Foodie Philanthropy: TAS Alumni Pleasing Palates and Making a Difference
by Michael Russell, Communications/Special Projects
Anyone who has spent time in Taipei surely knows the pleasure of a great meal from a fine restaurant or a tasty treat from a street vendor. An even better feeling than satisfying your stomach is earning the satisfaction of helping people in need. Two enterprising and generous alumni have developed business concepts that combine these two pleasures, providing their customers with both delicious culinary experiences and the opportunity to make a difference.
Bob Perry ’79 is the co-founder of The Elephant Walk restaurants, which serve French-Cambodian cuisine at three locations in Boston. He is also the founder of The Benefit Restaurant® Project, through which he commits a percentage of sales to funding worthy charities. Bob’s focus is on assisting charities and encouraging sustainable giving that address causes and implications of deep poverty, from local to global contexts.
Ann Yu ’00 is the owner of Itizy, an ice cream truck that roams the streets of New York City selling fresh, locally made ice cream. She maintains a commitment to Scoops for Meals, a pledge to donate one meal to a needy child for every five scoops of ice cream sold. Through her own travels, Annie has come to appreciate the impact that a regular meal can have on the health, education, and future of needy children. Bob and Annie got to where they are now through very different paths from TAS, but they share a similar sense of purpose and enjoyment in offering great food and in making and encouraging meaningful commitments to people in need. Find out more about their establishments at http://waltham.elephantwalk.com and http://www.itizy.com
The Elephant Walk
How does an American from Massachusetts end up running a French Cambodian restaurant, you might ask? The story stretches across decades and continents, but starts at TAS.
During Bob’s time in Taipei, he met his future wife, Nadsa de Monteiro ’78, and her parents, who would later become founding partners in the Elephant Walk. Reflecting on the personal history behind the restaurant, Bob said “While we were putting together the first Elephant Walk, I really thought I was simply helping my in-laws open their business. I had no idea that I was actually starting what would become my own business and, apparently, my life’s work.”
Bob and Nadsa were high school sweethearts during his sophomore year at TAS. The relationship appeared to be short lived because he and his family moved back to the U.S. before his junior year. He was able to return the following year to visit Nadsa, a time he recalls as one of the best of his life, but that would be the last time he set foot in Taiwan, and the last time he saw Nadsa for many years.
Nadsa and her family had come to Taipei when her father was posted here as the Cambodian ambassador in the early 1970’s, but their situation changed dramatically in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia. Nadsa and her sister, Launa de Monteiro ’78, graduated from TAS before their family settled in the south of France. The de Monteiros followed a course that would eventually culminate in the establishment of The Elephant Walk. The restaurant’s website tells some of their remarkable story: “After years in limbo, they all settled in southern France in 1979. The move to France brought safety, but not prosperity. There was no work in France for a diplomat representing a fallen government. So, at age 42, Mrs. de Monteiro became the family breadwinner when she opened Amrita, the first Cambodian restaurant in France. Mr. de Monteiro assisted her at the restaurant, working as the host.”
Meanwhile, Bob had begun college in Boston but dropped out to pursue work opportunities, spending time with a regional premium ice cream maker before starting his own retail and wholesale ice cream venture. At a TAS reunion, Bob met up with another alumnus, Jean-Marc Quach ’78, who had recently seen Nadsa and carried a message for Bob: “Call her!” Nadsa was living in Paris at the time. They reconnected and before long, the romance was rekindled. Bob eventually quit his job in Boston and moved to Paris. In 1986 they married and headed back to Boston.
When Nadsa’s parents decided to move to the U.S. in 1990, Bob initially discouraged the idea of opening a restaurant. But, after consideration, Bob and the de Monteiros came to the conclusion that “with your backs against the wall, you have to go with what you know; they had to do a restaurant.” This was the birth of the Elephant Walk, a French-Cambodian concept that would showcase the full range of Mrs. de Monteiro’s talents and represent the family’s rich cultural background. The results were dramatic.
Bob recapped the early years of the restaurant: “The Elephant Walk in Somerville, Massachusetts opened on August 20, 1991. After a great review from the Boston Globe two months later, we were on our way! The following year, we won our first of seven Best-of-Boston awards from Boston Magazine, and in November, Esquire named The Elephant Walk one of the Best New Restaurants in America. The 1990s were a wild ride: culinary conferences in San Francisco and Hawaii; preparing three multi-course dinners at the “Carnegie Hall for Chefs”, The James Beard House in Manhattan. The Elephant Walk Cookbook was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin, and was nominated for a Julia Child Cookbook Award.”
The business expanded with the opening of two new locations. However, in the 2000’s, things slowed down, with a devastating fire and the economic downturn following 9/11 causing difficulties. This downturn was the spark of The Benefit Restaurant® Project. Bob explains the concept as “a new model of philanthropy that grows the pool of funding for nonprofits using restaurants.” Bob launched the Project in the Waltham location of the restaurant in 2009, and sales there have been rising ever since. In 2012, Bob purchased the Waltham restaurant from the three-restaurant group in order to pursue his vision of growing an Association of Benefit Restaurants.
“The fundamental essence of Benefit is ‘co-marketing.’ It’s a way of our business strengthening nonprofits while nonprofits strengthen our business.” The project funds nonprofits locally, regionally, and internationally, with the common theme of fighting poverty. A percentage of sales from “Monday Benefit Dinners” held throughout the year are given to charities chosen by the host of the dinner. The arrangement is mutually beneficial for the restaurant and the charities. “Not only do we give money to our beneficiary nonprofits, we also spread the word about their work and their needs. Each of our guests reads about them on our menu covers, around the restaurant, and online. The nonprofits are likewise asked to make their stakeholders aware of the Elephant Walk’s support. (Find out more at http://benefitrestaurants.org/).
