be genuinely happy, and secondly, I can really make some impacts here.

Do you have advice for anyone wants to mesh being a socially responsible entrepreneur with business principles?

The number one thing that has to be at the top of your mind is: do I love this? Do I deeply care about this issue? And if not, what issue do I deeply care about? Because lord knows, there’s a laundry list to choose from. Then align that with your business, and push all the edges. Find out who’s doing the work, what’s successful. What agencies can support you is the number one thing I tell people, because this work doesn’t go unsupported.

If you’re a new business person, and you’re thinking about starting a business, you need to take a long and sobering look at what your business metrics are. Is it a financial commitment you’re going to make, or an employment commitment — or both? Or is it a commitment to the planet? To start, set realistic goals. One of the main parts of this failing for people, over and over, is that they set crazy goals: “I’m going to start a business. I don’t have any money, and then I’m going to do this thing, and then I’m going to… ” Slow down, you don’t have to do it all at once. And the more intentional you are about it, and well-planned out, not only the more chance you have of success but of sustainability. Otherwise ultimately you’ll just disappoint yourself and others, and that’s not what anybody wants to do. Because I’ve done it, multiple times, and it sucks.

“Slow down, you don’t have to do it all at once. And the more intentional you are about it, and well-planned out, not only the more chance you have of success but of sustainability.”

 

 
This journey has even taken you to Stanford, where you’ll conclude a unique fellowship at the d.school later this year. Tell us about that.

Long story short, the Knight Foundation funds five civic innovation fellows working on different problems that can be scaled internationally. And so my focus is, I’m working on homelessness, street entrenchment and activating all these nodes.

We created Save On and the Token Project and 12 other programs and our charity and all those pieces out of that space in five years, and I was seeing some really great successes and traction with people getting fed and the change in their behaviour and willingness to achieve upward mobility. Simply from not just having the food but also having a community and people to be connected to, and being able to help others, and then wanting to get into employment and give that a shot, because previously they didn’t think that anybody cared about them.

Ultimately service agencies are disconnected because people are either really burnt out or just overworked, and resources aren’t managed properly a lot of the time. So this was like: oh, somebody from the community doesn’t just care about me one day a year, they want to support me all year round, and not just somebody but 138 people at this place that I can go to anytime I want. So it was like, wow, how do we magnify this and then also connect to all the other people doing this work in a meaningful way? Every person I’d meet when I’d go on the road, or was speaking, for the past five years, they’d be proud to show me their agencies. I’d say, this is great, do you know about X doing this work? And almost 100 percent of the time people would say, no, they’d never heard of them. And I’d tell them, it’s just down the street. People were working in silos and the problems were getting deeper and bigger.

I was in a thing called THNK, based out of Vancouver, that originally started in Amsterdam. In it, I learned some very strong design thinking and leadership skills and created a project called Positive Access Link, which is to be a digital medium to sort of fill the white space between all these different issues. So, you’ve got the “ladder of homelessness” and that could be street entrenchment all the way up to living in Single Room Occupancy and on their way into housing. The second one is “agency” and that could be government, NGOs, NPOs, the CSR department at Walmart — all of these folks who really have the tools and the resources to help but are working completely siloed. Finally, the empathetic giver: you or I walk by somebody on the street, hear about a story and wish there was something we could f***ing do about that but we just don’t know how. So, we’ve got money, we’ve got agency, we’ve got willpower, we’ve got empathetic people by the tens of thousands. And that was proven to me when we did our 90,000th redemption of the Token Program in the DTES. There’s no lack of want to help people. And then we’ve got what is relatively small in comparison to our populations: issues of homeless and poverty that we have the resources to fix.

So, Stanford heard I was working on this thing, and approached me. You can imagine that phone call. I thought, is it April 1? Which one of my friends is screwing with me? They asked me to come do a fellowship as an adjunct lecturer. I said, you know I have high school, right? I just blurted it out!

How did you start out in the culinary realm? Has it always been a passion?

I started cooking at a pizza shop in Dartmouth when I was 12. They let me work on the weekends. I told them I was older than I was; they paid me cash in hand. I started working very, very early; I had a paper route years before that. On the East Coast, that’s not frowned upon. My whole family cooked due to necessity — they didn’t have money to eat out — so that was really part of my learning. Then, when I was in Australia, I started doing any job in a restaurant. It was bartender I wanted — that paid the most money — but I knew I had to work my way up to that position. So I started as a busboy and then did shifts on line, and then worked in kitchens and on the floor and behind the bar until I got really established as a DJ there and that sort of took my life over. I then came to Vancouver after being diagnosed with an illness, and started again from scratch. I was the second bar manager at Chambar. I took that position and really ran with it and that established my career in Vancouver. I was the first “Bartender of the Year” in Van. Then when we opened our restaurants. As it happens, my pastry chef quit so I did pastry for three months. We were down two line cooks so I was on line on a Friday night cooking with chef Jérémie Bastien. We opened The Diamond, and I’m cooking for the first three months while we stabilize. And so on and so forth. So culinary has always been part of my tool kit and something I really love, and luckily still get to do a lot of. I get to do dinners — I’m doing one next week in San Francisco. I’ve got my Greasy Spoon Diner, which is a series we do in Vancouver, and lots of other cooking things I’ve had the opportunity to do all over the planet in the last couple of years.

“I just live very intentionally. And it works.”

And it just keeps going; your schedule doesn’t slow down after this. Does putting your intention out there bring opportunities to you?

You know, it’s really exciting. I feel like the opportunities just keep arriving, and I’ve got bandwidth, and I continue to build the team. Because there’s space, and there’s space in my life to keep going. And as long as that’s the truth, then I’m going to keep adding because there’s no time like now.

You manifest everything, whatever your passion is. I didn’t come into this with a bankroll. We started our first restaurant and painted it, built it ourselves on $89,000, which is credit card debt, et cetera. That’s how I got my start, with all of our businesses. I just believed so deeply, and continue to, and manifested the opportunities. You know when you resonate in the world that way and show up as your true self every day, there’s no other opportunity. You piss a lot of people off, but the flipside of that anger is it’s very much like empathy: all of the positive people gravitate towards you. I’m touring Apple’s lab in Cupertino in two weeks. They came to me. Stanford came to me. So you manifest that stuff, you do the work, manifest it. I don’t mean I sit in meditation in the morning saying I’m going to be X; I mean, I just live very intentionally. And it works.

#BeingHungrySucks – help provide nutritious meals for those in need through Mark’s A Better Life Foundation.