Angela from Wandering Cooks doesn’t run your usual food business – instead she has created a world-leading space for purpose-driven small food businesses and change-makers to thrive. Our Brisbane team hosted its 2014 CropFest event in the beautiful space she’d created, so we thought it was long overdue for a catch up.

It’s the business side of food that makes us fascinated with Angela, because it’s often a word that the real food movement tends to shy away from when talking about a sustainable food system. We were lucky enough to get a glimpse into Angela’s thoughts on how she balances ethics with financial sustainability (since she’s done a phD in food ethics, but is also running a successful business!). The following are the highlights from a recent presentation she gave at Harvard University. 

What does it mean to be an ethical eater? And how can we provoke ethical encounters between the city and its food makers, between our mouths and the animals, plants, soil, humans that have transformed their lives in order that I might eat? These are the questions that have driven my work for the last 20 years. First, as an architecture student obsessed with permaculture, then as a phd student obsessed with eating, then as a chef and now, finally, as a business owner. This final category is the most challenging because I must also be obsessed, unfortunately, with staying afloat.

What I’ve learnt is that ethics is a disastrously messy beast – and to let it in means both the most beauty and most anxiety you could want in your life. Running a business adds an extra dimension to the equation – both in its possibilities and its dangers, but this is a dimension that is crucial to the transformation of our cities into places where ethical encounters can thrive.

Ethics as face to face encounters, not labels

For me, ethics is what Emmanuel Levinas, a Lithuanian philosopher from the 20th Century describes as: a face to face encounter. Faces are key. The face of another has a way of interrupting your reality, particularly if it is showing you its suffering. In that moment when you truly see suffering in the face of another, you lose all faculty to judge or rationalise.

If you are anything like me, you’ll notice that more often than not we are surrounded by the symbols of ethical life devoid of the face. The pretence of the city, the lack of face in SO many of our engagements, the physical distance we place between ourselves and the suffering of others so entrenched that we never have to experience the face of suffering if we don’t want to.

The higher structures we put in its place, not because of the faces but instead of the faces, codes of eating like ‘vegan’, ‘organic’, ‘free range’, ‘local’… we convince ourselves that these labels will stand in for any necessity for direct encounters with suffering. We invest in food manufacturers and suppliers rather than farmers and makers, letting them make decisions for us about how well these labels are dealing with suffering. And we get homogeneous, faceless, packaged food, that hides all trace of suffering, because suffering doesn’t sell.

Cities need to be open enough to allow us to lay down a fabric that is woven deeply with rich, penetrating connections between faces and their stories: from this animal, to this farmer, to this supplier, to this eater, each one knowing the whole line of faces. The faces become the threads that connect.

Which brings me circuitously (which is the best way really) to Wandering Cooks.

The birth of Wandering Cooks

I decided to create a business that could bump together more and more faces and stories than I’d seen possible in the place we live in. Brisbane has some amazing producers, and as we found out, loads of latent talent.

At Wandering Cooks, we support that breed of food maker in Brisbane who hasn’t settled down, who is on the cusp of their learning, and who doesn’t even know how to begin, particularly when commercial kitchens are prohibitively expensive to create and run. I wanted to make a place that would take the fear out of their creating, so that they could begin before they were ready, make lots of mistakes, and hopefully, bump into many faces that would impact the way and what they created.

We constructed 5 kitchens that would allow for heaps of flexible use and lots of interaction between makers. And the wall to the kitchens is transparent, so that outside, where our event space and bar has grown itself, the food makers can be seen by the people who are their customers.

Angela Wandering Cooks

The struggles of owning a business

Owning a business is next level in the way it engages a sense of responsibility. It’s the ultimate endurance event in ethics because it puts one’s desire for ethics face to face with one’s aptitude for making money or just staying afloat.

