How our charity food offs evolved from raising $950 to over $100,000

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Software evolves.

Instead of developing the perfect piece of software, you release it, and then start iterating and improving based on feedback and issues you run into.

It’s how my charity food offs have evolved:

  1. The first chocolate chip cookie off was 30 months ago amongst friends.
  2. The first charity chocolate chip cookie off was 18 months ago. We sold 100 tickets and raised $950 (all numbers USD).
  3. 12 months ago I did a sausage showdown. We raised $8500.
  4. 8 months ago I did an NYC cookie off. We raised over $30,000
  5. Last weekend I hosted a chocolate chip cookie off in Toronto. We raised over $100,000!

By iterating my charity food offs (while selling the same number of tickets), I have increased the amount we raised for charity from $8.50 per person to over $610 per person!

The truth of it all

Here’s a simple truth: we all want to be part of something bigger than us.

Religion. Sports. Forums. Neighborhoods. Communities. Organizations. Membership sites. And so forth.

They all let us join a collective of like-minded individuals and ideally aim for something bigger than just one of us.

For religion, it’s God.

For sports, it’s the glory of being the best.

For forums, it’s knowing more about the topic you’re interested in.

For organizations, it’s improving whatever you’re focused on (business, public speaking, sales, etc).

The charity food offs have iterated to embody this truth. We’ve ended up with a win-win-win for all three stakeholders:

  1. Attendees
  2. Competitors
  3. Charities

The charity food offs have been a resounding success by focusing on the human side and giving all involved parties a “win.”

You can read my previous posts on how I recruited bakers, on how the sausage showdown worked, and what made NYC cookie off work. What I want to cover are the little things I’ve evolved to make it unique:

1. The messaging was authentic

(ugh yes, the word ‘authentic’ is overused)

I’ve written about the #cookielife, but the crux of it is that cookies are not a gimmick to me. They’re just something I love. And it’s not just cookies – I love food. If you want to talk cooking or baking, we can get deep into it.

So when I told people I’m doing a cookie off, they knew it wasn’t some marketing angle. People knew I wasn’t doing it for the sake of trying to be unique – it was something that mattered to me, so I did it.

Furthermore, we heavily emphasized that while we were celebrating excess, we were not ACTING in excess.

The goal from the start was to donate all the extra cookies. No wasting.

We quartered all the cookies – not just so that they were easier to eat (how the hell do you consume 38 full sized cookies?!?), but this also minimized waste.

Furthermore, it was a matter of respect. If you’re receiving a donation, you want whole cookies, not someone’s cut up leftovers.

We had takeout boxes, but we had the small version and mentioned how we wanted to focus on you taking home cookies you truly liked, not just filling it up with all the cookies you could get your hands on.

What was amazing was the bakers all stepped up big time. I would say over half of them baked a surplus of cookies to ensure there were cookies to donate.

In the end, we ended up donating over 100 lb of chocolate chip cookies and over 15 L of milk!

By keeping our focus on what mattered and not doing things for the sake of gimmicks, we ensured that the value of what we were doing came through.

2. We supported multiple charities and considered responsibility

This one was super important to me.

Just like you, I have multiple interests. And when it comes to changing the world for the better, I don’t think it’s about one thing.

I know our relationship with food matters.

I know empowering women matters.

I know entrepreneurship matters.

I know that diversity can be an incredible strength (it’s why Toronto is the best city in the world).

Stemming from the first point (being authentic), it would be inauthentic for me to support one charity.

And so I did something I had never seen before – I decided to split the money up.

I set a maximum amount of $19,000 (effectively $25,000 CAD) per charity.

I then spent a lot of effort and energy finding charities I knew were making a positive impact. People are trusting me not to waste the money, and it’s an important responsibility.

We ended up with three:

  1. Community Food Centres of Canada. I had already supported them, and appreciate what they are doing.
  2. Sistering. I was invited to tour their location, and… it’s heartbreaking. It was such a clear reminder to me of how much having an environment that can help you matters.
  3. Business in the Streets. As an entrepreneur, I’m well aware of how much opportunity and access to knowledge can matter. Under-resourced youths who are trying to build businesses? An absolute no-brainer.

