Meet the Once-Homeless Chef Using Food to Fight Poverty
"You can’t do anything positive with your life unless you’re stabilized, and you can’t be stabilized on an empty stomach."
Left image courtesy of Mark Brand Inc; Right image via @saveonmeats Instagram.
“Being hungry sucks.”
If you spend even a little time around Mark Brand, you’re likely to hear him utter this phrase. Brand is a chef based in Vancouver, British Columbia, but he’s also a social entrepreneur and activist dedicated to a food-focused approach to fighting poverty.
British Columbia is home to Brand’s many businesses—among them a diner, a brewery, an incubator kitchen, and a charitable foundation—but lately Brand has been spending almost as much time in airports as in his hometown. It’s a tiring and difficult life, especially for a former drug and alcohol addict with the stomach ulcers and other ailments to prove it. But his passion for the work seems to provide him with nearly boundless energy.
To the eye, Brand looks like just another bro chef, another 42-year-old manchild—arms covered in tattoos, vintage Jordans, trendy joggers, a plain black tee that’s probably inexplicably expensive. For years, he ran what he calls “nine cool guy businesses” in Vancouver’s hottest neighborhoods—cocktail bars, small plates restaurants, even a streetwear brand. He was a success as a DJ, bartender, chef, and entrepreneur.
“The stuff we were doing was really fun, and it’s really nice to be recognized for culinary excellence and cocktail excellence,” Brand says as we scarf down 11 AM hamburgers at Save On Meats, the historic Vancouver butcher shop and sandwich counter in operation since 1957 that he took over in 2011 and turned into a full-service diner, beginning his journey down the path he’s on today. “But at the end of the day, you can only push so many boundaries. It wasn’t having a net positive effect other than cultural.”
Save On Meats is located in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, Canada’s poorest postal code and home to the largest open-air drug market in North America. The East Side directly borders the Gastown District, home to many of the city’s hottest restaurants and bars—and Brand’s previous stomping grounds. But Brand was always more familiar with the challenges of the neighborhood than it may have seemed from the outside.
“When I was 30 I sort of fell into addiction and alcoholism and ended up on a friend’s couch deep in East Van,” Brand says. “It was real dark. For moments, I didn’t think I was coming out of this.”
As a teenager, Brand also found himself homeless for short stretches. “I come from a place where I experienced it very temporarily, but the resources were not there and it’s a very scary and lonely place,” he says. “So I wanted to help change that. And then when you start to have an actual impact on one person’s life, you start to think, ‘what if we could do this for a bunch of people, and, more importantly, what if we could build systems that help people understand this better?’”
All of this came to a head when Save On came up for sale. The butcher shop and its sandwich counter had always been a place of respite for Brand in his toughest times. “Back then, I would come here a lot just to hang out and eat,” he tells me while dipping his haystack fries in ketchup. “So to be able to come back here and provide other people what was provided for me is really special.”
But Brand’s version of Save On does more than serve tasty and affordable burgers; it also provides 1,200 free meals a day to members of the community. Being hungry sucks, and Brand’s goal from the start was to make Save On the center of an operation to address that issue.
“You can’t do anything positive with your life unless you’re stabilized, and you can’t be stabilized on an empty stomach. Imagine going without food for days on end and then going into a meeting or trying to put together a resume. You just can’t do it,” Brand says with a growing passion and energy. “Getting people fed is number one for me. And getting fed real food. Not this bullshit styrofoam slop that goes out a lot of the time. Food is our last, best opportunity to stay connected.”
That’s why the commissary kitchen at Save On produces nutritious and fresh family-style meals that actually taste good. Each serving costs $3.50 (Canadian) to produce, paid for by a combination of government funding and funds raised by Brand’s charity, A Better Life Foundation. The bulk of these 1,200 meals go to SROs in the neighborhood, often providing residents with their one meal of the day. Since 2012, over 1.8 million of these meals have been provided out of Save On Meats.
“By making large-format communal meals, we’re able to cut down on the production costs,” says Ash MacLeod, the managing director of Brand’s operations. “But there’s also an incredible benefit of people eating together and sharing that experience. Poverty breeds isolation, and food helps break that isolation. Studies show that SROs with food have a way improved lifestyle in terms of rowdiness, damage, violence and so on. Calls to 911 go way down, overdoses go way down, just by adding food.”
Many of Save On’s employees understand the value of these meals better than anyone. When he was younger, one employee named Brad traveled the world with his mother, a classical musician. But later in life, he spent years living out of cars in Alberta and British Columbia, unable to hold a job due to developmental disabilities.
In 2011, Brad found himself on welfare living in a Vancouver SRO. A job placement agency set him up with a job as a dishwasher at Save On and he’s been there ever since. Recently, a new chef who suffers from PTSD and bipolar II took over at the diner. Understanding the challenges associated with mental disabilities, he saw untapped potential in Brad and trained him to move from his longtime post as a dishwasher.
Now, Brad’s a key force in preparing those 1,200 meals a day. “He excels at it because he cares,” says Brand as we watch the kitchen in action. “He’s feeding people who are just like him. It builds community, it builds trust.”
