Mark Brand Gives His Insight on Designing Systems For a Better Tomorrow


In June, KML welcomed Vancouver-based social entrepreneur and restaurateur Mark Brand as the keynote speaker of its A Brand New World presentation. In this special webcast, Brand shared his own experiences and real-life examples to shine a light on emergent practices in design thinking and systems innovation.

He also offered his take on how we can rebuild the systems within the hospitality industry to be stronger and better for our communities, with the idea of “being of service” taking centre stage in the conversation.

“I want to talk about the work that we’re actually doing, So that you might see yourself in it; you might be able to find some ways that your current practices and venues…could be further of service,” he explained. “Because, no question, if you’re already in the business, service is in your blood.”

Brand started by sharing how his desire to be of service drew him to look beyond his successful foodservice career. “While it was wonderful serving $28 halibuts with sunchoke purées and roasted Brussels…it just didn’t scratch something deep inside of me that I wanted it to,” he explained.

This ultimately led to his social enterprise work, which is rooted in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside — the poorest postal code in Canada. “It’s a beautiful community full of resilient, bright people who the system has left behind — and I adore it,” Brand said.

Brand took over Save On Meats, “which [had been] the centre of food security for that neighbourhood since about 1957,” from its former owner when he retired and this now serves as the base from which Brand and his team have built out “all sorts of interesting programs,” including A Better Life Foundation’s Daily Meal Program.

The first key topic Brand dove into was the stigmas that create barriers to employment for many. “Barriers to traditional employment scare a lot of people in the food-and-beverage industry. We know that there’s resources out there, we get approached pretty consistently by organizations who are trying to place employees. Those employees could have a developmental delay; they could have some other barrier to employment — or as I like to say, diverse ability.”

At Save On Meats, all of Brand’s staff have at least one significant barrier to employment. He highlighted this strategy as key as the industry recovers from the pandemic. “This is part of helping people who have been severely marginalized, while helping yourself and your own bottom line,” he explained, pointing to the industry’s labour challenges. “It’s so hard to find people…except you’re just looking in the wrong places. When we look to these places of support and to the diversely abled, there is a plethora of human beings willing to work…They want a living wage and a safe place to heal, grow and to be part of something that matters.”

He also explains that the average turnover rate for those who face barriers to employment is significantly lower than average — 30 per cent compared to the national industry average of 80 per cent. “Look to the unconventional places of employment and let go of your nerves…There will be some turbulence,” he acknowledged. “But once everybody gets comfy, it’s going to build the base of your business rock solid.”

Shifting to his work on the food-waste front, Brand highlighted the significant amount of food that is unnecessarily wasted on a regular basis. “Anybody who’s been involved in the food system knows what goes into compost or the garbage. Anybody who’s ever cooked knows that none of it has to. So there’s a role for chefs, restaurateurs [and] F&B to be the leaders in this space [and] show what’s possible,” he said. “The structures that we’re used to in capitalism have us fending for ourselves. Competition is what drives so many things…it also stifles collaboration. And, collaboration is what’s necessary in food waste, employment structures and archetypes of sharing how things should work and can work better. Those things are absolutely necessary.”

As an example, Brand explained that the pandemic provided him with the “gift of time” to develop a more collaborative approach to addressing food waste in his businesses.

“We had been called to action at our kitchen to triple the amount of meals that we put out,” he shared. And, at the same time, much of the food resources it usually relied on dried up because of the pandemic .“I went to social media and said, I’m still buying food. So if you are a supplier or a farmer and you are finding it incredibly difficult because every single restaurant just closed, please reach out and I will work to support you…And, in classic Canadian form, nobody wanted to sell me anything — everybody wanted to just give me stuff.”

And, while this was not ideal for a model that was designed to produce 1,400 of the same meal each day, it drove him to “build the system to receive.”

To do this, he hired a chef to cook the donated items to provide meals to the shelters in the area that his team didn’t already service and staff to manage inventory and the flow of products and meals. Working with Shift Cycles, which it partners with to deliver its meals, Brand also arranged to have ‘leftovers’ picked up from a grocery store it partners with.

“It went incredibly well — better than I could have ever imagined,” he shared. “The grocery store is thrilled, our delivery partner is thrilled; everybody wants to be involved in the waste-food system, because it’s the first thing everybody thinks about.”

“That’s the key insight,” he added, “if everybody’s talking about food waste, and we as food producers are sick of it, maybe you just push past that bias and design for it.”

The group later added another grocery store to the system and began working with a tech company, which allowed them to weigh and categorize all of the food coming in through the company’s platform.

“We started that in July of last year and, in 11 short months, we’ve done 17 tons of recovery,” he noted, stressing the value of these partnerships.

Because of the pandemic, Brand added, he had the time to “dig into” building and managing these relationships. “There was time to engage people’s attention and [address] their biases and what they could be afraid of. When we do design work and build these kinds of programs, we have to [identify] the centralized fear that keeps people from working together.”

A core aspect of these biases is the perception of poverty and homelessness. “We have to dispel the myths around what homelessness even means,” Brand said. “Homeless means to not have a permanent residence of your own. [It’s] couch-surfing, crashing with a friend, sleeping in your car…and that sector is growing because of lack of opportunity or fair wages. We have a huge role to play in that. We can get people fed. We can get people gainfully employed and helping get other people fed. We can create systems that help change the world. And, I think we have to, I think it’s our time.”

In this process, “education is incredibly important,” he explained, noting the value of understanding food and how to efficiently utilize it. “Any of you who are cooks, who have worked in service or worked in the kitchen, know how far we can stretch a dollar. Education around food should be mandatory. [We] should be teaching it in grade school through high [school]…It should be core, but the mass-production systems don’t operate that way — they need us to consume.”

And while prior to the pandemic, Brand and his team had been working with families and children to provide them with food and cooking knowledge, restrictions halted this work. “So I created a project called Sharpen Up,” he explained. The program, which started with a community in Brownsville, Brooklyn, utilized Zoom and personalized grocery deliveries to connect with kids and their families and teach them valuable cooking skills.

“When people discover cooking, when they discover the food system, when they discover how it makes them actually feel…That’s a very critical moment,” Brand stated.

The team has now completed 10 rounds of the program, which is set to launch shortly in Canada as a national two-year initiative. While Sharpen Up was designed for the pandemic, Brand explained that it will continue in this form because meeting people where they are is an effective approach.

Bringing everything back to the central idea of being of service, Brand also shared insights on how to figure out what you can bring to the table. Because, as he noted, everyone is coming from a different place with different realities and challenges.

He broke this process down into three steps: figuring out what you care about and why, identifying a skill you wish you could use more, and how much time you have to offer. Where all three of these steps intersect is where you can focus your attention, he explained, noting that this is how his Greasy Spoon Diner series came about.

And, when it comes to committing your time, Brand suggests starting small, with an amount of time that feels very manageable, because it can always grow from that point. He also stressed the importance of approaching charitable organizations, to offer your services, in the right way. Because of the strains on these organizations, he explained, “You need to figure out how you can help and come to us and say ‘I’ve evaluated your organization…I can help with this.’”

Wrapping up the presentation, Brand stated, “Food, service — those are the centrepoints of what we all do. That’s what we do. It’s what we’re best at…When you start to [actively be of service,] your vision of self changes. Also, your vision of what’s possible changes, your vision of what you care about changes…And because of what you put out, I promise you good fortune comes with it.”

Written by Danielle Schalk

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