We’re thrilled that We Vancouver has named social entrepreneur and restauranteur Mark Brand to their “Best Of” list, naming him their “Best Local Downtown Business Person.” The owner of the Save On Meats enterprise in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, Mark champions the importance of sustainable business models with audiences throughout North America:
How many restaurant owners have a community co-ordinator on staff? How many have the marketing savvy to turn the theft of a sign into an opportunity to feed some of Vancouver’s neediest residents? How many hire people with Down syndrome because they are dedicated and hard-working staff members?
Mark Brand is a complex individual, as prone to earning admirers and doubters. As owner or partner in several popular Gastown locations — The Diamond, Portside Pub, Sea Monstr Sushi and the Sharks & Hammers retail store — he’s catapulted Save On Meats into his own special brand of social activism.
Not bad for a someone who’d been “a snappy ass kid trying to find out how to steal car stereos.”
“We have to have our minds open to what makes us more inclusive,” he says the day before the Save On Meats diner and butcher shop re-opened after being closed for building renovations. One of the signs he’s commissioned for the diner reads Talk Is Cheap, which sums up his opinion about people who say they care about the Downtown East Side but offer little more than platitudes.
“We’ve fed 360,000 people so far who wouldn’t have eaten another meal that day. We did it as a business. I’m constantly saying, ‘That’s good, but not good enough.’”
Some of those meals are provided through a partnership with the Atira Women’s Resource Centre, which distributes 598 meals a day to people living in 10 single-room occupancy buildings in the DTES. Some are provided through the meal token project, where, for $2.25 people can buy — to give to someone in need — a token for a hot biscuit sandwich at the diner’s sandwich counter on West Hastings. And sometimes the cooks are former addicts and street kids whose jail record makes it hard for them to find work elsewhere.
“We can give them a leg up and they can trust us to know we’re not going to be another flash-in-the-pan entrepreneur who ends up doing nothing,” he says.
In the beginning, Brand funded a lot of these projects personally but that wasn’t sustainable. Last May he founded A Better Life Foundation to encourage donors to help him reach his goals, which he sums up as “Feed, Educate, Employ.”
There are many ways to get involved and help, but the simplest of all is to grab a meal at Save On Meats. “Save On Meats is like going to an open theatre class,” Brand says. “You can participate as much or as little as you want. All you have to do is come and eat a hamburger once a week and you’re part of the solution.”
Perhaps his most recent venture, Persephone Brewing, best epitomizes his belief that you can have a social conscience and be a good businessman too.
Named after the goddess of the harvest and the tugboat in the Beachcombers, Brand and his partner Brian Smith transformed an 11-acre flower farm on the Sunshine Coast near Gibsons into BC’s newest craft beer brewer. Hops for the brewery are grown on seven of those acres, along with pumpkins, blueberries and garlic, and many of the farm’s staff have Down syndrome. Where other employers see barriers, Brand sees a good business model.
“Turnover in restaurant staff is 75 per cent annually,” he says. People move, go back to school, find a job in another restaurant. “With people who have barriers to employment, turnover is 15 per cent. They want one task and they do it well.”
Right now the beer — Goddess Golden Ale and Rum Runner Red Ale, brewed by Anders McKinnon — is available only at the brewery and some pubs, including Portside, but there are plans to start bottling the beer this year.
For Brand, his road to Damascus originated in Nigeria, where he lived on and off for three years. “I felt overwhelmingly ignorant. I thought, ‘How come we don’t know what’s going on here?’ I started being attentive to doing things out of the box.”
He lived in Australia after that, moving to Vancouver 10 years ago when he was 28.
His passion for Save On Meats really began when it was closed; he had 200 t-shirts with the logo “Never Forget” printed. He and his former wife, Nico, had never been butchers and when he told her he was interested in taking it over, she said “No, please no, but….”
“All I heard was the but,” Brand said. When he started pulling it all together, there was no money — “I was leveraged so far I don’t think I could even use my debit card” — but tons of community support. He began to think it was his destiny. “It was supposed to be us.”
Brand treats the people in the DTES as neighbours, making them feel as welcome in the diner as hipsters, families and people working nearby.
Ann Farrant, who he’s hired for community outreach, says she is constantly touched and humbled by the grace, courtesy and gratitude of the people they help. “People in the DTES have old-school manners,” she said. “People are polite and considerate of the space.”
“I want to do it not out of guilt but because it’s the right thing,” Brand says of the objectives behind his innovative approach. Our readers, who gave him gold as Best Local Businessperson in Downtown/Gastown/Yaletown and silver in the city-wide Local Entrepreneur category seem to agree that he’s right on track.