Giving Food Away is Great for Business: The Surprising Benefits of Local Lending


Image credit: Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe
The Slow Money movement has been pushing for more localized, more connected financial systems—asking what the world would be like if we invested 50% of our assets within 50 miles of where we live. But what's so green about local money? After all, it's not as if we are trucking around large shipments of gold, burning up fossil fuels in the process, when we invest elsewhere. But, just as local food is about much more than transportation, so too there are broad and far-reaching benefits to the concept of localized borrowing and lending. Last week I got to experience one of them in the form of a restaurant serving delicious, local Indian food that is literally giving its food away for free to those who can't afford it. Walk in to Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe in downtown Chapel Hill, and on the door you'll see a sign. Right next to the hours of business is a bold statement:

Nobody turned away due to lack of money. Food is a human right. When Vimala cooks, everybody eats.

It's the kind of statement that, you would imagine, would have most bank managers panicked if confronted with it in a business plan. But that was never a problem for Vimala. Rather than applying for a traditional loan through mainstream banks, Vimala—a prominent local food and media activist—appealed to her community for small loans when planning to expand from catering into a full-time restaurant. As reported in this story on supporting local food and media in the Chapel Hill News and Observer, Vimala raised over $80,000 in financing to open in 2009. The restaurant has since expanded, and won awards locally as both the best Indian food and the best vegetarian restaurant in the area.

But how has the localized money impacted business? Besides the fact that many of Vimala's customers are now also stakeholders—and thus have an extra incentive to splash out on a beautiful meal—the business is also blessed with creditors who share the owner's values. Far from being a liability, Vimala's "everybody eats" policy is seen by many as a core reason for lending to her in the first place. Add to that the restaurant's dedicated commitment to purchasing local, sustainably grown and raised produce, meat and dairy—and providing a myriad of vegetarian, vegan and allergy-friendly options—and it really does feel like a restaurant that is there to serve the community that helped create it.

While cooperatives are one way to create community-owned businesses that reflect the values of its members, they are not without their own complications of bureaucracy and diplomacy. Localized lending provides an alternative route that empowers individuals and smaller partnerships to realize their own vision—but to do so with both the support and input of the community around them.

Check out the Slow Money website for more on community-based, values-focused lending.

(Disclosure: Vimala catered the rehearsal dinner for my green wedding. I consider her a friend. But so do a lot of other people.)

More on Slow Money and Slow Business
The Slow Money Movement Pushes Local Money
Slow Business: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Our Lives
A Slow Theory of Investing

Tags: Economics | Local Food | North Carolina | United States | Vegan | Vegetarian

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