Mealshare’s concept couldn’t be simpler: buy dinner at a restaurant and help it donate a meal to someone in need. Diners at participating restaurants simply choose an item on the menu bearing the Mealshare logo and the restaurant pays for a charity to provide a meal.
The Vancouver-based social venture’s concept was a hit with restaurants and their customers right from their 2013 launch, so one by one more restaurants came to the table.
But for things to really take off, Mealshare still needed more support from the community – beyond just the people already coming to the partner restaurants.
“For us to grow any bigger, we needed the public to know who we are,” says co-founder Andrew Hall. “So we needed something big.”
Mr. Hall sees a plate full of food as the first step towards getting out of poverty. “For me, if I have to go just one day without food, my whole day is shot. Imagine struggling with that day in, day out,” he says.
A couple years ago, he and his cousin Jeremy Bryant were both building steady careers at Big Four accounting firms, but they wanted to make more of a positive impact. They decided to tap into the $50 billion that Canadians spend at restaurants each year to set up an easy way for diners to help someone in need.
When they launched Mealshare in 2013, they had four partner restaurants. By the end of the year, 28 restaurants in British Columbia and Alberta were featuring the Mealshare logo on their menu. They had also earned themselves support from the Sauder School of Business Centre for Social Innovation and Impact Investing, as their venture had been accepted into the Centre’s year-long accelerator program for startups with a social mission, the Coast Capital Savings Innovation Hub. There, they benefited from a communal workspace, funding and experienced mentors.
It was in May 2014, almost halfway through their stay at the business accelerator, that they were brainstorming ideas to make themselves known in their two main markets, Vancouver and Calgary, without breaking their slim marketing budget. So they listened to what their new mentors had to say: think big.
“We wanted to get these whole cities behind us, so we thought, what holds a city together? The mayors. We had to go straight to the top,” Mr. Hall says. They decided to get in touch with the offices of Vancouver and Calgary’s charismatic mayors, Gregor Robertson and Naheed Nenshi.
“And because we wanted to get people talking, we figured, what’s better than a rivalry?” says Mr. Hall, pointing out the decades of conversation fodder the longstanding Vancouver-Calgary hockey rivalry has yielded.
They decided to challenge the mayors to a friendly wager – the mayor who could get the most Mealshare restaurants on board in his city would be treated to lunch at a Mealshare restaurant by the loser.
But first, the venture needed to look professional enough to warrant the mayors’ notice, so Mr. Hall and his team took in another piece of advice from their Coast Capital Savings Innovation Hub mentors, and focused their efforts on improving their website and branding. And it paid off.
“It was a bit of a long shot, but luckily, both mayors were up for it – we were amazed,” Mr. Hall says.
They called it the Food Fight for Good – a six-month long challenge that wrapped up at the end of 2014.
Mayor Nenshi won – Calgary ended up with 28 Mealshare restaurants by the year’s end to Vancouver’s 26. But perhaps more importantly, Mr. Hall says the Food Fight was a “huge win” for Mealshare, and for the people they support with free meals.
The social media campaign attracted lots of attention to the venture, which was less than a year old at the outset. #FoodFightForGood was trending on Twitter in Calgary in the summer – perhaps that helped the city win. Hall says there are new Mealshare restaurants in both cities that were on the fence about joining until the newfound exposure and credibility spurred them to sign on.
Mealshare has now served free meals to over 150,000 people across Canada, more than two thirds of which were thanks to Mealshare items bought in Calgary and Vancouver. They showed that a marketing campaign can work without a big budget, as creativity and gall were all the ingredients Mealshare needed.
Associate professor James Tansey is the executive director of the Sauder School of Business Centre for Social Innovation and Impact Investing.
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