Jeff Devereux, Co-Founder of Breakfast Lunch & Dinner, talked about the importance of being a part of the community in Hartford and why his startup is committed to being a social enterprise.
NAN PRICE: BL&D has three other founders, how did you all come together and how did you develop the idea for the startup?
JEFF DEVEREUX: It kind of came about over time in small steps. Josh Jenkins, Onyeka (Ony) Obiocha, Quenton Narcisse, and I all met through Ony. We were all looking for things to do in Hartford and looking for good reasons to get our friends together to do stuff.
One of the first things we did sort of informally was we threw some fundraiser parties in downtown Hartford. We charged a suggested donation and raised money for friends who were doing a bike drive for Hartford kids.
We did two or three other fundraisers and then we began to formalize it. The first big thing we got some traction on was when we launched the KNOW GOOD Market. There was clearly a need for bringing people together and doing things people found interesting and fun. We officially launched BL&D in early 2015.
NP: Who is coming up with all of these ideas?
JD: It’s the four of us. There’s probably an individual person who has some responsibility for the initial idea, but it’s the four of us often coming together. One of the things we say is if the four of us can agree that this is something worth doing, then it’s something worth doing.
Our central idea was to be in-house incubator of our own ideas. Being able to incubate and get things off the ground is attractive to us because we had one business in Hartford, but one business isn’t really going to make an impact. We need a lot of different things in Hartford to really make an impact.
NP: There’s obviously a community focus. Why is the social enterprise aspect important to your startup?
JD: Ony and I have backgrounds in the social enterprise space. We’re both very passionate about it. We wanted to see if there was a way to combine those things.
BL&D divvies up our work into two different sections: We are either doing our own in-house venture building—we are creating our own projects or ideas—or we are doing that as a consultant for clients.
We’re also trying to address culture, which is not easy. People know what it looks like, but they don’t know how to deal with it. We know that when you create new things they have an impact on culture.
So everything we do is attempting to bring people together. If you have a culture in which people from different backgrounds are actively engaging with each other, then they’re dealing with their own problems face-to-face and not in their own pockets of people who aren’t talking to each other.
Essentially we’re allowing people to do their own work and do their own problem-solving so we don’t have problems down the road because people haven’t talked to each other. It’s problem avoidance. It’s how we hope that that will happen.
We’re trying to figure out how to actually make that a reality in terms of how we track it. We just started a project with the Center for Urban and Global Studies at Trinity College. We’re going to have a student help us to build out the scholarly, academic argument for it.
We’re kind of transferring the idea of collective culture into this idea of social cohesion, which is the idea that if you have five people here and you have five people over there, how are each of those individual people connected to all of the other people in the group? Does one person have a one-to-one connection with everybody else in the group, or half the people in the group?
NP: That’s interesting because you and I just talked about that before the interview—how we keep ending up at the same events and we know many of the same people.
JD: Right! And now we know each other.
All of our work we say fits into one concept, which is creating collective culture. What that means to us is we’re trying to bring people together from different walks of life, different backgrounds, different jobs, and different identities in general.
NP: When you say “creating collective culture,” are you talking about in Hartford, Greater Hartford, Connecticut?
JD: I think the easiest thing to say is in Connecticut. Most of our focused work, as far as venture building goes, is in Hartford. We’ve also done work in New Haven, mostly for clients.
NP: Let’s talk about your clients. What kinds of projects are you working on and how are people finding you?
JD: The consultant work kind of came to us, we never really tried to get clients. We hit a lot of different niches with people because we’re young and doing creative things. There’s not a ton of people doing that kind of stuff locally. So I feel like that’s been an in for us a lot of the time. We obviously have a community focus to what we do. And I think those two things are attractive to enough people where we’ve gotten a fair amount of consulting work out of it.
We’ve done projects in a couple of different spaces, but most them end up having a social enterprise/creative edge.
We just finished a project with the New Haven Free Public Library. They’re in the process of exploring opening a café—sort of like the kitchen at The Hartford Public Library. So we helped them with the baseline things, like looking at what current library patrons want and different potential partnerships and business models the library could explore. That was our first contract with them. Maybe there will be more contracts down the line.
Another good example of the work we do is that we’ve done crowdfunding projects. We get involved helping to build the crowd in the first place that then goes on to fund a project. One of the other more public things we were involved and was helping start BiCi Co. in Hartford, which is a community bike shop.
