Lessons Learned Prompt Re-Launch
Double Comfort Restaurant was a popular spot in the Short North for great southern comfort food and a great drink. Founded in 2014 as a social enterprise, its Buy a Meal, Give a Meal® concept provided over 95,000 meals through local food pantries before it closed in Spring 2017. Social entrepreneur and founder Mary Lyski has taken the lessons she learned from the restaurant to launch this month a new social enterprise, Double Comfort Foods. With help from the Newman’s Own Foundation and CaJohn’s Fiery Foods, the new company manufactures the hot sauces and spice rub that made her restaurant famous while retaining its social commitment to devote 100 percent of its profits to local food pantries.
We sat down with Mary Lyski to talk about how she applied the lessons from her first venture to this new business. This Q&A first appeared in Columbus Business First (October 24, 2017).
Tell us about your new business.
Double Comfort Foods is a food manufacturing business that makes two hot sauces and a proprietary spice blend, all made locally in small batches using high quality ingredients. Double Comfort was the first restaurant in Ohio created to support nonprofits by donating its proceeds to local food pantries. Following the same model, all profits raised through sauce and spice sales will continue to be donated to area food pantries. Our initial plan focuses on selling to grocery stores and online catalogs. We are starting with three products and plan later to add three more products requested by our restaurant customers. When people cook at home, they want high quality, authentic ingredients, and that is what we provide. Customers can visit DoubleComfortFoods.com for more details and a list of retail partners selling the products.
Starting any new business is hard. What was the biggest obstacle you confronted in starting your restaurant?
Most local government infrastructure and systems are not set up to give small businesses a leg up. For instance, multiple times the restaurant’s sidewalk was closed for construction, meters were bagged for events and construction, water was turned off, or roads were blocked, which had huge negative repercussions for our business. Yet we received little notice nor opportunity for input in the development process. There are no special tax or service benefits to being a social enterprise in Columbus. Even though all our profits go to help nourish our community, the local government does not offer any incentives to encourage social enterprises.
What help would you like government to provide to social enterprises?
I see three ways local government could help. First, have a business concierge solely dedicated to helping social entrepreneurs. Second, create tax breaks targeted to social enterprises. Third, get us at the table in an affordable way such as through providing free or discounted memberships in Experience Columbus and the Columbus Chamber.
One mark of an entrepreneur is applying lessons from past efforts to a new business. What lessons did you learn and how are you applying them in your new business?
The first lesson we learned was to make sure our marketing balances the food and the mission. We felt we needed to put food ahead of mission in order to succeed. We should have given both equal billing.
The second lesson is that it is better to own than to rent in a rapidly developing area so that the business can survive as the neighborhood improves. We had hoped to continue at the same rent, but the development in the area forced rents above what we could support and still to create the social impact we wanted. We did our part in making the Short North the success it is, but that success ultimately forced us out of business.
Closing the restaurant must have been discouraging. How did you come to launch again?
We got a tremendous amount of encouragement and support from Newman’s Own Foundation and CaJohn’s Fiery Foods in Westerville. Newman’s Own Foundation, a global social enterprise, chose four for-profit social enterprises in the country to support with pro bono services. Their selection was based on our social passion, the quality of our business model, and our commitment to channel 100 percent of profits to charity. We asked for their help in rebranding and web design. CaJohn has been wonderful in mentoring us and letting us start at his bottling facility.
How do you know you are making a difference?
Double Comfort from its inception has focused on feeding those in need in our community We have a Charitable Advisory Board that solicits and evaluates applications from local pantries. We give unrestricted cash donations to the food pantries, giving them the flexibility to solve problems in the most creative and effective ways possible. We’ve already been able to donate money for 95,000 meals, and we plan to triple that amount in the next 4 years.