The food empire solving youth homelessness

Society Melbourne and their socially conscious hospitality empire have come a long way. Five years on from their first venture, they’ve changed up the way they do business to empower more young people experiencing homelessness than ever before, writes Maggie Coggan in this month’s Spotlight on social enterprise.

In 2015, Daniel and Liam Poole, two young social entrepreneurs with a love of crepes, jumped on the food truck trend sweeping Melbourne and set up Crepes for Change, a social enterprise that donated 100 per cent of its profits to alleviating youth homelessness.

In the years following, Crepes for Change was joined by a brick and mortar cafe in Brunswick, a vegan jaffle joint within the walls of Melbourne University and two coffee carts nestled in the heart of the CBD, all operating under the same business model of donating all profits to social housing organisation, Launch Housing.

But as the co-founder of Society Melbourne (and former volunteer of Crepes for Change), Tenille Gilbert tells Pro Bono News, it didn’t make sense that these three separate establishments were all Crepes for Change.

“We took a step back and said, well we’re not really just Crepes for Change, we’re doing much more than that now,” Gilbert says.

So in 2018, Gilbert, along with co-founder Levi Fernandez, launched Society Melbourne, a not-for-profit umbrella organisation that manages Crepes for Change,, home.two, and the two coffee carts.

The profits raised from each of these businesses are still directed towards solving youth homelessness, but instead of donating all profits to Launch Housing, Society Melbourne is creating employment, education and training opportunities for young people using Launch Housing services.

Money generated by the enterprises is also funnelled into a 12-month rent subsidy program, allowing young people exiting Launch Housing’s Foyer program to gradually work up to paying for rent in the private market.

Gilbert explains that by uniting the five enterprises under one overarching organisation, Society Melbourne is able to focus on five key impact pillars of housing, education, confidence, employment and community, to break the cycle of homelessness.

“We were making a small profit, but we really didn’t feel like we were having the biggest impact that we could just by donating the profits to another organisation,” she says.

“We recognised that we’ve got these great hospitality spaces, and hospitality is a really great way to start building employment opportunities for young people and a way to build confidence, and so we thought, let’s just kind of get some training happening.”

In 2018/19, the organisation took on 20 young people in a six month paid hospitality program, with 75 per cent of participants successfully transitioning into employment or further study upon completing the course.

On top of that, 100 per cent of young people who took up a rental subsidy independently maintained their private rental housing once their subsidy fund was used up.

Community is key

One of the biggest positive changes Gilbert has seen since switching up the business model is the community they have built around the enterprises.

She says that getting to know and understand the stories behind the people they are supporting has not only been a big part of keeping Society Melbourne’s mission on track, but in helping their program participants feel supported and inspired.

“Even though confidence and community are a little bit harder to measure than employment or training, they’re actually some of the most important aspects of our work,” she says.

The journey of one participant in particular really drives this point home.

“Paul started as a trainee back in 2017. He had been kicked out of the foster care system and was at risk of sleeping rough when he was able to get support through Launch Housing. He’d never really had that family support unit of people he could trust,” Gilbert explains.

“He just started to develop so quickly in terms of his confidence and turning to us for basic life advice. Our staff are also all pretty young, so he could connect quite easily with us.”

Nearly three years on, Paul has gained not only practical skills that will make it easier for him to find work in the hospitality industry, but the confidence to branch out and explore various job opportunities.

“He’s completed a hospitality certificate at TAFE, is moving into independent accommodation and is now deciding what’s next for him,” Gilbert says.

Growth, and the challenges it brings with it

It’s no secret that the hospitality industry can be challenging, and keeping one cafe open, let alone four different establishments, is no easy feat.

Gilbert admits that balancing the day-to-day running of the businesses, with growth and impact doesn’t come without challenges, but a supportive and enthusiastic community has helped guide them through some of the harder moments.

“We were very young when this all started and we were working with a lot of other young people who just really wanted to do something great and wanted to be involved,” she says.

“That’s now evolved in terms of having venue managers who are very experienced and can take a lot more control over the venue that they’re running, and looking really carefully at partnering with the right people who are going to support our mission when we are looking to do something new or grow in some way or another.”

While the outbreak of coronavirus has meant that four out of the five Society Melbourne venues have temporarily shut down, Gilbert says there is no doubt they will make it out the other side unscathed.

“We’re lucky that we aren’t having to pay overheads while we are shut, so that we can still keep our training programs running which is great,” she says.

The organisation has also attracted the attention of philanthropists, which will allow the group to expand even more.

“We look to that external revenue to grow our organisation so we can have a bigger impact,” she says.

“If we just ran off what we have minus the philanthropy, we obviously wouldn’t be able to support as many young people.”

In the past few years, the organisation has successfully established a small hospitality empire, but they aren’t stopping there.

In the past few years, the organisation has successfully established a small hospitality empire, but they aren’t stopping there.

Gilbert says they are always on the lookout for new venues to open up their next hospitality enterprise.

“We know that we have both a business and an impact model that works and which we can scale out into new communities to allow more people to engage with our hospitality social enterprises,” she says.

Gilbert says they would also love to break into other industries, but it’s not something they are actively looking into… yet.