Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Tale of Two Kickstarters

On a chilly, rainy Saturday in January - a scene not uncommon for this time of year in Houston - a woman rushes up to the Melange Creperie food stand. After a quick perusal of the menu she places her order with Sean Carroll, owner/chef/entertainer/in-the-elements crepe slinger. Not wanting to brave the brisk and unforgiving wind, the customer heads straight back to the sanctuary of her heated sedan. The man affectionately known as "Buffalo Sean" does not have this option. For the past 5+ years he has operated strictly from an open air stand at farmers markets and at his normal spot at the corner of Taft and Westheimer, providing delicious takes on world cuisines using locally sourced ingredients that are folded into exquisitely crispy crepes. This being my first Melange experience (my wife's an old vet who had raved about the food for years), I stay out in the elements, mesmerized by the speed and efficiency with which Carroll works. Cracking an egg here, sprinkling herbs there, all the while engaging his enthusiastic crowd with humor and hospitality, weather be damned. With most of his menu usually hovering in the six to eight dollar range, Melange Creperie provides something for everyone at an extremely affordable price.

My second visit to Melange came shortly after the first, this on a much more pleasant day. The food was as spot on as the first trip, and Sean was as friendly as I remembered, this time with exciting news. He was on the lookout for a permanent, indoor location. Hearing of his story for the last few years via food media and meeting the man myself, I could not help but be happy for him and hope he would be able to fulfill his dream. Sean has scrapped and cooked in the Houston heat and in moderate rain (he will usually cancel if the weather is too bad), surviving the tough life of a mobile eatery much longer than many food trucks have been able to sustain. During our chat this day, he mentioned that he would be starting a Kickstarter campaign to help finance the project, and I immediately knew I would contribute. While I had never given to any sort of online business donation site such as Kickstarter or Go Fund Me previously, Sean's story of culinary perseverance struck a chord in me and I wanted to at least do a small part in helping him reach his goal. Besides, most of these types of campaigns come with some form of payback rewards. Melange Creperie's Kickstarter, for example, was offering a banana and nutella crepe for a $9 donation (this is usually a six dollar menu item anyway). The more you donate, the higher the reward. The Melange campaign ends this Friday morning, and as I write this on 9:00 PM on Tuesday night they have received nearly $30,000, twenty grand short of their funding goal of $50,000. For those unfamiliar with how this works, if the stated goal is not reached, the business does not receive any of the donated money and all of the funds are returned to the donors. Here's where to go if you'd like to help Buffalo Sean reach his goal: The Melange Creperie Kickstarter

This brings us to another Kickstarter. Houstonia Magazine posted an article about Maine-ly Sandwiches starting a Kickstarter campaign of their own. Before we get into that, a bit about the place. What started as a small family-owned sandwich shop in the Greenspoint area expanded to a second location on Shepherd and later a third shop in Kingwood and a food truck. While I have been to Maine-ly Sandwiches on multiple occasions and found the food enjoyable, some of the prices were hard to swallow. A half lobster roll, which is Maine-ly's claim to fame, was nine dollars on my visits. A quick look at their website shows this has now increased in price to a ten dollar menu item. That is a steep price to pay for half a sandwich, lobster or not. That the roll was much more bread than filling on all my visits certainly didn't make me feel any better about the price tag. Sure, Maine-ly offers things like a BLT or roast beef sandwich, but so do countless other sandwich shops. Their target market is people clamoring for northeast coastal favorites like the aforementioned lobster rolls and fried clams. Now let's go back to the Maine-ly Sandwiches Kickstarter. Due to what owner Buddy Charity admits was poor planning, the Charity family expanded to a bad location in Kingwood, a suburb that has yet to show a willingness to support many higher priced, non-chain restaurants. After taking out a loan with an absurdly high interest rate, Maine-ly quickly failed to draw crowds and was forced to close this location. I'm not an uncaring person; I have sympathy for any dreamer whose venture doesn't bear fruit, but I have problems with their crowd funding campaign.

Maine-ly Sandwiches is telling the general public that they're not great at the business side of the restaurant world, but is asking us to give them a hundred-thousand dollars to pay off their debts and help keep their other locations open. What are they offering in return for your generous donation? Well, let's just say the rewards make their regular menu prices feel much more reasonable. That ten dollar half lobster roll can now be yours for the low donation price of....75 dollars. But that is just a small annoyance to me in comparison to what Maine-ly Sandwiches is asking people to do. Many think Kickstarter campaigns themselves are unfair to ask of your fans/patrons. I don't begrudge you this opinion, but I am much more understanding to those trying get their dreams off the ground floor and make them reality than I am to those who have made poor decisions and are essentially asking for their customers to bail them out. If profit margins on twenty dollar sandwiches aren't large enough to keep a restaurant afloat, maybe it's time to rethink one's business model. I don't think I'm alone in this thinking as their Kickstarter currently stands at $110, well short of their lofty goal.

Though it may sound harsh, I just don't think Maine-ly Sandwiches gets the spirit of what a crowd funded venture is. Many of the hopeful business owners or current business owners like Sean Carroll are trying to provide a new or better service to their customers; Maine-ly Sandwiches is asking its customers to service the owners. Plenty of patrons that have already been doing that at some of their locations for years are being asked to give even more, and without much of a thank you in return. If you were to donate to one of these two Kickstarters, which campaign is more likely to get your hard-earned dollars: the one looking for its chance at the dream, or the one who has had their opportunities, made poor decisions, and now wants you to fix their mistakes?

1 comment:

Wesley said...

It's a simple choice actually. While my perception may be biased by my current occupation of slinging meat from a BBQ Trailer, mine goes to the start up.

I hold no degree in business from any institution and while I need capital as well, I don't need it bad enough to borrow it at 45-50% interest rate. Also, rapid expansion has been the death of many establishments, I sort of equate it to greed.

Just my.02, for what its worth.