Reimagining Foodservice Businesses As Nonprofits

When I first said Studio ATAO was going to be a nonprofit, people told me I was crazy & this idea didn’t make any sense. The most common question was, “But why can’t it be a for-profit entity that just does good?” For me, removing the goal of profit from the equation wasn't just semantics, but a huge shift in our business strategy & operations. I wanted to be able to take on projects I believed in but knew wouldn’t return money; to pay my foodservice staff wages I believe are proper, not what others had determined are “fair”. Fundamentally, I didn’t want any part in the for-profit goal of “maximizing value for shareholders”, so I removed ownership from the equation altogether.

This isn’t to say we’ve figured it all out. We’re still working on finding sustainability through earned revenue & sponsorships, and the struggle of fundraising while staying true to our stance that information should available freely & not behind a paywall. Despite this, I believe there’s untapped potential in the nonprofit model for our industry — in light of this pandemic, I’m encouraged to see more people entertaining different ideas for business models. (Even before COVID, nonprofit restaurants were in existence in different forms: look at @emmastorchfood @jbjsoulkitchen @tableraleigh!)

I’m not saying this is the ONLY solution, or even the BEST solution, but one path to rebuilding differently. Enabling restaurants to be nonprofits would change how operators approach the entire business and force them to consider what purpose their restaurant serves in the community. It could help lay the groundwork for a structural overhaul in our food system to regard food as a public good. Why not push for policy change to offer this option while we also tackle the systemic issues around land ownership & plantation economics, access to capital & the living wage?

Stay tuned for Pt. 2, which will compare/contrast nonprofits with co-ops & explain the legal process. These will all be compiled into a larger toolkit for social entrepreneurs. If you are interested in supporting our work, please consider backing Studio ATAO on Patreon or volunteering to help with research.

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