By Carter Crockett, Ph.D.
I am pleased to launch this series by featuring one of the most prominent social enterprise leaders in San Diego, Chuck Samuelson, founder of Kitchens for Good. The mission of Kitchens for Good is to break the cycles of food waste, hunger, and poverty through innovative solutions in workforce training, healthy food production, and social enterprise. The nonprofit does this by rescuing surplus and cosmetically imperfect food from wholesalers and farmers and engaging students in a culinary apprenticeship program that transforms such ingredients into nutritious meals for hungry families. These culinary students also fulfill corporate catering contracts. This approach not only helps curb hunger, it hands students a recipe for transforming their lives from one of addiction, incarceration, and unemployment to one of self-sufficiency and dignity. Some graduates have even accepted Head Chef responsibilities in San Diego’s hospitality sector.
I recently spoke at length with Samuelson about turning kitchens into job creation engines in their communities. He spoke of the struggle to create jobs for former convicts, people deemed “unemployable.” An excerpt from our discussion follows:
Origin Story: In March of 2013, Samuelson left his position as Senior Manager for Food Services with Stone Brewing Co. to start what became Kitchens for Good (KFG). “I reached a point in my life when making a living simply was not enough,” he said. “I needed to make a difference. I had been talking with my son for a number of years about the future and what ‘a life well lived’ might look like for him. It finally came time to walk my talk.”
Establishing a Legal Entity: Samuelson decided to form a 501(c)3 nonprofit enterprise because, “It really came down to the availability of startup funding for the project. No venture capitalist was going to risk money on this.”
Real Life Prep: “As an entrepreneur, I’d known failure. As a chef and food manager, I knew how to run a kitchen,” Samuelson said. “I come from a broken home, I’m a recovering addict and I’ve been homeless, so I know what it is like to have to start over. I believe that everyone deserves a second chance.”
Impact Measures: The mission for Kitchens for Good centers on job training, so the key is job placement for its graduates. The enterprise has trained 170 cooks, launching 86% into employment where they find self-sufficiency, part of the reason they can boast a recidivism rate of just 6%. KFG employs over 65 staff (including part-time workers) with an annual budget of $3.5 million. Of course, tracking earned revenue vs. grants or donations is another important metric, Samuelson said. “Additionally, we do food rescue and hunger relief, so the number of pounds of food destined for the landfill that we turn into healthy, delicious meals is another metric we track.” To date, they have rescued some 50,000 pounds of food in order to serve over 87,000 meals.
Fortune Favors the Bold: Aside from the initial leap in forming KFG, Samuelson believes “the single biggest stroke of luck” contributing to the success of KFG was when Jennifer Gilmore, former Executive Director of Feeding America San Diego, was added to the team. “Jennifer had no intention of working for another startup, or with another founder. Somehow my vision for what we could do together at KFG convinced her to take a chance and become our Executive Director. She has been a game-changer and is responsible for much of our success.”
Technology Challenges: While KFG is now an established enterprise, Samuelson said the organization still struggles with keeping up with the fast-moving pace of technology. “I see our greatest technological challenge to be communication and connecting everyone in our growing enterprise. We will double in size this year from 65 employees to about 125 and from three kitchens to five. Having a workforce, management team, and students spread over multiple locations presents opportunities for better communication and challenges to being able to maintain our current culture. I like the app that WeWork uses to create community amongst their members – I would love to have our own someday.”
Sustainability for the Future: KFG has created several revenue generating endeavors from its kitchen, including catering and events services, and contract meal services. These social enterprises allow the nonprofit to create jobs for its culinary students and graduates while generating profits to sustain the organization’s programs.
Currently, Kitchens for Good earns about 55% of the organization’s total budget from its revenue-generating enterprises. “Our goal is to increase the earned revenue percentage in the future, and reduce our reliance on philanthropy,” Samuelson said.
Leadership Style: “I’m a bit like Indiana Jones. While I do research and plan thoroughly, in the end, I’m an adventurer and willing to take the leap to be successful,” Samuelson said.
Advice for Future Founders: “Be flexible. We started out with a simple plan to turn rescued food into meals for the hungry. I quickly realized hunger is simply one element of poverty. We changed course to instead address just one cause of poverty: some people are perceived as unemployable. We couldn’t solve hunger, but we are successful at the core mission we chose to pursue instead – training people to earn good jobs in the hospitality industry.”
This interview reveals some of the truly distinctive elements of Kitchens for Good, and may inspire other organizations seeking innovative paths to impact. San Diego would be a better place with more pioneering founders like Chuck Samuelson.
Please add your comments below and let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org) who you would like to have featured next.
Editor’s Note: “Impact” – a series brought to you by Carter Crockett and Fresh Brewed Tech – features key insights from San Diego’s impact ecosystem, those with the grit to build a better world, one social enterprise at a time.