The long-awaited Travail Kickstarter campaign went live yesterday and fully reached its goal of $75,000 in six hours. Check it out #prevailtravail. Does that shock you? Consider that it is still going strong, as of this post they are close to $146,000 and the campaign doesn't close until Oct. 10. This represents a sea change in terms of how local restaurants get funded. To me, these types of projects have democratized entrepreneurship (obvi!), allowing customers to help push dollars to restaurants they believe in. I think for would-be restaurateurs it allows them to test the waters. If diners are interested in your concept, you will find out pretty quickly by asking them for money in exchange for a little “rare air.” Want a cool limited edition T-shirt? Looking for a reservation at a restaurant that doesn’t take them? Want a kitchen table? A private cooking class? They are all for "sale" via "donation." So far, 22 people have thought enough of that to pledge $1,000 each, and one person pledged $10,000.
IN ONE DAY. I like the Travail guys . . . a lot. I believe in their entrepreneurial spirit and as a businessman I understood the hesitance the Travail team had with private investment. It's bad for making art. Lousy for guys whose business model is predicated on "hacking" fine dining and whose core brand value is a cultish adherence to the models of freedom and anarchy most often found only on pirate ships.
Twenty-five years ago restaurant owners would work hard to put 30 people around a table. Ask them for $25,000 each and promise them all a lot of free food and booze, and if the restaurant took off maybe some cash back after 10 years. It is fun to be part of the club, tell your pals you "own" a small piece, fun to be in the right place at the right time. And for those addicted to the action of the ‘next big thing’ it's the allure of being a part of a Bon Appetit Best New Restaurant winner, Eater Young Gun designee, James Beard Award semi-finalist and so on, it’s a sirens song. Couple that with the actual benefit of donation and, well, you get the point. The ability to raise money this quickly, with this large of a percentage of donors contributing big dollar amounts is telling. First it speaks to the desire on the part of the Travail customer to be a part of this. It’s a happening. It has transcended restaurant openings and operations as we have come to know them. Travail tribespeople want to be a part of the parties, the fun, they want “in” on the inside. They want to see and be seen. Nothing wrong with that, happens all the time in the worlds of movies, art, and yes, restaurants historically, but I can't recall this much bonhomie about a restaurant opening in the 21 years I have lived here.
What this says for the Travail team as entrepreneurs is that they understand their customer and their market, they are devoutly dedicated to their brand, refusing to dilute the independence and anarchist renegade vibe they have carefully cultivated, knowing their core base of fans would scatter if they sold out to a group of investors in a formal offering. I admire that. and I admire their desire to build the new Travail and Rookery three doors down from the old space! These guys stuck to their guns, are growing where they are planted and remained fiendishly committed to Robbinsdale. I posted a tweet last night about their Kickstarter and got a lot of fun replies. Two of my smarter pals brought up a point worth mentioning. Jason DeRusha said, “I'm happy for them too! Don't blame restos for using kickstarter. Just have no interest in donating to for-profits” and Jon Tevlin said basically the same thing when he tweeted. “Prefer to give my xtra $ to big bros. sorry.”
Great point, and one that we all relate to. My family and I make a lot of donations to the non-profit sector, publicly and privately. I don’t see my donation to Travail's campaign as an either/or proposition or as an absolute. I view my donation as essentially buying dinner ahead of time. Like a CSA. I gave the money now, I get to go to opening night and I get a dinner for my friends and I further down the line. A fair exchange for sure. More importantly, I supported local businessmen, who are bringing jobs to the city and growing the tax base, enriching our community with their lasting contribution to what makes our town such a great place to live.
Last thought, I support restaurants for a thousand reasons, but none more important than for the vital role they play in donating time and product to endless fundraisers taking place over the life of their business. The hospitality community is the single greatest resource for non-profit participation that I can think of. So, a few bucks thrown at a restaurant Kickstarter is like tossing a wellness rock in the pond of community activism. Maybe I will auction off seats with me at my Travail dinner with the money going to one of my causes. That’s the gift that keeps on giving.