Q&A with Robbie Davison, Can Cook

Q&A with Robbie Davison, Can Cook

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Tell us about Can Cook…


We started with a community café, asking it it could work, and could it make money? The answer was no, quickly. But, as part of that, we realised that people couldn’t cook. They’d ask us how you make salmon and noodles. That was our first lesson – the difference cookery could make to people’s lives. We became really passionate about it, and giving people the opportunity to choose the food that they wanted to eat. But, then, 15,000 people later, you realise that it’s not really going to do anything. We’re not big enough to do anything. With scale, we can change policy. Campaigning is vital to us. What’s the point otherwise? We might as well be a charity.


And you know what the bigger piece of work is – how do you stop hunger? How do you change people’s eating habits? We couldn’t do that as a cookery school, but we can do it as a food production company.


So I put a turnaround plan to the board. We might go bust, I told them. But otherwise we might not have much impact. I wanted to make a difference in homes – with people who are hungry… we taught them to cook, but they couldn’t buy the stuff locally. Parents didn’t know what some of the vegetables were, so didn’t feel confident buying them. Traversing into food production was our best chance to create an alternative approach to mainstream food and become a food supplier. We’re 11 years old now, and I’d say it’s taken us since 2011 to turn it around to where we are now, with our ultimate goal at least another five years away.


What would you say your purpose is?


With the café, we needed it to make money; to take the organisation from grant-giving charity to something that was more income contract focused, to make it viable. Since then our purpose has become threefold – feeding people well as a retailer; tackling food poverty by feeding people well; and campaigning about food aid and its needs, issues and solutions. I don’t think it’s changed. It’s evolved. It all started with food. It’s just the tool that’s different.


When you start something off, you have an ideal, not a purpose. When you’ve done it for a while – when you’ve come across a few bumps in the road – that’s when you start to develop your real purpose.


We’ve nearly gone bust once or twice. It’s a question of how you react to that. Every time your viability is threatened, you tune into ‘is this worth doing or not?’ It teaches you an awful lot and asks an awful lot of your resilience. There’s no point in having a purpose if you haven’t got resilience, because you’ve got no chance of getting there.


Seeing the difference that good food makes to people is my focus. When it’s a choice of poor food, or no food at all, the difference is significant. We shipped 17,000 meals in six weeks to feed children in north Wales as part of a holiday hunger scheme. Our partner has told us that – compared to last year, on the same scheme, with a different food supplier – they’re calmer; they’re not fighting; they’re turning up, happy and playing more. And the only change is the food.


Unless people are offered food that is good, at the point that they’re hungry, we’ve got a complete imbalance in the food system. If you’re skint, you’re eating what you’re given. So far, in the UK, it’s been decided that it will be processed food. It’s forcing the worse food down people’s necks. That’s why campaigning’s important.


How did you discover your purpose?


I really think there’s a difference between passion and purpose. Purpose only comes from when you’ve worked through your idea or passion for a number of years; you’ve stayed with it, hit a few walls, pushed through and carried on trying to make it better. Staying really focused for a number of years and really working it. That’s purpose.


The world’s full of people who’re passionate. But it goes by the wayside quickly. They think about the difference they can make, but people with purpose do something about it – whatever it is – and stick with it. They’re still there five or ten years later.


Do you need a purpose?


I don’t think everybody needs a purpose. Someone’s purpose could be to have a family and look after kids; it could be to watch the footie on a Saturday. Are they a real purpose? I think family’s a purpose. But when it comes to the other stuff? Your own business is a purpose. But it’s not for everyone.


It’s active. Never passive. Short term it’s an idea or a passion. Purpose is a life-long commitment.


I need a purpose. Yeah. I do. I am wholly, wholly politically driven. Always. About everything to do with social justice. I believe that everybody has the right to have an equal say or an equal service. From anything, to anything. My brain does not allow me to think that someone who hasn’t got anything should have to make do with something that I would never look at for myself. That’s the thing that fires me up.