In the case of Wandering Cooks, we have two customers: our micro business food makers, and, by necessity in the end, our eaters & drinkers. To me, this looks like the perfect potential, because we are not only providing resources for our food makers, but we are creating a market for them too. And if we can solve the market problem by bringing them ethical eaters, then we are all the more likely to be transforming something together.

I don’t know how many of you have experienced the level of panic that arrives when dreams are sent out into the future. You wave them goodbye and good luck and then find them crashing back into reality like a sack of broken watermelons. What I mean is, projections don’t account for paying customers.

But there’s also a strange camaraderie that can develop at this point of panic, if you can for a moment, find a face to face encounter for yourself. Someone to see your suffering. As a business owner, we are taught to avoid these face to face encounters as well. But as I was on the search for them anyway, I did what others rarely do, I talked with people about the terror. I avoided people who faked it in favour of people who would tell me the truth about business and how they have suffered. And I kept my face forward – leaning into the pain. The decisions I’ve made that led me to so much business anxiety were also the decisions that placed me on the edge of my learning, making me a weaver of my own dreams.

Finding a light 

We started creating events that celebrated failure and involved people who would talk about food and business in a truthful way. Events became the back bone to our livelihood, not in terms of revenue, but in terms of trust. Our events put the faces that needed to see each other in the same room. And this hadn’t happened in our city before.

I heard, again and again, how it was almost impossible to carve out a living in this city, as a small producer, and I had to agree. This was a city that couldn’t seem to tell the difference between hand-made and brand-made. We were barely treading water. Our bar would go from packed with 200 people on an event night to earning $50 on a regular evening.

We decided that if we could, we would make our kitchens free. We couldn’t, but we’ve gotten pretty close. We started with maybe 15 food makers, we hit 30, then 50, then 70, and now, we’re supporting over 100 food makers, which puts us in the top 2% of kitchen incubators in the world.

The flipside to success

Now, in many ways, we’re well on our way to achieving success as a business. We’ve been voted Australia’s coolest micro business and I may just manage to pay myself next month! But in other ways, something devastating has arrived with our success.

After 3 years, I’ve noticed a certain homogeneity creeping into our space, despite the extra faces. Deliveries turning up from the same huge distributors, boggling conversations with more and more miserly customers wanting ever cheaper rates from us, not because they need them now that we’re so cheap but because they really don’t appreciate how much sacrifice has already gone into this place’s creation.

How ethics and business can play out

So how does our ‘higher level ethical strategy’ play out for us? Well, I’m not entirely sure yet, but I’ve started with more face to face disruptions. Food trucks, the last bastion of cheap eats, have become our first focus. If we can convert these bastards who knows what we can do!! We need to find ways that ethics and money can meet up and shake hands. We talked to one of the most popular food trucks in Brisbane who seemed to use mostly beef cheek because they can get it cheaply and it falls apart so beautifully.

We sat down with this food truck and the owner said, no way can I use grass fed. I’d love to but it’s too expensive. I’d have to sell my burgers for 20 bucks and my customers won’t stomach that. But then I said, what if we work together and we can organise to buy some whole beasts? We can use our kitchens to carve them up, our freezer rooms to hold some, you can take the cheapest cuts and we’ll sell the rest through the buyers group that meets here every week?

Their eyes lit up as they recalled how much they’d missed being able to take on larger cuts, but that their truck was too small to handle them. They started imagining the possibilities, of food truck long table dinners in our carpark, of make bresaola and bone broths. And I got excited because I’d just managed to turn their head a little to the south, towards the place where their meat comes from so that next time, perhaps, their face would encounter something other than a miserly customer and they would not be able to step back into the world they inhabited before.

This is how I see the threads developing – through hard work by all of us and more risk. I think it’s supremely important for people to realise the kinds of risks ethical food producers take all the time to remain intimate with the face to face, and that such stories must remain available to the public view if we are to encounter the true costs of business done ethically.

Image credits: Wandering Cooks

Zo Zhou

Zo Zhou

Zo is the National Communications Manager and will basically never shut up about vegetables.