The media have eaten up the hardscrabble, raw business gumption of East Vancouver’s Mark Brand. But his ambition has come at a heavy personal cost that has made his recent success bittersweet.
From the body ink and hipster wardrobe to the f-bombs and East Coast charm, Mark Brand exudes charisma – and, not surprisingly, courts controversy. For him or against him, few would deny that the 37-year-old restaurateur has been a game changer in the Downtown Eastside since moving in five years ago. In 2013 he’s on a mission to expand his restaurant empire while feeding the needy at the same time.
Mark Brand Inc. employs almost 200 people at Boneta, Sea Monstr Sushi, The Diamond, Catalog Gallery, Sharks + Hammers and the revitalized Save On Meats, Brand’s most recent labour of love and social enterprise at Hastings and Abbott streets. Save On prepares 480 meals a day for single resident-occupancy hotels in the Downtown Eastside while doing a brisk business at the diner, butcher shop and commissary kitchen.
But as any entrepreneur will tell you, that output and reach don’t come without sacrifice. The 2011 resurrection of Save On Meats was the beast that nearly broke Brand, after a $300,000 personal investment and a laundry list of crises, all captured last year on the Oprah Winfrey Network’s reality television series Gastown Gamble.
“I refuse to fail – it’s not an option,” Brand says. “But Save On changed who I was and who I wanted to be. If you’re doing 16 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week for a year, you’re not available. I lost a lot of things because of that.” Not surprisingly, key business relationships ended. His right-hand man and a valued chef both moved on from Mark Brand Inc. Even more significantly, Brand and his wife Nico separated. “I looked really hard at my relationships, who I am as a friend, who I am as a boss, what I’m bringing to the table and what I’m not. When you tear yourself apart to that level, the only thing that can come out of that is good. I know exactly who I am today.”
Now that the dust has settled at Save On, it’s a new year, with new projects and, most importantly, new cash. Last November Brand appeared on CBC’s The Big Decision and convinced entrepreneur Arlene Dickinson to invest $250,000 in Save On Meats. The money is earmarked for A Better Life Foundation, Brand’s new not-for-profit that focuses on centralized food procurement and food security in the Downtown Eastside. Dollars from Dickinson, the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Community College will overhaul Save On’s second floor and turn the 5,100-square-foot commissary kitchen into a 24/7 operation that will offer large-scale catering, food distribution and wholesale. “It’s just about food,” says Brand. “Lots of organizations support the needs of Downtown Eastside residents, but we do food better than anybody else. We train, we employ and we do food.” By the second quarter of this year, Brand’s goal is to prepare 1,500 meals a day for those in need.
From TEDx talks to TV shows to print media, Brand embraces the publicity machine. Although it’s an effective strategy to increase exposure for both his company and his message of community, it also makes him an easy target.
He’s been lambasted for contributing to the gentrification of the Downtown Eastside and more recently he was accused of selling charity with his successful token program. (Buy a token for $2.25 and give it to someone in need; they redeem it for a Save On hot breakfast sandwich. Two thousand tokens sold out in four days, with pre-orders for almost 4,000 more.) Brand says he welcomes criticism because it often improves his social-enterprise efforts in the community. He also doesn’t dispute the fact that he’s an entrepreneur. “This is a business,” he says. “People can choose to partake in my programs or not. I’m not pushing anything on anyone.”
Brand’s social initiatives are effecting positive change and Save On’s affordable fare and community programs do make a difference in the Downtown Eastside. He’s also the CEO of a multi-million- dollar, debt-carrying company and like any other restaurateur in town, he’s in business to make money.
To that end, he’s adding another restaurant to his Gastown collection. Opening later this year, The Portside will be a mid-sized live-music venue serving dim sum and pulled-meat sandwiches, all prepared at Save On through Brand’s barrier employment program. Farther afield in Gibsons, B.C., Brand and a partner plan to open Beachcomber Brewery this summer, with a hops farm, apiary, restaurant, tasting room and retail outlet also in the works.
The injection of cash into Brand’s new not-for-profit division is a boon for Mark Brand Inc. Profit and not-for-profit divisions are now optimized to play off each other. Foundation funding for the food procurement program takes the financial pressure off Save On, leaving more resources for new restaurants, breweries and whatever else Brand dreams up. And whether you buy the community message he’s selling or not, it won’t slow him down in the slightest. Brand continues to do well in business by doing good in his neighbourhood. “I don’t have all the answers. But I do know that we are working really hard to do better and I know that it’s inspired a lot of people to work hard and do better.”