By YouInc Columnist Tiffany Burns
You might know him from CBC's The Big Decision. Or from Gastown Gamble, the reality show on OWN. Perhaps you've eaten at one of his restaurants in Vancouver – Boneta or Sea Monstr Sushi. Had a drink at the Diamond or Portside Pub. Or maybe you've stopped in to Save On Meats, the feather in Mark Brand's socially conscious cap.
The butcher shop and diner – a Gastown institution – closed in 2009. After watching condo builders circle the empty building for two years, Mark stepped in. To him, Save on Meats wasn't just a beloved local business. It was an irreplaceable part of the Downtown Eastside community, with the potential to offer solutions to the problems plaguing the area.
"There's so many moving pieces to it. It's not a conventional business. It wasn't like I looked at walk-by traffic and density, all those things I'll study when investing in other things, this was a piece based directly on heart."
The streets of Vancouver's Skid Row are teeming with people who've fallen through the cracks of government social programs. New to the neighborhood in 2006, Mark couldn't help but notice the crushing poverty.
"I became affected by it really quickly. Because I have a conscience. And I give a shit."
Before he signed on to pay the electric bills for the butcher shop's blazing pink neon pig, Mark had started five of his ventures, including a retail endeavor, just as the expression too big to fail started to ricochet around the recession. You could twist that phrase into Mark's entrepreneurial mission: too right to fail. His desire to shape Save On Meats into an inclusive, compassionate venture brought other like-minded investors to the table.
"We're two and a half years into a business that made no sense on paper. I went to community minded lenders who jumped in knowing that the risk was high. We're working with dozens of partners and leveraging all sorts of different things. Of course it can work if you believe. More importantly, not just if you believe – if it's a piece that's important to everybody."
He started conducting his social experiment with his first restaurant, Boneta. He offered jobs to a couple of barrier employees – people who have trouble finding work because they have mental disabilities, drug addictions or criminal records.
"We saw how we were transforming lives not by simply providing financial stability, because that's never gonna be the case with an addict, but by providing a sense of purpose and a real respect for somebody else's work."
After reviving Save On Meats, Mark boosted his number of barrier employees to nineteen. The three-storey building gives him enough space not only to supply his other restaurants, he makes almost 500 meals a day for people who live in single room occupancy hotels. He has also created a breakfast sandwich token program.
"We're making an impact as a private business. We're not a social enterprise. By definition we are, but we're not funded by the government in any way, shape or form. We do all of this within our own business."
The more his business empire grows, the more momentum it generates for the social mandate of Save on Meats. In the next year, his rapidly evolving collection of ventures will include an organic farm and brewery in Gibsons, a new business in the original Boneta location and a non profit called The Better Life, which will feed 1500 people a day.
"It is all one piece. They share buying power. They share knowledge and they share a customer base."
Ultimately, Mark is driven by the potential ripple effect. He believes his business model could change society in general and he hopes his efforts will inspire others to weave community caring into their own endeavours.
"Food security is a major issue. Employment and training is a major issue. Community and culture is a major issue. The arts. All of those things come together in this one business model. It kind of has to work. If this doesn't work, why would anyone else attempt it?"