We also run something called the HTFD Slow Roll, which is a community bike ride in Hartford. That was a way to begin to build the bike culture and organize it a little bit. Then we ended up launching a crowdfunding project for BiCi Co. We involved from the beginning but we essentially ended up being the consultants for the crowdfunding project.
NP: How is your startup contributing to economic growth in the Greater Hartford region? Are events like the KNOW GOOD Market bringing people into the city and helping small businesses generate income?
JD: We certainly like to think so. I don’t think anyone is living off of the KNOW GOOD Market just yet, but we have been keeping data about the event and how many people come.
We started in September of 2015. We had two pilots. This is our first full year running it and we’ve had more than 2,500 people come. Combined we’ve had vendors making tens of thousands of dollars. We’ve seen hundreds of thousands of impressions on social media. Clearly that’s having some type of impact.
We know that for the small businesses that participate, they’re excited because it’s a good business opportunity for them. It’s once a month, April through October—and we have the KNOW GOOD Holiday Bazaar planned for December 10. It’s not going to make all of their money for them for the entire year. We hope it is a piece of that pie—but an important one.
Having ways for small businesses to support themselves and create building blocks for them to move on is a big piece of the picture of what we’re trying to build. So we’re not only trying to create collective culture, we try to fill gaps in the business world so there are stepping stones.
We do a lot of work in the arts and creative community as well. And we’re thinking all the time: How can we create businesses that support creating stepping stones for artists? Where are those steppingstones? How are local artists able to support themselves along that path?
Right now those paths probably aren’t really fully there. We have pieces here and there, but there’s not a nice path here, which I think is part of the reason why we lose people at the end of the day, because they can’t find the step they need here, they need to go find it someplace else.
NP: Let’s talk about your connection to Hartford.
JD: Josh and Ony grew up in Windsor together. Quenton is from Bloomfield. My connection to Harford was through Trinity College. After I graduated I moved abroad for year and then I moved back to start my original business, Hartford Athletic Club. HAC is now part of BL&D, one of our in house ventures.
I was working abroad when I launched the startup. I actually enrolled in the reSET accelerator program while I was away. I remember finding out about reSET and thinking: I’m trying to create a social enterprise, this is exactly what I need. This couldn’t be a better fit.
NP: What are your plans for BL&D moving forward?
JD: We’re creating an online multimedia platform for Hartford. We often find ourselves not knowing about things that are going on in the city. We know about things because we go out of our way to find out—we go out of our way to be involved in the community. I just don’t think there’s good places to share that information citywide.
NP: So how do we solve that?
JD: We hope that this platform will help do part of that. We want to create an online place that’s focused on sharing-Hartford specific information, whether it’s events, culture, arts, civic stuff, or sports. The Hartford Courant has a much bigger job than that.
You can find The Hartford News in and cafés and coffee shops, but it’s not online. So one of the things we’re doing is we partnered with them and we’re going to put their content online. And then we’re hopefully building out a website that will have video, audio, and events content. We hope to have a few other community partners, which you’ll recognize, and then we’ll be able to have corralled a lot of information and put it in one place.
NP: When you talk about a platform, are you talking about building a website and a social media presence?
JD: Yes. We’re hoping it will be not only a website but also an app.
NP: Would that be branded under Breakfast Lunch & Dinner or is this is a whole other thing?
JD: This would be a venture we create.
NP: What’s the timeframe?
JD: We’re hoping to get pilot stuff out in the next couple of months and then we hope it will be something that launches in early 2017. A lot of our other projects have had pretty strong grassroots, low-budget aspect to them. We can get things off the ground fairly nimbly. But if we want to do this well, it’s going to have real costs or really strong partnerships and a depth to it so that’s really going to take some time to get all of those things in order. But we are very excited about it.
When we talk about BL&D, at some point we end up talking about is the idea that cities in general are receiving a lot of revived interest from businesses. The millennial generation likes to live in cities and be close to other people.
We’re trying to be so involved in everything that’s going on that it’s going to go well and it’s going to go well no matter who you ask. I think that’s the important piece here. If Hartford is going to get better, we want to make sure everyone is a part of that.
Learn more about Breakfast Lunch & Dinner at www.breakfastxlunchxdinner.com.