For the last year, the In Conversation series has focused on talking with the members of the Victory Square portfolio family. We’ve given you an introduction to the people behind the companies we work with, and a better idea of what these companies do. Now we’re widening our focus a little to shine a light on the work done by some of our charitable and philanthropic partners. Mealshare is a buy one, give one philanthropy model for restaurants that are making sure that kids across Canada and parts of the U.S. are getting fed.
With news of a massive partnership just about to drop, we thought it was a good time to have VST’s James Graham sit down with Andrew Hall to learn more about a dream that two cousins had and where it’s taken them.
James Graham: I think the easiest way to start is by asking who are you and what do you do?
Andrew Hall: I’m Andrew Hall and I’m the Co-Founder of Mealshare. Mealshare is a buy one, give one philanthropy model for restaurants. We put our Mealshare logo next to a few menu items and if someone buys a Mealshare item, they’re also providing one meal to a youth in need. Buy one, get one. Super simple. We’re doing that because we know that there are hungry kids in our community and around the world. We just don’t think that’s okay, so we’re going to do something about it.
James: As Co-Founder then, what does that entail?
Andrew: When we started, “Co-Founder” was my initial title. The word means more about where things came from than it does about describing my day to day role. Over the years, my fellow Co-Founder Jeremy (Bryant) and I, have slowly evolved from both of us doing it all to finding streams for where each of us is working. I’d say Jeremy and I lead the organization together with him doing mostly external activities and me doing mostly internal things like HR and process. Right now I’m handling a ton of work with A&W as we launch our partnership with them.
James: So where did this all come from? What inspired you guys to start Mealshare?
Andrew: We were cousins growing up, but we were also best friends so we spent a ton of time together. I think that forms the basis for us growing up and doing something together; we were pretty much inseparable our whole childhood. We’d always be at the same family dinners growing up with grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. Whether that was Thanksgiving or Christmas or whatever it was, we’d always be there at the kids’ table getting into trouble. We’d always be eating the foods that we liked and pushing our vegetables around the plate. Our grandma would come along and give us a little lecture and say, “Finish your food. There are kids everywhere who would love to have these scraps. You should finish everything you have on your plate.” At five years old, you don’t really get that so much. So we had a plan to ship our Brussels sprouts over to Africa so we didn’t have to eat them and maybe the kids would like them more than we did. We didn’t execute on that one, but that’s kind of the seeds of what happened.
James: Like with any entrepreneur, the early ideas don’t pan out the way you plan.
Andrew: We pivoted, let’s call it that. We went through high school, went through university, we both got business degrees and then started working for the big four firms. A pretty typical path for a business student. After the first year of working for these organizations, we were both feeling a little disillusioned. Ideally, we wanted to do something together and wanted to have more impact as well. We looked at our careers and with those companies, you can see your entire career path. You see the levels, you see where you’re headed and you can kind of play it all out. We played it out and thought twenty years down the road, if we’re senior management or partners can we look back saying, that’s exactly what it wanted to do with my career?
We thought that no, we want to be more impactful. We had dozens of business ideas through university, each as bad as the next. But for some reason this idea of Mealshare that we’d come up with, we hadn’t found a reason why it would fail yet. We hadn’t dismissed that one and it kind of kept coming back to us. So between not being super excited about what we were doing and with this idea in the back of our heads, that’s kind of how we got into it.
James: Was there anything specifically that made the one-to-one idea click in your heads?
Andrew: That was the early days of things like Tom’s Shoes and other buy one give one models. So all those things you’d see: buy a pair of shoes, we’ll give her a pair of shoes or buy a shirt, we’ll give him a shirt. We kind of tried to boil that down and ask, “what do people in need really need?“ It’s going to be shelter, food, and water, really basic stuff. If we don’t have those very basics covered, then we’re not going to need shoes. We need to have kids educated. We need to have them fed. We need to keep them safe. So in thinking about those primary needs, we asked ourselves “which one works well for buy one, give one?“ We had a little bit of a struggle with the idea of buy-a-water, give-a-water. Maybe you’re buying bottled water and then providing wells? It’s a little bit fuzzier for the one-to-one. We thought food might work, and so our first idea was to open our own restaurant and provide meals for every one sold. That’s a bad idea for a large number of reasons. We had no experience in it. Restaurants fail or are difficult but we wanted to take that core concept and see how we could still make it happen. That’s when we had the idea of partnering with existing restaurants.
James: Can you explain how it works? For example, I go into A&W, I buy a Beyond Meat burger and my belly is full. Does A&W then go and give someone a Beyond Meat burger or does my dining there impact the community in some other way?
Andrew: What happens is restaurants pay us for every Mealshare item they sell. We use that money to provide a meal through one of our network of partner charities. Our partner charities are already experts at providing meals, we didn’t want to come in and try to reinvent that wheel. It’s a lot easier for us to expand if we’re working with partner charities. All those charities that we work with have food programs and they have food costs, so they know what their meal cost is. So we fulfill the meal cost for every meal we want to provide. Half of our meals will stay through local charities and half go international. That helps us balance out the cost and also lets us have a local impact and an international impact at the same time.
James: Can you name drop some of your partner charities?
Andrew: You guys will recognize Kidsafe here in Vancouver. We also work with Boys and Girls Clubs and breakfast clubs here in Vancouver. Internationally we work with Save The Children Canada and across the country with a bunch more Boys and Girls clubs, breakfast clubs and independent local charities. Some of those might be meal programs like before and during school or after school. We work with a few shelters in some inner-city locations as well.
James: Where is Mealshare? ls Mealshare strictly just a Canadian endeavor right now?