How do you start? How do you get something like that up and running?


Just get it done. An old friend of mine once said that the there are times for going through the long grass, and there are times for getting it done. And he was right. Just go and get it done. If you’ve got an idea and you’re passionate about something, do something about it, or shut up. Move on. If it’s half hearted, it will fail. If you don’t choose it, you’ll get caught out. You’ve got to be behind it 100%.


Does it matter if you fail?


I wrote to the Observer the other week because they had a line of people who’d all failed and come back and succeeded. It’s dead easy to talk about failure when you’re talking about it from the point of success. It’s the most difficult thing in a person’s life to fail, particularly if you’ve stuck your own neck out.


But every one of them had money behind them. If you fail in a working class context, you’re likely only able to fail once. So I understand why people don’t go for it. If you fail now, this is the hardest economy to get yourself back on your feet in.


Danny Dorling, who’s a professor at Oxford – a social geographer – writes some great stuff on inequality. He said in an article that when he left university, he went on the dole. It gave him the time to think about what he wanted to do next. He had the ability to take time, and you can see what he’s gone and done since. People will, unfortunately, never find their purpose, because they’ll have to rummage for low paid jobs, in the gig economy. Good society is not made on rummaging.


What happens when you get despondent, or frustrated, or fed up? How do you get back on track?


In all honesty, I go to bed. And ponder. I think, if you’ve got purpose, and you believe fervently in the work that you do, even in the darkest times, you can see a way past it. Also, you’ve got to love it enough to keep generating the impetus and the ideas that keep it going. Every year you’ve got to keep it fresh. I think social business is about the impact that you have, and the development of the people that you work with and then quality of service.


Does your work feel very personal?


Yeah. It does. I think anybody that runs a business and doesn’t take it personally – the ups, the downs; the praise, the criticism – needs to get out. Why are you doing it?


Do you have any guidelines for making sure your stay on track, or criteria that the work you do has to fulfil? Who decides them?


Day to day, I’m in the thick of it. I lead an organisation, so it’s my responsibility to make sure we stay on track. I’ve got a board who are clued up, particularly on the social element of what we do; and I’ve got people I confide in, who are technically very good from a business point of view – friends and mentors. I think it’s important for everybody to have someone they trust ought to tell them that they’re way off course. You’ve got to want that kind off feedback. I’ve got a few people who give me that.


Do you need external perspective to stay true to your purpose?


All the time… It’s a lonely pursuit, running a business. When people say ‘it must be hard; I can’t imagine how hard; I can see you’re having a tough time’ you just don’t know it unless you’ve done it. The people I want to take advice from are the people who’re doing it. I’ve really got no interest in people giving my advice on how to run a business who’ve never run a business. The context is all wrong.


You’re either right or you’re wrong. You only get to find out if you’re wrong when you’ve struck out trying to be right. You have to make the decision to be right to find out that you’re wrong. You’ve got to be savvy enough not to make a mistake that’s terminal, but brave enough to always make a decision hat keeps moving you forward. And have enough about you to go again.


Where does your resilience from?


Most people never take risks. Running a business is about taking a risk. It might be about taking loads of risks, big risks, or small risks. You have to be prepared to take it, and then prepared for it not to work out and be OK about it. I want it to work, I’ll work hard to make it work, but if it goes wrong I know how to catch it. That’s where your resilience comes from. If you never take a risk, you’ll never be resilient.


You can’t teach people to take risks, or be an entrepreneur – although that’s the worst word I’ve ever come across in business. You can’t teach it at all. You either know how to, or you don’t.  Taking risks is intuitive. Experience and academia and courses can definitely teach you a better method, but if, for instance, you’ve gone through your whole life attuned to not taking risks, no course in the world is going to free your head up to do it.  


Robbie Davison is the founder of social enterprise Can Cook, and has been a social entrepreneur for more than 25 years.  


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