People are at the heart of what they do. They don’t see themselves as ‘heroic’ entrepreneurs but rather as facilitators who like to work together in teams and put merits and weights on several shoulders. Meet Tree Alliance, a global alliance of training restaurants which provides opportunities for marginalized youth and offers non-profit partners a social solution to promote social inclusion. Founded more then 20 years ago, the formula has proven to be successful. Right now they operate eight restaurants in several countries and a ninth to be opened soon. We spoke with Nikolai Schwarz, head of social business, about his journey so far.

Nikolai: “The idea was born more than 20 years ago when our founder, Sébastien Marot was in Cambodia. With the intention to help, he started to cook rice and make sandwiches from his hotel room to give to the kids on the street. He thought he was doing a real good thing but after a couple of days he realized he was not the only one doing this. Quite a few meals per day were provided by other foreigners wanting to help these kids. Instead of helping, providing food had removed any incentive for the kids to change their situation. When Sebastien asked them what they wanted to do if they could, he found they had dreams of going to school or to find a job. The situation inspired him to launch Friends-International which later led to the Tree Alliance.

TreeImage_2016There were a lot of opportunities in the hospitality sector and setting up training restaurants seemed a good option back then. As far as I can tell, it was the very first training restaurant globally. We really had no examples to follow. It was a trial and error approach but it worked! At some point we realized we had developed quite a successful idea and we started to consolidate our restaurants under the Tree Alliance brand. We are now offering our solution to other organisations. If you run an NGO or another organisation somewhere and would like to start a training restaurant you can partner with us. You can join our alliance and we will help you to set it up.

Challenges and achievements

I would say that a training restaurant is a more difficult and expensive project to run than a normal restaurant. We need more staff and more time to train people. We want to and have to pay proper salaries, keeping in mind labour laws. Some players in the market, often family-run businesses, don’t always stick to these rules very strictly and have more flexibility. On top of this fundraising is a challenge as well. We have relied on grants so far but want to better understand the potential sources of funds for us.

So far we’ve got hundreds and hundreds of students who have come to our trainings and it is fantastic to see their development. In many cases they have been living on the streets, suffering from drug addiction, personal issues and problems with the law. It’s fascinating to see that they are now establishing their own lives.

But I am proud of our concept. We’ve managed to develop our social enterprise as a professional business. We set up as something that could work in a commercial environment and then added the social part to it. In my opinion this distinguishes us from other players: when visiting our restaurants, you can feel the vibrant atmosphere, taste the good food and enjoy the social aspect that comes with it.

For me it is really the best job I have ever had. I am extremely happy to be where I am right now. It’s surprisingly rare to be able to say you genuinely love your job, but in my case it is.

I’m hoping to meet many interesting people and experts from different kinds of angles during the Accelerate week. At the moment I want to know if whether or not we are doing our job well before we further replicate our model. We need to have a watertight and globally replicable concept before developing on the investment side of things. We have been active for a long time, and I think it’s good to have a fresh take on things.”

Want to know more about Friends International and their Tree Alliance? Have a look at the video below.

This article is one in a series in which we get to know the International Finalists of our Accelerate2030 program a little bit better. Accelerate2030 is a 9-month program co-initiated by Impact Hub Geneva and the UNDP with a mission to scale the impact of ventures that contribute towards the Sustainable Development Goals internationally. All nine finalists will be present at the Impact Hub Geneva from the 6th until the 13th of October during the Scaling week.

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