Hershey POV: This article tells the story of a new New York restaurant venture where alleviating poverty is as important as the sustainably sourced menu offerings. P.S. Kitchen donates its earnings to nonprofits helping homeless people, and works with local groups to hire homeless people and ex-convicts. The restaurant could be a model for other businesses seeking to feed both a paying public and those less fortunate.
When the upscale eatery P.S. Kitchen opened in New York’s theater district this August, its plant-based menu reflected one way to encourage social change. The plant-based menu, of course, advocates a more sustainable food system.
But co-owners Craig Cochran and Jeffrey LaPadula (who are also part of the four-person ownership team behind Terri, another plant-based quick-casual concept offering things like wraps, salads, smoothies and juices, with three locations in New York), wanted to formalize a strategy to address another complex issue: poverty.
The company is structured as a charitable business, joining the growing ranks of companies giving 100% their profits to nonprofits. In this case, that includes giving to organizations that provide job training, transitional housing, and food and shelter to people who are homeless. Rather than stop there, P.S. Kitchen goes even further: It’s also a so-called "social business," meaning that it has been also hiring those same aid recipients in-house, as a way to close the loop and provide steady work.
“We apply a business engine to a social problem,” Cochran says in an email to Fast Company. “The idea is your money should have multiple lives.”
That’s reflected in a restaurant mission statement: “We commit our energy, passion, and time to giving others a ‘hand up’ rather than a ‘hand out.'” To do that, the group has partnered with Defy Ventures, an entrepreneurship, employment and character-development program for current and former convicts; The Doe Fund, which offers career training and transitional housing to the homeless and previously incarcerated, and the Bowery Mission, which provides meals, shelter, and job opportunities for the homeless. While not all of its employees hail from these programs, Cochran has hired 10 people associated with Doe Fund and the Bowery so far.
Cochran doesn’t like to share the names of people involved with the program. Most traditionally hired employees aren’t told that, either. The idea is to create a safe space that’s free of stigma. “I think part of helping people move on is letting them leave their past behind them,” Cochran says.
While the restaurant isn’t yet profitable, the team behind it understands the need to seed that charitable work first. Without a pipeline for potential employees, they’d have no one to hire. To that end, they’ve have contributed a combined $1.2 million to various aid groups over the last 12 months, including those they’ve partnered with.
That group includes Yunus Social Business, a nonprofit venture fund that invests in other sustainable social businesses, and Share Hope, an ethically made apparel company in Haiti, which creates jobs for women, while working to improve educational, health, and sanitation services in the surrounding communities. The idea is that poverty doesn’t start or end in New York—and there’s a wealth of groups where more funding, applied strategically, can also yield great change.
Eventually, Cochran hopes that P.S. Kitchen will be able to generate as much as a half-million dollars annually toward these causes. So far, as to the restaurant's being profitable, the owners say it is getting closer. The place does lunch and dinner service and holds about 85 people. (He’s also not sure how many in-need employees it could end up hiring, preferring to work with candidates on a case-by-case basis, rather than thinking about a quota.)
For now, the immediate need is putting out good food. Cochran describes the menu as “global cuisine unified by a classic French technique. One entree, the “Buffalo Hen of the Wood,” an elevated play on buffalo chicken that uses mushrooms instead of meat, features German purple sweet potato salad and house blue cheese. It goes for $17.
“At the end of the day, I would love to think that people really cared about the social business aspect, and maybe they do,” he says. “But we have to be a good restaurant and place where people want to come.”