I need to find a fourth because of my auction (more below), and will be finding a charity that works on integrating immigrants/refugees (it’s not about coming to Canada, it’s about being part of the fabric of Canada).

I supported multiple charities because different issues matter to me and different problems matter to others attending.

3. We leveraged my relationships to raise more

There’s an upper limit to what you can do en masse.

Which is to say, I think 500 USD is the upper limit that I can charge a ticket. To charge more, I need to offer more, and while we’ve done bits and pieces of that (see #5), I don’t want to start hosting a larger event.

I also know some awesome people. And with my fondness of leverage, I did what you do with a friend: asked for a favor.

So – I got people who know their shit (let’s be honest, pretty rare online) agree to donate an hour or two of their time. These are people who are not available for consulting (like me!)

I then went out and auctioned it off. And the auction raised over $20,000!

I leveraged my friendships to auction off time with bad-ass people who are not ordinarily available one-on-one.

4. We didn’t rush it and built up our reputation

People are always in such a rush. I want to be an expert at this. I want to have seven figures within the year. Blah blah blah.

Most people don’t know this, but I’ve been doing random food offs with my friends for years. We have a very private Super Bowl BBQ Off in which the winner gets a WWE-style championship belt:

We’ve done a pie palooza. A mac-n-cheese off (*cough* I won). Guac-off. Chili-off.

The chocolate chip cookie off we did 18 months ago – I partially set the price so low because I had no clue how it would turn out.

And so as we’ve figured out what works (and removed what doesn’t), we’ve also been able to raise the price.

And as we’ve figured out what makes people have a good time, the demand has gone up. Our reputation now precedes us, and we can charge more.

I already have 20+ people who did not attend this year’s event who are ready to buy tickets for next year (FOMO).

I sent out a feedback survey to everyone who attended, and 100% of people have said “I want to come back next year.”

No one flew in for the first event. For this one, almost 70 people flew in.

A few people flew in from Europe (including Brian Dean, who, even though he donated time for the auction, still bought a ticket!). My buddy Andy Morgan flew in from Japan. Sebastian Marshall (who I had never met in person) flew in from Malaysia!

This shit doesn’t happen overnight. My reputation is why people trusted plunking down $500. Hell, not a single person has asked me how the money goes to the charities, how they use it, etc. They trust me, and that’s powerful (provided you’re not an idiot and mess it up).

It’s also not random. We have an extensive “charity food off” playbook that details all the steps. After every event, we take stock of what went wrong (and what went well) so we can improve.

It’s a cliche, but this quote by Bill Gates nails it:

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”

Take your time – this isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. Building up your reputation makes your future much easier.

5. We made people feel special (because they are) by doing things that don’t scale

Doing things that don’t scale is what set us apart.

Exclusive and Invite-Only

First of all, we made this exclusive; this was a private event – you had to know me to get invited.

And not just have to know me – you had to be my type of people (good at what you do, but more interested in having fun than only talking about biz).

I take this very seriously. Two people who attended my NYC Cookie Off who wanted to attend again and I said no. They acted in a way that reflected poorly on me and that was not OK.

There were only four people I did not know well personally at the event; I let them in because they were strongly vouched by someone I trusted.

The waitlist to buy tickets exceeded 20 people. I did not budge – we could have made a bit more $ at this event, but it would have lost the charm that keeps people coming back.

If you’ve read my other posts – 90% of my ticket sales were done via FB. There was no mass email sent out. There was no big push. It was just “come and enjoy.”

Here’s a real convo I had:

By making this an exclusive invite-only event, and by inviting people I knew, the event sold out in 19 days.

I facilitated connections

I like bringing humans together (it’s why I organize so many entrepreneur dinners).

I also know that people are shy and not as outwardly inquisitive as I am.

