Last year, my sister posted a podcast about a social enterprise idea that we had originally ventured on together
It sparked some thoughts of my own, so here goes...
Since it’s easy to forget how foolish a past version of oneself can be.
I certainly still embody the same energy and similar disposition to this present version of myself. But, looking back in the rearview mirror I generally see slow motion face-palm moments. The very genesis of things starting to unravel and the fabric of my ego beginning to tear apart.
That’s a tad too melodramatic, but that comes with the nostalgic territory.
On this occasion, the moment involved two members of my family, one food truck, and a fake empire.
Now to paint the picture of the landscape at the time. Food trucks had already existed in Melbourne in a variety of forms. Yet there hadn’t been a true renaissance in the self-proclaimed food capital of Australia. Of artisanal food trucks offering something more than fries with the lot.
This is in stark contrast to the today where each street corner features a new van.
As I arrived back from an overseas trip at the end of 2010 and at a loose end of what to do next. An idea spruiked by my sister one day over tea that got us plotting our own show. Sticking it to the man, whoever that man might be and developing a food truck concept of our own. Her fact-finding mission to Portland had already showcased the food truck way forward. It was an exciting time and something that spoke to me on a deeper level. Although, I’m unsure which level it was speaking too.
Like all young upstarts deciding what to do, we threw ourselves into the validating our idea. By talking to people we knew about our idea and convincing them it was a good idea. But the theme that would set us apart had alluded us thus far. We remained without a unique selling proposition. Until my sister entered our share house one night in a drunken stupor barking four words ‘refugees and asylum seekers’.
The idea of people seeking refuge from war torn terrors and political instability is not a new proposition. The history books showcase a long list of white convicts, vagabonds and vagrants. Banished to the far side of the globe to forge a new part of the British empire entitled ’Terra Nullius’ or ’Nobody’s Land’. Immigration has fostered a diverse nation of many creeds and colours. Yet, a shift in 2001 occured as the Tampa crisis unfolded between Indonesia and Australia. The idea of ’stopping the boats’ became an election winning catch cry that year. The draconian immigration policy that followed has gotten even worse
This stance has sparked furious debate, from both sides of the political divide. A sense of empathy for the true complexities of the situation seems hard to find.
Rather than my sister sprouting those words for comedic effect under the influence. her suggestion came from a genuine place of inquiry. It was a result of some uninformed empathy towards a more nuanced version of the debate.
On the face of it, this was a disaster waiting to happen. Some very privileged caucasian people with rose tinted glasses. Looking to open a conversation about something they knew very little about. Hence, we resolved to discover more. To ask questions of those wiser than us. Who had already developed their own initiatives for a sense of perspective. We started volunteering with organizations close to the issue and one of us worked at a burger truck. Then an eBay auction went out way and we managed to acquire a cheap, yet cheerful home for our new venture. We even recruited another sibling and ranked well in a social enterprise hackathon.
Our concept became indebted to ’The Conflict Kitchen’ based in downtown Pittsburgh. We adored the idea so much, we somehow managed to get a Skype call with Jon Rubin to talk about it. It offered a revolving menu of items from countries that the U.S had currently waged war on. A very neat political statement. The middle-finger, if you will to those in power.
The twist we had in mind. Involved focusing on countries that had a high proportion of ‘asylum seekers and refugees’ already in Australia. To open the conversation through cuisine, cultural events, and commerce. To the young and conscious consumer, who wanted to know more about the origins and customs. Surrounding the cuisine with a story as they ate on the side of the street.
To take a journey without even moving. Forging a deeper understanding of the local food landscape in a way that wasn’t present at the time. The food truck was to be a ’talking point’ between progressives and conservatives. Showcasing something more than an us versus them type scenario.
These assumptions swirled around our minds and coalesced with the logistical ones. Would we reach the right price point? $10 - 14 was the sweet spot. Could people deal with the concept of a changing menu? Perhaps. Would there be a backlash? Guaranteed
There is an undercurrent that exists in Australian culture called 'tall poppy syndome’. Otherwise known as slandering individuals in public when they gain a modicum of success. You don’t have to stray too far into the social media landscape to find examples of this behavior. The practice is practically a national passtime. Any success of our own food truck would have been tempered with a ‘Hey look at these white guys parachuting in to save the boat people’.
This being said, that’s part of the equation when doing something new, particular given the political nature of the subject matter.
Yet - the part that does makes me cringe was our approach which is flawed. Rather than it being born out of a community need, it became fostered by a personal want. On the whole, we didn’t need this to exist. Rather we wanted it to exist to tick a box or add to our own resumes for external validation. To impress people at parties.
We had been blinded by the truck, rather the concept of a creating a hospitality venue that moves. Pushing forward a social change agenda and held itself to metrics with a plan for the impact it wanted to have.
Looks all 20/20 now.
As the dopamine hit of a new idea started to drop, we realised the sheer nature of the beast. It would be a grind and there would be no dipping our toes in the water. This was a cannonball.
So we developed a business plan full of numbers, projections, and executive summaries. Nobody read it, it was a stalling tactic.
We didn't want to admit defeat and it felt better to do busy work. Instead of the critical work of running our project through the ringer.
Slowly, we would each come to our own realizations as individuals. As the momentum started to decline the need for honest conversations become paramount.
Thankfully, we realized before it fractured the family seal.
The whole concept was a naive move and remains awkward and embarrassing in my mind. Yet, it showcases the eternal optimism that we need to change the way we see the world.
And, that is something that should always be commended.
P.S When one dream dies, another one opens. A local non-for-profit applied a similar concept to food sourcing. Go them.