Last month, amidst their meetings with the health department and planting of a production farm, L.A. restaurateurs Laura Noguera, Jonathan Robert, Jenn Su Taohan and Cynthia Su Taopin turned to Kickstarter to fund their project Thank You for Coming, a cross between a community kitchen and a cooking school that hopes to make the restaurant business more transparent, accessible, and social.
Tapping creative input from friends and collaborators, they produced a video about the project for Kickstarter's website, and came up with incentives to award funders at each level, ranging from a hand-printed postcard ($5) to a family-style dinner for four ($500). 203 backers contributed money to the project, and in 30 days, Thank You for Coming raised just over $10,000 to launch its space in Atwater Village this summer.
Used to be you'd need a hefty inheritance, high-rolling investors, or a credit score-shattering loan to start a restaurant in Los Angeles. Now entrepreneurs across Los Angeles are launching their food-centered startups with little more than a brilliant idea, a tech-savvy pitch, and an influx of cash from the community.
The fact that Angelenos are hungry to fund local food projects is evident. Atwater Village Farm, a locally-minded corner store, raised over $22,000 last summer to open its doors. Earlier this month, Joe Griffin christened his South Pasadena pub, Griffins of Kinsale, after a successful $17,000 campaign. Currently seeking funding are an eclectic mix of projects ranging from a Reuben truck to Peddler's Creamery, which offers artisanal ice cream that's churned on the back of a custom-fabricated tricycle.
Thank You for Coming's campaign was a lot of extra work, but according to Taohan, Kickstarter was a fantastic medium for announcing their business to the world. "We definitely used it as a way to introduce our project to people, because we hadn't really talked about it publicly anywhere else," says Taohan. "Lots of friends as well as strangers in L.A. have gotten in touch with us and offered help or support and expressed excitement and interest, and this has served as great motivation for us to keep on going." Plus, support came in forms other than monetary donations, too. An artist who saw them on Kickstarter offered to paint their building as a free art installation, and another offered to host a punk show/bake sale fundraiser. On a volunteer day at their farm, a fellow food entrepreneur dropped by with homemade cookies.
It's that community spirit which convinced Daniel Busby to use Kickstarter when funding his project, A Moveable Feast, a human-powered roving dinner table that made its debut at the Doo Dah Parade in Pasadena last month. He raised over $5,000, which he used to buy materials ranging from powertrain parts to fine china to chandelier bulbs. "I launched the project on Kickstarter as a way of involving people in the process," he says. "The supporters now own a piece of it, and that really helps everybody enjoy it just a little bit more."
Busby agrees that his Kickstarter campaign definitely helped get people interested in the project. But it also got him thinking more clearly about the finished product. "I was forced to describe the idea in a more complete way, which really helped people see that it was something they could support, either with their hands or their dollars," he says. And he also connected with collaborators through the campaign. "One of the guys that's helping out almost every workday had stumbled across the project on Kickstarter and immediately wanted to get involved," he says. "He's been a great help with the fabricating different parts, but he's also a molecular gastronomist and he's got some great menu ideas planned out."
Of course Kickstarter isn't the only crowd-funding platform in town. But as Edward Belden, proprietor of Peddler's Creamery, sees it, the projects on Kickstarter have a certain personality, and he's happy to be included among them. "It really supports the current vibe of businesses that do things differently, and that's what I want to be," he says. "I want to support sustainability and economic justice and social responsibility and Kickstarter supports those goals." With his funds, he hopes to refine his ice cream-churning bike concept and eventually open a downtown shop.
Still, the promotional aspects of a Kickstarter campaign can be exhausting, and can take one away from churning out batches of vegan mango chile ice cream. Belden has been tirelessly pushing his pedal-produced ice creams and sorbets at community events -- like a bike-in movie night in Pasadena last weekend -- to get the word out. And he had to devote serious creative thought to come up with incentives he felt were actually valuable and relevant to supporters, like a retro-style cycling cap and ankle bands (to keep one's pants from catching in a bike chain). But to him, it's all part of getting the brand out to a wider audience, and he's optimistic. "It's not just about a great business idea," he says, "but also a great social message."
While Kickstarter is probably the best known, there are other food-focused crowd-funding communities on the rise, like the Awesome Foundation for the Arts and Sciences, which awarded Thank You for Coming a $1,000 grant in April. This global network that bestows micro-grants upon socially-minded projects recently added a food chapter to address the ever-expanding world of food startups. It's also unique in that it doesn't require grantees to be a nonprofit. Where Kickstarter gives visibility, grants like this give startups validation. "They're made up of independent trustees who contribute to the microgrant allocation each month," says Taohan, "and they represent a wide range of interests and ideas and perspectives in the food world."
As the Thank You for Coming team continues to seek additional loans and investments to supplement their crowd-sourced funding, they're happy with the way their Kickstarter campaign turned out. "Honestly, we struggled a bit with deciding to use Kickstarter because of the associated fees and the increasingly tight application and approval process but wanted to give the crowd-funding thing a shot," says Taohan. "We were surprised by the responses we received, which did feel very community-spirited."
Especially for a food-focused startup which is all about creating community in a space for sharing meals, it seems exceptionally appropriate that a crowd-funding campaign has helped Thank You for Coming bring even more people to the table.