This guest post is by Lisa Haggis
Here's one for the aspiring world-changers; a glowing example of a burning cause transformed into a viable business that customers seek out and adore. And if you also happen to be a fellow food-lover with an itch to expand your home cooking repertoire, you’re definitely going to enjoy meeting this month’s trailblazer, Alison Cayne.
Alison is a fair food advocate taking on the world’s hunger problem in a very creative way through her business, Haven’s Kitchen -- a recreational cooking school, café, and event space located in NYC.
BUILT ON PURPOSE
“Our mission is to encourage more people to cook regularly because we believe in the power of home cooking,” explains Alison. “It's good for our personal and collective health, our communities and the environment. Home cooking will help end the hunger problem we face and it will create more local markets and thus a more sustainable food system.”
Proudly a mission-driven company, Haven’s Kitchen is built on the premise that teaching people how to cook with fresh, locally-sourced ingredients will encourage them to appreciate and choose more sustainably grown food.
Alison and her team are changing their customers’ relationship with cooking in the interest of a greater food movement. “Today, cooking is seen as either a chore or a privilege and our mission is to change those perceptions, normalize cooking and help people incorporate it into their lives.”
MAKING IT A LIVING
It can be a challenge for a company to be both openly mission-driven and sexy, but Alison has found a smart balance between delivering an imperative message and a delectable brand experience that people will desire. Soak in the charming atmosphere of Haven’s Kitchen, situated in a 3-story carriage house just two blocks from Union Square, and you can instantly understand the appeal that’s consistently drawn customers in since they opened their doors in 2012.
And this keen style compliments a roster of in-demand products and services. Haven’s Kitchen generates income through the rental of event space, retail of curated local products, a café, and, of course, its recreational cooking classes.
In everything, the business remains “dedicated to the preparation and enjoyment of sustainable, seasonal food.” To the aspiring home chef, this translates into learning experiences and products that make cooking good local food much more approachable.
Alison admits that the early stages were actually the easy part. “I was absolutely clear on what I wanted Haven's Kitchen to DO and to BE, and the business ran on the momentum and excitement of building something entirely new and figuring out how to make it work,” she shares. “The struggle is now: now what? We're out of start up mode and we want to grow, but we want to grow prudently and consciously. Clarity is simple when you're building, it's the next phase that brings a challenge (and an opportunity).” An honest reminder that continued growth is a necessary battle even for the established brand.
POINTS OF DISTINCTION
1) Speaking Up
The first time I encountered Alison Cayne was through her TEDx talk, which very devotedly addresses the broken food system (and her facts in the first 5 minutes will open your eyes to the fact that it is, indeed, quite broken). Though she considers herself more of an “accidental activist” than a self-appointed voice for the movement, she definitely gets vocal about good food policy. She has written informative pieces for publications like Huffington Post and is on the board of a number of organizations, including Just Food and Edible Schoolyard NYC.
Alison’s passion for the food movement is no less prominent in the Haven’s Kitchen culture. From inception, she has been upfront about the company’s mission and the intention to create change at a larger market level. There is a marked sense of uncompromising integrity evident in all of the decisions made by this brand -- from staff wages to the choice of an olive oil.
2) Real Food at the Heart
“We are not a culinary school for professional chefs,” the company addresses upfront on its FAQ page. “We want the kitchen to become a place that is fun, full of enjoyment and free of fear. We use the school as a platform to educate, as well as remind our guests how wonderful it is to prepare a meal from scratch and enjoy it with others.”
At the end of the day, it’s this comfortable approach to home cooking that makes the Haven’s Kitchen brand one of a kind. This isn’t about capitalizing on foodie trends or mimicking a fine-dining experience at home, it’s about taking a grounded and practical approach to cooking delicious, sustainable food.
Alongside this air of approachability, Haven’s Kitchen demonstrates a reverence and love for food and agriculture at every turn. The kitchen never takes a back seat -- remaining truly at the heart of everything they do.
Staff bios demonstrate a team of food enthusiasts, with job descriptions demanding a passion for food on top of other necessary skills; class descriptions pepper in nostalgic anecdotes, such as debating the origins of tapas; and the location itself was chosen because of its proximity to a market of fresh, local food. Even when they are acting as a venue for an event, food is front and center: “Our event menus use each meal to celebrate the skills of our farmers and the diversity of our local agriculture.”
3) Coming Together
A Wendell Berry quote adorns the top of the Private Parties page of the site, declaring a meal as “a communal event, bringing together family members, neighbors, even strangers.” The idea of bringing people together – around a farm table, in a neighborhood, around a cause – is an ongoing theme across the Haven’s Kitchen brand.
It starts with a welcoming space. “Our teaching kitchen is a hybrid of a polished residential kitchen and an efficient commercial kitchen,” the company claims. "We want you and your guests to enjoy Haven’s Kitchen as if it were your own home.” At the end of each class, participants gather around a farm table to enjoy the food they prepared together.
A dedicated “Community” area on the blog demonstrates Haven’s Kitchen’s valued ties with its local neighbors, businesses, and city. Teachers in the school are often business owners themselves, and featured on the blog to share the work they do. “Haven's Kitchen has become a bit of a community center for NPO's focused on Food Justice and women's initiatives,” says Alison, unsurprisingly tying everything back once again to the business’ mission.
Alison has leveraged her own intuitive talent for design in the creation of Haven’s Kitchen’s covetable aesthetic. “I've always appreciated spaces and designs that represent balance and duality,” she shares.
“There's a masculine/feminine tension in all of our collateral and within the space itself. There's also a comfortable/elegant thing going on here. I think that's where the magic happens and people feel a visceral connection to a brand and can experience it — it feels more authentic than a one-note design scheme.”
She’s pretty much said it all. The duality she talks about is evident in all design elements – the pairing of elegant serif fonts with minimalist modern ones, the heavy use of sophisticated black and white, tempered with photos of colorful flowers and rustic place settings.
Of course, the business' physical atmosphere carries much of the weight in creating a memorable experience. “We've come to realize that creating a space, a haven, is important to our brand. There's something you can't copy or fake about what we've created, even though there are plenty of industrial-chic spaces around these days.”
I’ve seen so many mission-driven entrepreneurs get snagged up in the tension between delivering something people want (and will buy) and changing the world in the way they feel compelled to do. Through Haven’s Kitchen, I feel that Alison has set a benchmark for staying boldly, vocally true to her cause while allowing customers to indulge in the immersive, beautiful food experiences they crave.
So consider: Where does your purpose intersect with the actual desires of your audience? Have you been compromising one over the other?