Reimagining and Rebuilding Back to our Roots in Social Enterprise
Did you know that FareStart is more than a nonprofit organization? We’re a nonprofit social enterprise that’s focused on job training and employment. This means that we run social enterprise businesses to generate revenue for our mission and to train people with barriers to employment.
This model goes back to the very beginnings of FareStart. In 1987, Chef David Lee founded the for-profit organization Common Meals, which contracted with local shelters to prepare nutritious meals for people experiencing homelessness. He wanted to ensure people were treated with dignity and had the opportunity to eat healthy and nutritious food. He soon had an idea that he might be able to train some of the people eating his meals to prepare the meals. This would enable people to gain the job skills needed to move out of homelessness while also feeding the community and bringing in revenue to support the work.
Fast forward to the 1990s, when Common Meals transformed into a social enterprise nonprofit organization focused on job training and changed its name to FareStart. Over the past three decades, FareStart has piloted and operated various social enterprise businesses including restaurants, cafes, a catering operation, a community meals program for other nonprofits, a farm-to-school program for school and a commissary business that produced deli salads for local grocery stores. Some of these businesses continued (e.g. the FareStart Café, the FareStart Community Meals Program), while others ended if they didn’t provide strong training opportunities for students or weren’t profitable (e.g. deli salads for grocery stores). We’re always learning and innovating to better realize our mission and work.
All of our businesses serve as classrooms, where students gain valuable employment, life and self-empowerment skills that prepare them for various career pathways. Students learn and hone these skills in real-world situations while being in a supportive environment that includes case management and wraparound social services such as housing, mental health support, transportation and more. By the time students complete their training, they have more confidence in themselves, more personal stability and know-how for future career pathways of their choosing.
The goal is to have FareStart’s collective social enterprise business portfolio break even or better to partially offset the costs of job training. This earned income creates a more financially sustainable model instead of relying solely on fundraising and public funding. Like other more traditional nonprofits, we also raise money from individual and corporate donors, host fundraising events and apply for government grants. The combination of business-generating revenue with philanthropic and government funding supports our mission and ensures a sustainable model for the future.
Social Enterprises as an Industry
FareStart is one of more than 700 employment social enterprises nationally, according to REDF, a venture philanthropy that has invested in nearly 300 social enterprises across the U.S. (including FareStart) to employ more than 87,000 people over the past 25 years. Other employment social enterprises you may be familiar with include Goodwill, JUMA, Pioneer Human Services, Northwest Center and Uplift Northwest. While the businesses and the social objectives vary, the organizational model is consistent – operating revenue-generating businesses with the objective of having a positive social impact, not just making a profit. Social enterprises also provide tangible community benefits and harness the demand to “do good” with consumer purchasing power.
COVID causes FareStart to Take a Necessary Pivot
For most of the past three decades, FareStart has been — and remains— a food-focused social enterprise nonprofit that trains people furthest from opportunity.
But when the pandemic hit in early 2020, FareStart had to pivot quickly to feed our community and save as many FareStart jobs as possible. Our job training programs went all virtual. We closed our restaurant, cafe and catering businesses. We transformed our contract Community and Schools Meals Program into a hunger relief operation, expanding our meal production by nearly 130% at the height of the pandemic. Since that time, we’ve proudly produced six million meals for our community in a time of historic crisis.
COVID-19 abruptly cut off our most substantial and sustainable stream of revenue. The year before the pandemic, social enterprise revenue accounted for over 50% of FareStart’s funding. That fell drastically starting in 2020, down to 14% in 2022. Public funding and philanthropic gifts helped bridge the gap as we continued to serve more people in need with meals and online programming. Now FareStart is strategically moving forward with rebuilding and reimagining our social enterprises so that we can have more balanced and sustainable revenue streams --- and expand training opportunities for students.
Progress on the Path Forward
Food remains the foundation of our work. It’s the tool we use to transform lives, disrupt poverty and nourish communities. Our mission remains steady as we continue to provide food-based job training to hundreds of adults and young people facing barriers to employment such as poverty, homelessness, substance use or starting life over after incarceration.
We are taking meaningful steps to rebuild and grow our social enterprises so we can train students and fund our mission more sustainably in the years to come. Some of our pre-pandemic businesses are back or on their way back.
Our Community and School Meals Program remains strong. We’re on track to prepare the same number of meals we produced pre-pandemic (about 900,000 meals annually) for nonprofit organizations and schools that serve mostly food-insecure communities. Adult students returned to on-the-job training last summer to support meal production and learn new skills. While much of this work remains subsidized by donations and government grants, we’re working to add new contract clients and partners.
The FareStart Café in South Lake Union reopened in 2021 and earlier this year, job training resumed for youth ages 15½ to 24. As more workers return downtown, our baristas are experiencing brisk business and training opportunities. We’re also in the planning stage of reopening the FareStart Café at Pacific Tower in Beacon Hill in the months ahead.
The FareStart Restaurant recently reopened for private event rentals, with plans in the works for more social enterprise activities within the space that incorporate job training for students.
FareStart Consulting, which works with other workforce development social enterprises across the country to share knowledge and resources to create greater social impact in our communities, is expanding. Earlier this year we began partnering with equal-opportunity employers such as MOD Pizza to connect individuals who are justice-involved with employment and to create more inclusive and successful work environments.
Same Focus, New Opportunities
As FareStart focuses on additional pathways out of poverty for students, we’re also exploring new social enterprise businesses. We will continue to provide culinary and hospitality pathways, but we’re also looking at the broader food ecosystem to help people stabilize, earn living wages and gain more economic mobility. We’re leaning on our 30 years of expertise as well as learnings from other social enterprise organizations across the U.S. to help pilot new businesses and inform our decisions. We’re also engaging with a consulting company to help us research and fast-track some ideas in the months ahead. The faster we can get our businesses up and running and generating revenue, the faster we’ll be able to expand training opportunities for students, sustain ourselves financially and create a bigger impact.
“There are so many opportunities for us to make a real difference in the community,” says newly hired FareStart CEO Patrick D’Amelio (he/him). “I have always been impressed with FareStart’s mission and ability to operate in such an impactful and sustainable way. The nonprofit social enterprise model provides many viable career pathways to help students achieve their goals, wherever they may want to go in life.”
We will continue to keep our community informed of our progress, our needs, and opportunities to be a part of this collective work. In the meantime, we are grateful to our students, staff, volunteers, donors, customers and partners for your ongoing and extra support during this critical time of stabilizing and rebuilding. During this important year of transition, FareStart will need broad community support to have the funds necessary to invest in our social enterprises and to bridge the gap until they are fully back providing revenue again. For information on how you can help, visit farestart.org/donate or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.