More than five years ago my business partners and I had a vision.
Inspired by Broad Street Ministry‘s work on behalf of our fellow Philadelphians who are the most vulnerable, our local comfort food chain, Federal Donuts, set out to shine a light on the idea that hospitality is a fundamental human need.
Our plan: We would take the unused bones from Federal Donuts’ to-be-fried chicken, turn them into soup, and then turn that soup into the signature menu item at Rooster Soup Company, a restaurant that would donate 100% of its profits to help fund Broad Street’s mission.
We were converting food waste into social justice. We were offering our customers a way to help their fellow citizens just by eating lunch. And we were changing the narrative for how the city’s hospitality industry could work in partnership with the nonprofit world on behalf of the entire community.
And all of this was conceived and executed by the team behind CookNSolo Restaurants, one of the most successful hospitality companies in the city, with Michael Solomonov, a top American chef, at the helm.
What could possibly go wrong?
As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.
After less than three years in business, Rooster Soup Company closed its doors this June.
I’ve tried to think about the factors that contributed to Rooster Soup Company’s failure. Perhaps people didn’t want to think about the homeless while they were eating lunch. Maybe we should have thought more about how a restaurant with the word “soup” in its name would perform in August. Or perhaps we thought that the strength of the idea and our name would carry us through, in spite of real issues with the concept and its execution.
Our hospitality group has a certain “can’t miss” aura in Philadelphia. (Our restaurants include Zahav, which received the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant this year.) We’re often told we have a golden touch, or that our newest concept is going to be a “home run.” These are flattering things to hear, but the reality is far more nuanced. We have had some amazing successes, but our track record is littered with restaurants that never really found their footing, or quite simply failed.
Even Zahav flirted with failure during its early years. Tonight, we will serve close to 300 customers, but in our first year we would have been happy to serve a sixth of that number. At one point, we were only a few weeks away from closing the doors.
In retrospect, I am deeply grateful that Zahav was not an instant success. Turning that restaurant around remains one of the most challenging and rewarding chapters in my professional career. With our backs against the wall, we proved to ourselves what we were capable of. And it has become fundamental to the mythology of our company.
Success breeds confidence. It can also breed overconfidence and ego. The notion that an idea is good just because you had it, or that planning and preparation and execution are somehow less important because of the name on the door, is a recipe for failure.
Paradoxically, the threat of failure is a recipe for success. Each time we sign personally for a loan, or are entrusted with someone else’s money, we are overcome with a sense of humility that brings into focus the gravity of the undertaking.
My old boss from my days in finance used to warn us off companies heavily dependent on “elevator assets,” in other words, the people who took the elevator down every night on their way home. If they didn’t come back, he asked, what would the company be worth?
The restaurant industry is heavy on elevator assets (minus most of the elevators). Without our people, what are we left with? Some old stoves and refrigerators that aren’t worth nearly what we paid for them. But we have our hard-won battle scars, the literal and figurative burns that make up our collective experience.
We have already paid the price for these scars. It is only logical that we should leverage them for our society’s future benefit.
We may never know exactly why Rooster Food Company missed the mark as a social enterprise and why patrons didn’t respond, but in many respects it was a success: In the heart of America’s poorest large city, we sparked a national conversation about the true meaning of hospitality.
There is no shame in failure. There is only shame in doing nothing with it. Rooster Soup Company was an incredible experiment. It shined a bright light on the idea that the way we treat the most vulnerable among us reflects who we are as a community. And even in failure, that light will continue to shine.
Steve Cook is co-owner, with Mike Solomonov, of Philadelphia hospitality group CookNSolo. Together, they have been awarded two James Beard Foundation Awards.