So – I made everyone fill out an intake form (inspired by Jayson).

I then had this information filled into a giant spreadsheet, and I spent an inordinate amount of time cataloging the responses, stalking people on social media, building word clouds, and what not to understand what they cared about (both professional and personal) and what they were thinking about (to solve, for personal interest, etc).

And via that, I generated a list of names that they should meet (and I tried to keep it a mix of Torontonians and non-Torontonians).

This was the best thing I did.

People loved the list of names they got.

It was an easy icebreaker – “Sol said I have to say hi to you.”

It became a game “Oh, your list says XXX. Have you met? If not, I know her, let me take you to her.”

People ended up wearing the lists on their chest to make it easier to build these connections.

It was honestly 10x the work to build this list than it was to recruit the competitors, but it’s why I could charge $500 per person – you were guaranteed to meet awesome people.

Based on people’s inputs, I generated a list of names of people everyone had to meet. It was an incredibly powerful connecting tool.

I was offered help – and I asked for it

I’m big on going for the ask. At worst, you end up where you were before. At best – you get what you want!

During the event, I had a few people tell me that if I was close to a big goal, to let them know, and they’d chip in a bit extra to make it happen.

When we were just over $6000 short of the $100,000 goal, I asked for the help. And bam – they were glad to come through.

I was even my regular anal self and said it would be anonymous. No one cared.

If someone offers to help, don’t be shy to ask.

I thanked the competitors and supporters

Doing things that don’t scale matter.

I recorded a personalized video for every person who supported with food to thank them.

They put in their time and money to support this. To spend a few minutes just saying thanks and letting them know how it turned out – an absolute no-brainer.

Show appreciation to the people who supported you.

Tax receipts vs Sol’s Feast of his Favorite Foods

I wanted to add a little extra benefit for everyone who bought a ticket.

For Canadians, it was an easy one – tax receipts. And because the first chocolate chip cookie off was so cheap, a significant portion was considered a donation.

But what about everyone flying in?

I love Toronto. A big reason why I moved the food off to July was to show off how badass Toronto is.

I also love food. I have bonded with many people over a mutual love of food. I have a list of “must try” foods in Toronto for everyone who visits.

Soooo…. why not show off the excellent food in Toronto?

So I convinced the purveyors of some of my favorite foods to donate said food so I could have a “Sol’s feast of his favorite foods.”

We ended up with:

  • Pizzeria Libretto‘s pizza + calamari
  • Maple Leaf Tavern‘s Reuben sandwich sausage (which won my Sausage Showdown)
  • Hooked‘s cured salmon (you’ll never go back to smoked salmon)
  • Monforte‘s black sheep cheese (just wow)
  • Blackbird Bakery‘s sourdough bread (so soft and perfectly sour)
  • SOMA‘s chocolate-covered toffee with almond (this is referred to as “crack” in my house)
  • Death in Venice‘s Nutella & cookies gelato (proper cookie bits, not dough)
  • Mabel Bakery‘s peach pie (specially made for us, and Mabel’s competed in our cookie off)
  • CXBO‘s bonbons (the zaniest flavors)

And so on Saturday night, for everyone who flew in, I had a special feast.

The bonus side of this was it was an easy ice breaker for everyone – “where are you flying in from?”

It also gave me some extra time with the non-Torontonians, many of whom I was meeting for the first time in-person.

I showed off a side of Toronto a lot of the non-locals would not have had the time to experience, which further elevated the value everyone derived.

We had fun

Chocolate chip cookie-off

🍪🍪🍪 36 Toronto bakers competed at this year’s cookie-off 🍪🍪🍪

Posted by Daily Hive Toronto on Monday, July 9, 2018

As Chris Brogan would say – “I can tell Sol’s kind of people.”

The people who attended were conscientious. They cared about giving back. They wanted a positive impact. They weren’t into shady internet marketing techniques. They were good at what they did professionally but were more interested in the personal side.

Nothing brings humans together like food. And to bring awesome humans together, put together some awesome food!

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