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Crowd-funding in the world of food

Beg, Steal, or Kickstarter

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Last month, Chad Moore launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund his food truck Dim Sum Good Dumplings. It was hardly the first local food and drink concept to take to the crowd-funding platform. Following in the footsteps of The Farmbar, The Brew Cellar, and The Orange Spot Coffeehouse, Moore's campaign had the distinction of coinciding with a rising national trend of restaurants raising capital via the start-up.

Moore was hardly a crowd-funding novice either. He's backed 60 projects on Kickstarter since 2011. "When I funded that first project, I fell in love with the concept of Kickstarter," says Moore. He likens the platform to one large pre-pay system that allows eventual customers to inject crucial seed funding before the business is off the ground. "Anybody can come up with an idea, and as long as they can prove to complete strangers that what they want to do is possible, they are given a chance to raise enough money to make that dream a reality," he says.

Kickstarter even played a serendipitous role in guiding the recent MBA graduate to the food truck business. After watching a Kickstarter pitch video for Cloud Imperium Games, a Los Angeles-based computer gaming start-up, Moore reached out to the owners. "Their pitch had the most passion I have ever seen on any Kickstarter project," says Moore. "I just popped off a random email asking if they were taking on marketing interns and got an immediate reply asking me when I could start." That summer, after moving to Los Angeles, one of the epicenters of the modern food truck movement, Moore was exposed to not only a booming new scene but also a nationally envied ethnic food landscape. Between conversations with local food truck operators and meals at Asian restaurants like Cholado Thai Beach Cuisine, Moore became a dim sum devotee. "When I returned to Charleston after the internship was over, it felt like there was a culinary void in my life," he says. Thus his own Kickstarter attempt began.

Kickstarter's mission claims it exists to help bring creative projects to life. Initially that meant the arts sector, raising money for documentaries, theater productions, and published works. But food-related businesses have been gaining steady traction on the site, beginning with the food truck boom of yore and in many cases expanding to fully fledged brick-and-mortar restaurants. In Pittsburgh chef Kevin Sousa raised a record breaking $310,225 for his upcoming eatery Superior Motors.

But despite all of the feel-good appeal and a guaranteed customer base, a murky etiquette is starting to take shape as some existing businesses face a backlash when using the site. Attempting to fund relocations or expansions often garners negative criticisms. Insults that the proprietor is simply a bad businessperson are also par for the course. Such was the case with Louisville, Ky. restaurant Taco Punk, which sought $20,000 a year after opening. Zach Eveson, a writer for Louisville Eater.com went so far as to write, "rather than whine and beg, perhaps Taco Punk should revise or relocate."

For some Charleston businesses, the fear of such an adverse reaction deeply affected how they promoted their campaign. "We really wanted to keep it hush-hush," says Laura Cannon, co-owner of The Orange Spot and a City Paper employee. "If people went on to Kickstarter seeking a project to help, that's how we wanted them to find us." Cannon and her business partner, Julie Simuang, joined the crowd-funding platform in 2013 after failing to secure a traditional loan from local banks or private investors. But they could never reconcile the "asking for money" nature of Kickstarter campaigns. "We didn't do Facebook promos," says Simuang. "We sent out one email to some of our immediate contacts." When a local blog reached out wanting to share the story of their fundraising campaign, they politely declined. The Orange Spot Kickstarter campaign failed to reach its funding goal, but Cannon and Simuang eventually received a micro loan from the Local Development Corporation and have built their Park Circle cafe slowly. A courtyard they had hoped to build was eventually added nine months after opening.

Ryan Hendrick, owner of the Brew Cellar, says of their Kickstarter campaign, ‘We didn’t want to come across as needy’ - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Ryan Hendrick, owner of the Brew Cellar, says of their Kickstarter campaign, ‘We didn’t want to come across as needy’

Social media campaigning and face-to-face promotion helped business partners Ryan Hendrick and John Judson successfully fund their Park Circle craft beer store, The Brew Cellar, this past January. "Facebook has been invaluable to us," said Hendrick. "We have no marketing budget whatsoever. Anything we have is going towards bills and beer."

After friends shared The Brew Cellar campaign with the folks at Holy City Brewing, the North Charleston craft beer brewer offered to throw a Kickstarter launch party for Hendrick and Judson. Holy City set up a table with various merchandise and explained to attendees how their business was going to take shape. "It was shaking hands, kissing babies, all that kind of stuff," said Judson. And it worked. Their Kickstarter campaign raised $4,472 for the shop. Before taking to the site, however, the owners wrestled with the goal for their campaign.

"It was a big debate, how much to ask for," said Hendrick. Judson was equally concerned, adding, "Why should the guy that donated five bucks donate any more than five bucks if that's all he wanted to do. It gets to a point where, not only is it Kickstarter, but you're also begging. We didn't want to come across as needy." In the absence of any negative response, Hendrick and Judson were pleasantly surprised to receive a couple of random gifts from strangers as far away as South America.

"It was interesting to see as the donations came in who they were coming from, said Hendrick. "That's information you get immediately; it's a cool aspect of Kickstarter."

As for Chad Moore, his experience as a Kickstarter supporter was invaluable when he found himself on the other side of the equation. "I studied successful projects and reviewed the stats about what successful projects do that helps them to succeed," says Moore. "The money raised by any Kickstarter project is only half the value. In many cases the social media outreach you obtain before, during, and after your project is actually worth more to your business."

Luckily for Lowcountry dim sum fans, he reached his $15,000 goal after a 30-day campaign and is now working to bring the concept to life. The Dim Sum Good Dumplings truck is slated to roll out next month.

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