Brad’s not an exception. A full 48% of Brand’s employees across his operations are classified as “barrier employees,” people who face barriers to employment like mental illness, addiction, lack of work history, homelessness, and more. Brand stresses that many of his best and longest-running employees hail from this category.
In addition to the meal program, Save On is also home to a token program—a closed currency system that allows people to donate a meal at the shop to those in need, rather than money they might be worried would go towards drugs or alcohol. To date, over 100,000 tokens have been handed out in Vancouver.
People can buy tokens to hand out themselves, but they can also donate them directly to community outreach organizations, or even the police and fire departments. “The community outreach officer that is our point of contact literally came to tears when she talked about the value that the tokens have brought into her life,” says MacLeod. “The people she’s trying to help have associated the uniform their whole life with being in trouble and it can really soften or warm the relationship with this gift. Some of the beat cops are doing it too—we had one come in the other day and buy some out of his own pocket.”
This token program has been one of the key innovations that has taken Brand on the road in recent years. He’s partnered with others to take the program to new cities, including San Francisco and New York. At home in Vancouver, he recently partnered with another local organization to create a second token for clothing rather than food. It’s all part of Brand’s vision to use the token concept as a way to address the wide variety of needs of people living in poverty.
That’s the thinking behind Brand’s largest passion project, a digital platform he’s named Positive Access Link (PAL), intended for people working and living in disadvantaged communities to be able to record needs in real time.
It grew out of a year-long fellowship program Brand did at Stanford. “I sent back literal LOLs [to the invitation to attend]. I was like, ‘I may have misrepresented myself,’” Brand exclaims. “I just have a high school degree, and I’m not good at school. But they said ‘we’re not looking for people with book smarts, we’re looking for people who do shit.’”
As one of five fellows in the Stanford Design School’s Fellowship in Designing for Social Systems, Brand got the opportunity to test and develop his platform in a new environment. “I did over 100 ethnographic interviews. Sat down with folks who are homeless, folks who are in shelter, street entrenched, living in their van, really diving deep and learning about them, with no introduction of who I am and none of the stuff that comes with me being here in Vancouver,” Brand explains. “I realized that research and data points are so much more important than story because the story comes easily. Data and research are how you create the archetype that goes everywhere, and how you get people out of street entrenchment permanently.”
The idea behind PAL is to take the money currently allocated to research studies and instead give it directly to the people recording the data. Those funds can then be allocated to those in need in the form of tokens not just for food, but for clothing, shelter, medicine, and other needs as well.
PAL seeks to address issues beyond hunger, but Brand’s largest focus remains on food. It’s his core competency as a chef, and he uses it to his advantage. That’s why he also travels constantly to cook. It began with pop-ups where some of Vancouver’s best chefs serve diner-inspired menus at Save On in a series called the Greasy Spoon Diner to benefit A Better Life Foundation, and has grown from there.
“The ability to convene people around food is my Trojan horse. You’re at course three and now I can talk to you about the hard shit because we have trust and rapport,” Brand says. “Cooking’s a big part of it, but cooking with a story. I’ll work with all local suppliers and then tell the story of what we do. This is how you hire people with barriers, this is why you do it, this is how it impacts your community, this is why it makes sense fiscally.”
Dinners like these and other speaking engagements have taken Brand from Vancouver to San Francisco, LA, Salt Lake City, Detroit, New York, Calgary, Montreal, and Toronto in just the past few months.
In late May, at the first iteration of the Greasy Spoon in Toronto, the exhaustion of all Brand’s travels finally caught up. He crashed. He felt sick, couldn’t speak, couldn’t think, and just had to sleep. I had come in part to see him again a few months after our initial meeting in Vancouver and didn’t even get to say hi.
Brand partnered with Toronto chef Charlotte Langley to bring the Greasy Spoon to Toronto for an ambitious four seatings in two nights featuring 14 female chefs as part of his goal to feature all chefs who happen to be female at the monthly dinners held in Vancouver this year. Luckily, MacLeod and Langley were both there to pick up the slack that first night, and by night two Brand was back to his hyperactive self, circling the room, chatting with friends old and new, and sharing the impact people’s time and money can bring to those in need. Both nights were ultimately a great success, benefitting both A Better Life and a local Toronto organization, Sistering.
“I got a late night phone call and Mark was like, ‘we gotta do this project.’ Right away, I said ‘we definitely do,’ even though we had just met. ” Langley told me in explaining how the Toronto dinners came together. “He’s a badass advocate for humanity.”
As it turns out, no less an authority than the Pope seems to agree with Langley’s sentiment—even if he might ultimately choose different words. Last December, Brand was invited to the Vatican to cook and speak at a dinner that featured 400 global leaders and local farmers sitting side-by-side. He calls it one of the most difficult and rewarding moments of his career.
“They could have hired a quarter million Catholic chefs who are as good if not better, and I’m agnostic. But it’s stories like Brad’s that they think will help change the way that we look at poverty and hunger and approach those things,” Brand says.
“And if we can have a conversation with a guy who’s got an audience of a billion and change behavior for even one percent of that, we’re cool.”