The long awaited Travail Kickstarter campaign is live. Check it out #prevailtravail. The campaign closes on October 10th, and 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. 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.’ Twenty one people thought highly enough of this project to donate $1000, 80 coughed up $500…. IN ONE DAY the Travail team acquired 585 backers, raised $138,834.
I like these 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 25K 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 was fun to be part of the club, tell your pals you ‘owned’ a small piece. It’s fun to be in the right place at the right time. And for those addicted to the action of the ‘next big thing’ coupled with the allure of being a part of a Bon Appetit Best New Restaurant winner, Eater Young Gun designee, James Beard Semifinalist 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 a percentage of donors contributing the largest 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’s transcending 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 independent 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 a few nights ago 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 Kickstarter 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 and growing jobs to the city, and 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 for the vital role they play in donating time and product to endless fundraisers 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.