Recipe for startup a success for Free to Feed

Loretta Bolotin

Melbourne-based not-for-profit social enterprise Free to Feed is helping to kickstart 60 other local startups. Here’s how.

Free to Feed – a mobile cooking school with classes run by refugees – has received a $245,770 LaunchVic grant to roll out a food business incubator program offering 60 refugee and new migrant startups the chance to develop and launch their own high-growth food startup concepts.

Called Now to Launch, the two-year initiative will operate across Melbourne and regional Victoria, and includes modules to guide entrepreneurs through the complexities of fine-tuning, designing, testing and ultimately launching their food startups, with food professionals and startup experts on tap to lend skills as required.

Free to Feed is a not-for-profit social enterprise designed to combat challenges migrants face finding employment. Working with refugees with a cooking background, Free to Feed dishes up classes, workshops and catering in homes, cafes, restaurants, offices and schools from its purpose-built kitchen in Thornbury.

“We’re funding Free to Feed as experts to carry out an accelerator programs for migrants and refugees with a startup idea,” says LaunchVic CEO, Dr Kate Cornick. “Their program Now to Launch hasn’t yet started but we’re very excited to see the impact it has on aspiring startups.”

CEO Loretta Bolotin shares that excitement. She co-founded Free to Feed in 2016 with her husband Daniel Bolton to provide a training, mentoring and employment program for migrants with a cooking background, including those from Syria, Tehran and Sri Lanka, and the ‘Now to Launch’ business incubator is a natural extension.

“The LaunchVic grant is our first grant – it’s the culmination of two years of hard work and has enabled us to make the journey into becoming a business incubator a few years before we might otherwise been able to do so,” notes Loretta. “The future has been fast-forwarded and propelled towards us, and for that we’re truly grateful and excited. This also means that the Victorian community will enjoy the benefits of the next generation of refugee-led food enterprises very soon.”

The project will not be without its challenges for participants she points out, noting that the first major hurdle migrants face is to overcome social and cultural barriers. This is before even considering the usual challenges that the average Australian has when it comes to working and enterprise.

“But once given the opportunity, social support and a platform, our cooks have proven themselves to be ready to step up and demonstrate what they have to offer their new community,” Loretta proudly explains.

“Free to Feed has been an amazing vehicle for finding an audience for entrepreneurs who can otherwise be invisible and to allow them to showcase the skills and experiences they have in their home countries. Their fast-paced and nimble way of approaching business (bypassing ominous 40-page business plans and naturally testing their products/offerings as they go) is exciting and we’ve got a lot to learn from this appetite for self-advancement and success. I’m also constantly inspired by the openness for receiving feedback that our entrepreneurs and cooking teachers demonstrate; they have an innate desire to understand their new market, refine their offering, upskill, grow and pivot to be successful in this new homeland: that shows a great deal of flexibility and curiosity.”

And finally, why is Victoria a fantastic place for migrant entrepreneurial start-ups? “Two words: the people,” Loretta enthuses. “It’s the ultimate state to nurture startups because of the big hearts, minds and appetites of its people. We’ve always believed that helping our community’s most vulnerable should be fun, delicious and inspire wonder and curiosity. Free to Feed has evolved in its first two years largely because of the interest and excitement that people have infused in it: Victorians have brought the idea to life and that’s such a heartening thing for people seeking asylum here. No one person has all the attributes that entrepreneurs need to succeed, but as a community we have amongst ourselves everything we need to nurture the next generation of refugee-led food startups.”

Loretta Bolotin’s top three pieces of advice on how to operate a successful not-for-profit social enterprise in Victoria

  1. Create a venture with deep social impact and commercial viability.

Give ample attention to the community and customers that will ultimately determine the success of your venture and spend time defining your brand offering. Offer a product or service that’s competitive in the market. Free to Feed’s cooking school was voted number one by Time Out magazine just 12 months after we launched in 2016 and that’s because we focused on the details of each customer’s experience and incorporated customer feedback.

  1. Apply the business motto: “build it and they will come”. Make it happen.

We hired a cohort of cooks, and launched our pop-up events immediately after to test the concept. This meant we had a track record and started generating revenue early on, and this was important to later attract funders. Word-of-mouth began to spread and we had already documented and captured images of the work-at-play, which was useful in our later submissions and pitches.

  1. Be humble.

We never imagined we’d come this far in such a short time and it’s all thanks to the wonderful community that we live in. Melbourne is an incredibly progressive community with an appetite for supporting new ventures and for showing their support for inclusive and culturally diverse communities. Social enterprises and entrepreneurs were so willing to meet to exchange ideas, learn about what we’re trying to do and share their advice along the way, and that was critical.