Foodies on a mission
by Kai Hsing
San Francisco’s Mission Street Food looks to blaze a path for food businesses with a social mission.
When former Bar Tartine cook Anthony Myint and his wife Karen Leibowitz set out to create a foodie distraction with which to occupy their spare time, they didn’t expect their taco truck sublet to turn into a local phenomenon with national attention. But thanks to their impeccable taste and timing (street food is in!) as well as with the help of the San Francisco Bay Area’s internet savvy and food-obsessed denizens, their Mission Street Food experiment has since grown into a twice-weekly food event that amasses crowds outside of an otherwise lackluster Chinese restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District.
The success of these nights has also transformed Mission Street Food into a serious charitable business, as more than $17,000 was donated to local charities during the part-time restaurant’s first 10 months of operation. Mission Burger, a lunchtime burger stand that Myint started inside the Duc Loi Supermarket a couple doors down from Mission Street Food, has also generated more than $2,500 in donations during its first three months of operation.
The idea of donating sales proceeds to charitable causes isn’t new – businesses like Patagonia and Ben and Jerry’s have done this for decades. What’s different about Mission Street Food is that it’s taken place in the dining world, where profit margins are notoriously hard to come by with even the most established restaurants and competition is cutthroat, particularly in a food capital such as San Francisco. Mission Street Food has proved that it’s possible to be a successful small local business with a great product while giving back directly to the community in a real, meaningful way.
Their success highlights another issue that Myint alludes to in his interview, and that is that businesses with a social mission don’t fit into current tax codes and standards. Should a for-profit business receive some kind of tax exemption if it chooses to have a social mission while still interested in profits? Or should non-profits be allowed to take in some profits if they pay some of the taxes normally expected of businesses? Can for-profit businesses have formal responsibilities to the common good written in to their company charter?
These are some of the challenges that Myint will have to consider as he considers expanding Mission Street Food to other locations and iterations both locally and nationally. Combined with the current trends towards social responsibility in the corporate sector, expect some changes in at least how charitable businesses are categorized in the near future.