7 Lessons from the Ventures Network and Catalyst Kitchens
Renée Martin

January 23, 2019

When I am not supporting Ventures as a Board Member, I am the Director of Catalyst Kitchens, the international impact initiative of FareStart.

FareStart empowers adults and young people experiencing poverty and homelessness to achieve self-sufficiency through life skills, job training, and employment in the foodservice industry. Catalyst Kitchens supports and scales a network of nonprofit member organizations, and incubates and launches new social enterprises and job training programs through our consulting practice.

I joined the Ventures Board of Directors because I am an advocate for economic empowerment. Entrepreneurship is a pathway for individuals with barriers to employment to not just become self-sufficient but to thrive. I have learned some key lessons at Catalyst Kitchens and have shared my experience by collaborating with Ventures’ growing “consulting arm,” the Ventures Network.

Both Ventures and FareStart face the continual challenge of funding our programs in a sustainable way. Both of us have developed strategies to expand our mission by providing consulting to other organizations. We want to reflect on the lessons that we have learned.

Whether you are a small business owner or a social enterprise or nonprofit executive, we hope these lessons will be helpful as you grow your business.

1. Start from strength.

Ventures helps people start and grow businesses, although we also provide access to other services such as matched savings programs. Nonetheless, the organization knows their core strength is providing comprehensive support—what we call “technical assistance”—for entrepreneurs. When we partnered with the Young Farmers program at Pike Place Market, for example, we offered general business training rather than trying to provide industry-specific advice for agricultural businesses, an area in which we do not have much experience.

At Catalyst Kitchens, we often encourage our clients to identify what they do well. How can you share your expertise or skill in the form of a product or service? If you have access to a commercial kitchen and the ability to create delicious meals, why not share them? One example, Downtown Hope Center (DHC) in Anchorage, Alaska, was already producing many meals every day for those experiencing homelessness out of their soup kitchen space. DHC hired Catalyst Kitchens to support the expansion of their food business portfolio and help integrate job training into their operations. Today they train over 200 individuals a year in their bakery and catering businesses.

2. Find your niche.

The Ventures Network and Catalyst Kitchens have both thrived because of their unique focuses. While Ventures brings culturally competent, highly effective programming to the world of microenterprise development, FareStart’s model harnesses a unique opportunity between the worlds of workforce development and social enterprise in the growing food industry.

In Seattle, Ventures partnered with El Centro de la Raza to provide culturally relevant support for food entrepreneurs through their food business training program. El Centro had the right space and identified the demand from local entrepreneurs, and Ventures was able to support their work with impactful, culturally competent training.

Back in 2001, Catalyst Kitchens Model Member DC Central Kitchen (DCCK) began working with U.S universities to reduce food waste on campus. The initiative built from the expertise DCCK already possessed from their previous decade of food recovery in the DC area. By finding this niche and working to strategically scale their impact, DCCK has grown the Campus Kitchens Project to more 65 schools nationally.

3. Just start lean.

For both our organizations, a “lean” mentality has been a foundational element of our consulting work. We are constantly piloting, pivoting, and improving our offerings in response to the feedback from our clients. When something works well, we weave it into our next iteration—and when it doesn’t, we don’t.

Treat your enterprise launch as a pilot and commit to learning from it. In our work at Catalyst Kitchens, we often suggest building one component at a time. Get the business up and running, stabilize operations then introduce training. When GrandLo Café opened in NYC earlier this year, they wisely decided to wait and introduce job training after the initial hiccups of new business launch had been smoothed out.

4. Everything is customized.

Although we began our consulting work by building a minimum viable product (MVP) and moving ahead from there, we quickly learned this lesson. One size does not fit all.

Ventures has learned this lesson through our work with the Tacoma-Pierce County Department of Public Health, focused on achieving better health outcomes by training micro-entrepreneurs in small grocery stores to increase healthy food options. Although we were originally hired by department leaders to train entrepreneurs, we spent a significant amount of our time helping department staff learn business coaching skills. We also piloted a community workshop with the Tacoma Urban League, playing the role of connector between entrepreneurs in the community and their government.

As much as we might try to focus and hone what we can offer, each organization, community and geographic location has slightly different needs. Ultimately, a significant part of what we are offering is trained, experienced human capital that leverages the best practices of our national network to help our peers build their knowledge and capacity.

5. Be strategic.

Build internal capacity to deliver services as you go to make sure that your work will be sustainable. The Ventures Network offers four levels of work—training, consulting, mobile coaching, and licensing of our curriculum—to provide comprehensive trainings and toolkits for our clients.

The Ventures Network offers four levels of work – training, consulting, mobile coaching, and licensing of our curriculum – to ensure that we can provide comprehensive trainings and toolkits for our clients. With each individual project, Ventures has revamped our internal toolkit, reported back within our team, and updated marketing materials to reflect this new capacity.

At Catalyst Kitchens, we help our clients build out the most basic staffing models needed to operationalize sustainably. This way they can layer internal capacity as the business and program scale. Ninety-eight percent of our members run contract businesses because they allow for scaling in a specific meal category (childcare, school or seniors), contract by contract.

6. Show or tell the story.

Share stories about consulting projects with staff, board and other stakeholders and share regular updates as a form of organic marketing. Ventures shared our experience with the Puget Sound Business Journal and won a 2018 Innovation Award.

While that external validation is incredibly important, we also promote our work internally at Catalyst Kitchens. We designed interactive maps illustrating of the communities supported by Catalyst Kitchens and placed them strategically around our offices to share the story of our work with staff and visitors. This helps our employees and guests visualize the scope of our impact.

7. Track outcomes and celebrate wins.

It is easy to get caught up in the work and forget to track what you are doing; the number of people served, feedback, testimonials, hours worked on a project, etc. Create simple but powerful measuring tools from the beginning—and use them. This is how a project can gain momentum. Don’t forget to celebrate your wins at key milestones along the way!

As a Board Member of Ventures and the leader of Catalyst Kitchens, I have found that cross-collaboration can help us innovate and think of creative new strategies for our consulting work. We hope you find these lessons helpful. Reach out to the Ventures Network and Catalyst Kitchens teams to learn more!