Andrew: We have a Canadian non-profit, a Canadian charity, and then we also have the U.S. organization. We went down to Austin a few years ago and pitched to Philanthropitch, which is an arm of SVP (Social Venture Partners). Jeremy pitched SVP Calgary and we won some money there. They then had a playoff of the people who won in their own city and they brought them all into another competition. We were in Austin, we won a bunch of money in U.S. dollars and met some cool people who are doing good work down there. When we were ready to launch in the U.S., that’s where we first launched. We’re up and active in Austin and we have a few going in San Antonio as well. We hope to do a bunch more U.S. cities, but right now we’re focused at home, especially with the big news coming up.
James: Is there a time frame for the U.S. or is it on the back burner so you can focus on the Canadian market?
Andrew: The plan would have been to launch in more U.S. cities next year, but I think we’re going to put that on hold now. The focus next year will be to just put new cities on hold to make sure we do a good job of the cities we’re in and with our new partners. The deal with A&W right now that they’re doing a trial in Saskatchewan, it’s their mushroom and mozzarella combo in all their Saskatchewan restaurants and all their Ottawa restaurants for one month. Presuming that goes well, we hope they’ll roll out something else next year.
James: Tell me about Tonight for Tomorrow.
Andrew: Tonight for Tomorrow is our annual fundraiser that we started three years ago. We’ve run it in Vancouver and Calgary each year and it’s just launched in Ottawa as well. It’s one night where all of our supporters can really come out and make a huge difference. If our biggest supporters go out and order a Mealshare item, they’re providing a meal and that’s great. But if there was one time for them to really catalyze and have a big impact, it’s that night because for every dollar you spend on food, one dollar goes to Mealshare to help us grow. It’s only because of that and other donors that we’re able to actually expand to these new cities and keep running an organization of sixteen people. We do keep some of the money from restaurants to run the business and I think that lets us stay about the same size, maybe grow a modest amount each year. But to do real growth, we definitely need to have some other funding. TFT has been a huge part of that and Shafin (Diamond Tejani, Victory Square) has been excited to match the restaurant donations each year for the past two years. So hopefully we’ll do that again next year.
James: What differentiates Mealshare from other similar organizations?
Andrew: There are other buy one give one programs for food outlets in the world, but there’s nothing else like us in Canada or in the States. There’s one in the UK that does mostly CPG (consumer packaged goods), so in grocery stores but not too much in restaurants. There are a few smaller things, but there’s really no one that’s running a really similar model to us. We think of our competition for restaurant funds as anything else a restaurant might spend money on after their initial costs are gone. Is the restaurant spending money on marketing or are they donating to other charities? That’s what we compete for dollars on. I guess there’s quote-unquote competition among other people who are other charities who are helping kids. But in our industry, you really can’t think of that as competition. They are working toward the same goals.
James: What don’t we know about Mealshare that perhaps we should?
Andrew: The idea with Mealshare is that it’s very, very simple. If I buy a meal, I’m providing a meal. That’s the first thing we want people to understand. After that, it’s that we provide meals to kids and it’s half local, half international.
We also love talking about our vision and that’s a world without youth hunger. So if someone wanted to know what we’re up to and why it would be that, we want to finish off that story about grandparents telling grandkids about hunger. Except we’re telling our grandkids that youth hunger used to be a problem.
Early on, people thought we were another meal delivery service or like Meals on Wheels, that was an early notion to try to break. I think we’re getting further along now that there’s some brand recognition. Another big one was like, “Oh, so you’re gonna provide this same meal to a kid. How’s that going to happen? “
James: So what’s coming up? What’s next for Mealshare that we can talk about?
Andrew: We work in two cycles per year. In the fall and the spring of each year, we do a launch where we get independent restaurants to join the program, launch them all on one day and celebrate that. So we’re doing independent launches here in Vancouver and then in Calgary, Edmonton and all across the country. TFT 2020 will be happening in May, we’re just about to pick a date. Hopefully, look to see us doing more with A&W next year; that’s not for sure yet. We’ve put our heads down and we’re just growing by like 20 to 40% per year. Progress and always consistent growth, so we’re going to keep plugging away at that.
James: Where can people go to find out more about Mealshare?
Andrew: Mealshare.ca is our website and all our social links are on there.
James: Have we missed anything? You’ve got a live mic so now’s your chance.
Andrew: We’re big proponents of voting with your dollar and talking about what you want as a customer. So if a customer goes into a Mealshare restaurant and says, “this is cool that you do this”, that goes miles for a restaurant owner. If they never hear about the program, they’re probably going to wonder if it’s doing anything. Having conversations with people, choosing where you go shopping or speaking up for what you want, I think it makes a difference.
James: Do you guys find that word of mouth adoption of Mealshare for restaurants is a big thing?
Andrew: Each season we’ll work hard to get nine or ten restaurants on and then one or two will come on just by seeing other restaurants and that’s grown a lot over time. At first, it was nothing and now we’re adding a decent handful of restaurants just through people emailing us. Often it’s in smaller cities where we’re not active yet, but in cities where we are, it’s the nicest email to get.
The big thing I think we should all keep in mind is that our vision of seeing a world without youth hunger seems audacious and crazy. But if you think back to 50 years ago, there was a crazy dream of having a computer on every desk and now we’re running around with smartphones in our pockets. We can’t see what’s possible in the next 40, 50 years. There’s already enough food in the world to do this and there’s more than enough resources and money to do it. If this is something that people want and we value not having hungry kids, this is a no-brainer, and easily done in the next 50 years. Hopefully, people can get behind that mission.
You can find out more about Mealshare by going to their website: http://www.mealshare.ca
Andrew Hall is a Co-Founder of Mealshare. He has changed his mind about Brussel Sprouts.
James Graham is still tall. He prefers his Brussel Sprouts fried.