Why do people want to learn different recipes and cooking techniques?
Many aspiring entrepreneurs recognize that the increased number of tourists and people moving to urban centres has saturated the market with many of the same products, and those selling something unique have less competition, and can charge a little more for their goods, especially if they’re considered healthier. And in many food courts, it is no longer permitted to have two vendors selling the same product, so without a unique menu, formal opportunities are limited.
Many people with unique product knowledge aren’t looking to share it, and when you see an opportunity but don’t have a clear idea on how to develop it, it’s hard to take a chance doing something new that may or may not sell, especially if your first priority is putting food on the table tonight, and you have to borrow to buy equipment and materials to do so. So instead of acting on an observed market opportunity, many people end up taking the safe route, opening up a food stand with the same products as the majority, figuring a small portion of the pie is better than no pie at all.
I didn’t have a traditional role model while growing up in a low-income suburb of Toronto, and I know how hard it can be to break the poverty cycle and do something different. The fact that I figured it out makes me more eager to show others how to do the same.
When I tell locals that I participated in mentoring programs to help me get where I am, they often ask me to share the soft skills that aren’t taught in schools.
When they find out I earned my professional diploma in French cuisine, and then learned to cook in over 20 distinct regions around the world, they constantly tell me that food stands are one of the easiest ways to make money, as everyone eats, and ask me to help set up local food businesses, assisting with healthy unique recipes, cooking techniques, food costing and basic management skills.
I have loads of skills and knowledge that I do want to share, and I don’t need to look hard to find people eager to learn: when I build my community relationships in local markets, schools, and street food neighbourhoods, enthusiastic people hear about me and come running, asking for my guidance.
This project borrows ideas from the Junior Achievement Company Program model, providing a means for people to develop business skills, learning how to open and administer a business. It takes things a step further, by not closing down the business at the end of the mentoring agreement, but instead putting as much focus during mentoring on the need for unique, marketable food products that can succeed long-term in the local and tourist market place, with the mentoring program a launching pad for these new products and the business skills developed.
I also incorporate ideas from the business incubator model, providing space for people to develop entrepreneurial ideas; however it will go further, not entering mentoring agreements strictly with people who have a good business product or model, instead encouraging motivated and committed people who recognize a market opportunity with no particular product in mind, people who already have technical culinary skills to cook and learn, and want to take advantage of my knowledge to develop new healthy options for tourist and/or local markets, using the centre’s space and equipment to do so.
I’ve borrowed the ‘by reservation only’ multiple course restaurant model from my culinary studies in Quebec, where we could refine our recipes, technical skills, and presentation for a controlled number of guests, without the stress of a rush, providing a more intimate dining experience, and in this case, an economically sustainable financial model for my social project. Without a space to earn income to run the project, it can not be offered free of charge.
And I’m implementing the ‘work now for future gains’ model from my experience with a restaurant/tourism/craft training program in Namibia, first with participants contributing to the project through the restaurant service 1-3 times per week, and second, once they have their recipes established, they have a space to sell them individually to the general public at local prices, while being mentored to ensure that their portioning, costing, business and soft skills are being developed as required.
At this stage, they are using the project’s equipment, but do the purchasing of foods and production materials with my help, figuring out their daily and weekly income, paying off operating expenses with it, and saving a portion of the profit towards the purchase of their own equipment. They run the business as if they were on their own, with the security of earning start up capital before venturing out, rather than borrowing to do so. This is also their opportunity to build a loyal customer base.
I’ve participated in a number of business development and employability projects, and the common feature in all of them was a safe place to learn, make mistakes, develop skills, feel supported, and eventually go out on your own, investing one’s time, not money, in exchange for greater income generating opportunities in the future. This is especially important for people who would otherwise not have the means to participate.
In theory, a building could be rented, I could bring all of the equipment I’ve collected around the world, and purchase the big machinery on site. But with the amount of renovations and investment necessary to build the space as envisioned, it doesn’t make sense to build my life project in someone else’s building, especially if I can purchase one in an opportune location, at an opportune time, and at an opportune price, which is the case right now in Medellín.
As you can see in my video pitch, I’ve had an eventful life, going from rags to riches to bare necessities, volunteering in projects and restaurants while sharing recipes and culture with locals around the world. And all this with an average budget of less than $10 a day over 8 years!
I don’t want to take the adventure out of it, but with contracts that never lasted more than 2 years, I’ve never been able to see my students graduate (though I’m in contact with many by email), or community projects complete their transformation. It’s time to take my work and skill sharing to another level of sustainablility, by creating roots in a community, setting up a mentoring and food development centre that corresponds to what motivated low-income food entrepreneurs are asking me for, and then being there over the long term to grow with the people I’ll be mentoring.
Why Medellín, Colombia?
I could choose any number of cities I’ve lived in or visited, that have a strong street food and informal business culture, but don’t have the diversity in dishes found in places like Southeast Asia. Medellín is currently going through an incredible transformation, as its people try to erase the stigma attached to their beloved city and its past. I could feel the positive energy as soon as I set foot in town, and as I walked around the new parks, libraries, and green spaces being constructed, I dug deeper, and found that the government has prioritized the traditional city centre for development, including improved security, and a new light rail transit system running through the centre, called ‘tranvía’.
By cross referencing the various government projects, I can find where the new stations will be located when construction is completed in a couple years, where there will be new pedestrian only walkways, and where there will be increased pedestrian traffic, security, and opportunities to purchase a building at a relatively low cost this year (before development begins and prices go up), in an area booming with potential in the near future. There is also a popular evening street food market on the new transit line, all of which inspired the ‘vía cocina – food train’ logo and name, with its double meaning.
The climate was also an important factor: with spring/summer weather all year long (Medellín is known as ‘the city of eternal spring), it’s made for this type of project where participants won’t be stuck with a high and low tourism season, and can profit from their new healthy food businesses every day of the year.
While in Medellín I talked with employees at the city’s free culinary vocational school, nicknamed ‘the poor people’s university’, where there was interest in having me share my skills with teachers and students. My plan is to present my project to graduating students. Those who are less interested in working in a restaurant or hotel making minimum wage, and more interested in starting their own venture, will be able to contact me and talk about setting up a mentoring agreement during or after their studies.
I also spent time sharing recipes and cooking with 2 women in their small restaurant that serves lunch using organic products, where they are eagerly awaiting my return to help with a new dinner menu, and classes for a number of people interested in healthier food preparation.
I’ve met and consulted with the Colombian government’s Trade Commission and international investment specialists, and I’ve been encouraged and given insights and recommendations to facilitate the formalization of Vía Cocina – Food Train in Medellín!
If you have any other questions, feel free to share! Thank you!