As COVID-19 hit and chefs and hospitality workers were losing their jobs, Tom Jacobson had serious doubts as to how his small Caulfield North burger joint, Smoke and Pickles, would survive restrictions.
So the chef and founder — who also produces hot sauce brand Changz — reached out to his local network and started the FairFeed Community Project out of the restaurant’s kitchen and storage facility.
FairFeed sells a selection of staple and changing dishes made by full-time and guest chefs — who worked at establishments including Vue de monde, Bistro Garçon, Tulum Restaurant and St Ali — for between $8-16. It also hosts guest menu items from a variety of local restaurants.
After about a month, it expanded its delivery service to Melbourne’s north, and now has plans to deliver to metropolitan suburbs by the end of the week.
Jacobson says that the project has created a “movement of sorts”, where local chefs are being celebrated, and have another platform through which to be noticed.
“We have chefs involved that may not have other work going at the moment. They come in, design a meal, we try to get them to make about 100 portions of that meal and we basically pay them for the dish,” Jacobson tells SmartCompany.
“A recent example is Taku, a chef who was sharpening knives to stay afloat. He made 90 portions of a [pork and eggplant mapo bolognese] dish for us which sold out in 24 hours. Next, he made 150. We shared his knife sharpening service and he’s now too busy to make dishes.
“We’re trying to celebrate everyone’s talent, and help to make sure they can fend for themselves in the long term.”
Using local suppliers, distributors and producers, FairFeed sold over 3,5000 dishes last week and is looking to sell 10,000 dishes each week from next month.
Jacobson adds that many of the guest chefs are earning a higher hourly rate than what they were earning pre-COVID-19.
“Every time we create something, it’s with an understanding that we can sell it almost at cost price, knowing we’ll sell it out. It reduces our risk and gives us a license to access more customers,” he says.
“It’s helping the community as well as we’re producing high-quality food at an affordable price [and they] can’t buy it at the supermarket.”
“Giving money to UberEats doesn’t resolve the local economy”
Starting before both the JobKeeper and JobSeeker programs were introduced, FairFeed employs a team of drivers who were working at other establishments before COVID-19 hit.
The project charges $10.50 for delivery costs, with $10 going directly the driver.
Jacobson says there is a strong sense of awareness that, the more deliveries they do, the more chefs they can have working for them.
“There’s collaboration along all levels of the project and everyone is relying on each other. Giving money to UberEats doesn’t help to resolve the local economy,” he says.
Jacobson said at least one staff member will be able to access the government’s wage subsidy payments through their previous job, and supplement the rest of their regular earnings through their employment at FairFeed.
“The sort people we want and have involved in this project are really conscious of what their efforts mean, not just for FairFeed, but for the broader community,” he says.
“We’re not trying to be a charitable organisation or a not-for-profit. Rather, we want to provide strength to our community and local economy.”
The sky is the limit
Jacobson acknowledges that the same quantity of chefs might not be willing to put their name to $5 dishes under normal circumstances.
However, he says COVID-19 may have led to a realigning of values.
“It’s our responsibility to nourish people, and that can be done in a lot of ways. It’s not necessarily creating a menu that costs $300 a head. It could be as simple as a delicious and hearty soup,” he says.
“People respond to that, and we get feedback all the time from people saying that our food brought them joy they otherwise wouldn’t have had.
“And we’re paying people more than what they would’ve earned to [create] food that sells at 10% what they were [previously] selling for.
“It’s still possible to still earn a wage while doing things differently.”
FairFeed is now looking at ways to scale-up, and Jacobson is confident the project will be able to bring in guest chefs to do “a day a week, or once a month” in the future.
“Our industry has been decimated, and it might not wake up next month or this year, so we have to dig our heels in and do what [we can] to survive,” he says.
“There are so many amazing chefs who might be five rungs down at incredible restaurants — and they might not get that exposure otherwise — so FairFeed is a great platform to broadcast who they are and what they can do.
“As long as we are selling out every day, we’ll have the data to continue expanding.”