It may seem impossible to make money as a business while also supporting a larger social justice mission, but Téa Ivanovic has found creative ways for profit and purpose to co-exist while running her restaurant group. Here’s her advice bringing your beliefs into your business.
There’s a common misconception that it’s impossible to make money as a business while also supporting a larger mission. Either you’re having a real impact on a cause you care about but never turning a profit, or you’re bringing in the cash but your activism is performative at best.
As the co-founder of advocacy restaurant group iFoodGroup, known for Immigrant Food restaurants, I can tell you that profitability absolutely can co-exist with helping people. Since opening our first restaurant in late 2019, we’ve managed to grow to three locations in Washington, DC, with more expansion in the works. Along the way, we’ve built a business that supports a deeper cause: celebrating the vibrancy of what immigration has already brought to our country while also positively impacting today’s immigrants.
These are the two beating hearts to Immigrant Food: Bringing people around the table to celebrate immigrants through a successful restaurant group, while also creating an effective advocacy platform. Here’s how we’ve made them work in tandem and how other founders can think about bringing their beliefs into their business.
My co-founders and I all bring different expertise to the table: Chef Enrique Limardo and Chef Mileyda Montezuma bring culinary traditions and a history of cooking at award-winning restaurants, Peter Schechter has a history as both running political campaigns all over the world and as a successful business leader, and I’ve worked in journalism, strategic communications on the policy side, and corporate social responsibility for large financial institutions. But, despite all being proud immigrants ourselves, none of us bring expertise in immigration policy or the most effective ways to solve the challenges immigrants face today. We are not in the trenches every day, providing housing, legal, and social services to immigrants. After all, we need to be dedicating our skill sets to building a successful restaurant and brand.
So, rather than doing that work, we’ve aligned ourselves with immigration experts on policy, advocacy, and service. Early on, we decided we’d work with impact partners—five local Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) who we felt were doing really powerful work to help immigrants—instead of trying to develop solutions ourselves. As we see it, they’re the real heroes, and we’re here to support them and make it easy for others to make a difference.
Our impact partners bring decades of experience on how to truly help immigrants.
We also didn’t want to pretend to know what help these organizations needed. Instead, we’ve worked collaboratively to understand how we could have a real impact on their work. Some of our very first meetings were with our NGO partners, pen and paper in hand, listening to how they could benefit from business support. They told us they need more visibility, more volunteers, more resources, and more space to hold meetings and events. So, we looked for ways to support in those areas (more on that below).
Instead of spreading ourselves too thin by trying to become the expert, we focused our efforts on building a stable company that creatively integrates organizations and local leaders who are already working on the cause.
Having worked with large companies during a time when the financial industry was going through a new wave of interest in corporate social responsibility (CSR), I knew that when I started my own business, I would look for creative ways to integrate a mission, rather than simply donate parts of proceeds once we hit a certain financial milestone.
Don’t get me wrong, donating millions of dollars to a cause is surely helpful for non-profit organizations. But it was always our intention to start with the mission right away, not to introduce it once the business was up and running (and profitable). Especially as restaurants are an industry that runs on hyper-thin margins, we wanted to balance what we could afford to give and what our NGO partners needed so it would be sustainable growth.
For instance, our impact partners told us they need space for meetings and events, so we looked for real estate that could support that. Offering these NGOs a room in one of our restaurants at prime locations at no costs for English classes, citizenship lectures, volunteer training, and board meetings saves these resource-strapped organizations tens of thousands of dollars.
The NGOs also told us they need more volunteers, and we have more than 3,000 people a week coming in across our locations. To help get our guests involved, we created an “Engagement Menu” next to our food and drinks menus at each restaurant. Each week, our team finds five ways anyone can support immigrants and puts them on the menu, such as volunteering at one of our partner organizations, joining a march or event, or even just watching a movie or reading a book to learn more about an immigration issue. We have an internal team that works on finding these resources every week, and more than 100,000 people have scanned the QR code for this menu since our first restaurant opening.
We share our Engagement Menu on social, too, so everyone can get involved.
Providing more visibility for these issues and experts on our platforms also became an obvious path forward: We needed to market the business anyway, so why not use this as an educational opportunity? There is so much misinformation out there on immigration, and we wanted to make a small contribution against it. Every month, we publish an online magazine called The Think Table, where we produce original content about immigration issues. Whether it’s about DREAMers, immigration courts, sanctuary cities, or voting rights, we create videos, social media posts, and columns that boil down a lot of information and make it easy to digest (sorry for the food metaphor!).
This creates a deeper connection to our consumers, while giving a new platform to the smartest people working in immigration today. We also put on a lot of events with our partners, hosting them at our restaurants and educating the public on these important issues. All of this is incredibly valuable for getting their message out, with the side benefit of helping grow our brand.
My “Téa’s Coffee” videos are great social media content for us while also spreading important information about the mission.
Recently, we also introduced a new initiative: #PlateitForward. It’s a way for people to help people by allowing restaurant guests to donate a bowl to feed someone in need. In 2020 and 2021, we have donated more than 25,000 bowls to our community.
If we were just donating a portion of our profits, I can see how supporting our mission could have felt like a burden on our business at times—especially when things got tough, like during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns. Instead, by finding the opportunities that naturally integrate into our day-to-day without putting too much of a strain on us, it’s always felt like a win-win for the cause and for our company.
One of the questions I get asked most often is whether we’re worried about losing customers because they don’t agree with what we believe in. The opposite is true. Standing strong behind our values has made our business more successful than if we tried to be everything for everyone. Sure, some people may decide not to come, but ultimately, we have a more dedicated community that feels passionate about dining with us.
This is really evident in the fact that, during the pandemic, five of the eight restaurants on our block of Pennsylvania Avenue closed, but we were one of those that made it through (the others were large chains). I’m convinced the reason we were able to stay open was because of the mission: People kept coming back because they wanted to spend their money where their values are. (The fact that the food is delicious didn’t hurt, either.)
There are so many surveys out there pointing to the fact that consumers want to support brands that take a stand about issues they care about, and we’ve really experienced that firsthand. Our managers are shocked by how often new customers walk in the door who are already deeply familiar with and invested in our brand, even though they’ve never eaten with us, because of the advocacy work we’re doing.
If I haven’t already convinced you that a business can prioritize both money and mission, maybe this will do it: The two restaurants we opened most recently reached profitability in less than six months (which is very unusual in the restaurant industry, where this usually takes a year or more to turn a profit). I truly believe we were able to achieve financial success because we’ve created our own definition of corporate social responsibility, one that works for our business operations and for our ideals.
Obviously, it feels good to know our business is doing well financially, but it feels even better to know we’re doing so while also helping immigrants succeed every day.