Though running separate restaurants now, Bob and Nadsa remain involved in The Elephant Walk together, along with Mrs. de Monteiro. In addition to the satisfaction of helping others, Bob enjoys the day to day challenges of his work: constant interaction with diverse people, the buzz and energy, the complexity and unpredictability, and the need to maintain exacting standards of quality. He feels that the Elephant Walk serves a higher calling, or a cultural mission, of sharing a reverence and appreciation for Cambodian culinary culture.
The reverence for diverse cultures brought Bob back to the value of his experience at TAS and in Taipei. He believes it helped teach him to “value diversity - in the people with whom you surround yourself in life, and in the things you chose to do and see. The more variety the better.” He explained further, “While we may have been behind in terms of fashion at TAS (returning to the States my flaming-red afro, bell bottoms, and Indonesian tie dye t-shirts turned out to be real attention-getting and snicker-inducing throwbacks!), the multinational TAS community was WAY ahead of the curve in terms of perspective on globalization and racial equality and integration. I had spent 11 years of my young life in Asia and expected the U.S. to be WAY ahead in just about everything. Technologically and pop-culturally, maybe it was. But in terms of social development, the international cultural cocktail gave TAS a couple of laps on America . No question I was more culturally accepting and curious because of my time at TAS. I can’t remember ever NOT feeling at ease in an international environment. It helped make the bi-cultural Elephant Walk a natural extension of my own life experience, of ME.”
Ann Yu ’00’s business sprang from two loves: ice cream and travel. She and her partner, Kenneth Chen, took something of an ice cream pilgrimage across the United States, sampling the best of the best from across the country, and concluded that fresh, natural, light ice cream with bold flavors was the ideal they would aspire to in launching Itizy in 2012. “Early on we realized freshly churned ice cream using natural ingredients simply tastes better. Having grown up on pre-packaged ice creams from the supermarket, we were amazed tasting freshly churned ice cream for the first time!”
Ann and Ken have also traveled globally, having visited over 25 different countries, many of them developing nations. This experience inspired the charitable side of Itizy, the Scoops for Meals commitment. Ann explained, “The social mission for our business is really central to our identity and a driving force for starting up this food truck.” In their travels, Ann and Ken came across many poor families struggling to put food on the table, and they wanted to make a difference for people in those situations. “We firmly believe that no child should go hungry and everyone can help, no matter how big or small, a person or a business. We made this idea a core foundation of our business model.”
With every five scoops of ice cream sold, Ann and Ken donate funding for one meal for children in need through the World Food Program USA (WFP USA), a nonprofit organization that builds support in the United States to end global hunger. Through WFP USA, contributions are made specifically for the UN World Food Program School Meals program. The effect of providing nutritious school meals can be magnified tremendously, affecting education and opportunity in addition to nourishment and health. “We are both firm believers in education, so we love the UN World Food Program School Meals program. Providing nutritious school meals not only channels vital nourishment to poor children, it also motivates parents to send their children to school. In many of the poorest countries, this boosts school enrollment and promotes regular attendance.” Among the key beneficiaries are girls, who otherwise may never be given the opportunity to learn.
“My own experience helped me appreciate the importance of education and I believe all children should be able to go to school. The beauty of the School Meals program is that the school meals helps encourage education which means the children also have a chance at a brighter future.”
Ann explained the influence of her high school years on her current endeavors: “TAS has definitely helped me become adaptable and able to thrive in all kinds of environments. Being submerged in an international environment helped widen my world view and deepen my empathy. A privileged environment such as TAS instilled in me the awareness and compassion for the less fortunate. Through all my experiences, I strongly believe that education is a key component for helping kids towards a brighter future. This is why the Scoops for Meals program is built as a core principal in our business.”
Itizy also displays social responsibility by minimizing impact on the environment, using only use environmentally friendly utensils. They also support local production and agriculture, sourcing ingredients from local suppliers and churning their ice cream right in New York City. “All of Itizy's ice cream use only fresh cream, milk and eggs from Hudson Valley farms. The ice cream and sorbet flavors are handcrafted in small batches right here in New York City. This ensures our ice cream is one of the freshest and most delicious treats you can purchase in the city.” Ann’s international roots and appreciation for other cultures still comes through even in her very local ice cream, as Itizy has a new line of Asian flavors, like green tea, that put a delicious new twist on classic Eastern desserts.
Itizy uses facebook and twitter to notify their fans of the ice cream truck’s route and locations within New York. “We mostly market through social media networks and word of mouth. We also had feature articles in New York Daily News (a large traditional NYC newspaper) and Serious Eats (a very popular food blog). They also cater parties, movie sets, and special events.
Ann parks the truck for the winter months, but still stays busy, “We indulge our lust for traveling! I also work on business development and lots of new flavor testing (eg. a freezer continuously full of new ice cream and sorbet flavors).” She also generously took some time to answer some more of our questions:
Why in NY? Why a truck?
“New York City is a multicultural city that reflects my international background. The residents and tourists alike are very adventurous when it comes to good food and they hold an exceptionally high food standard. The food truck allows us to serve various neighborhoods, which wouldn’t be possible with a single permanent location.”
What is the most interesting or rewarding aspect of your work?
“Making ice cream and hearing how much our customers love our ice cream. It brings a big smile to my face every time I hear a customer say ‘This is the best ice cream EVER!’”
Is there any ice cream in Taipei that measures up to yours? Do you have any Taipei inspired ice cream flavors? Stinky tofu?
“Honestly, when I’m in Taipei I typically indulge in Taiwanese snacks such as shaved ice, sweet soups and night market fare. Taiwan is definitely a gastronomic heaven and serves as inspiration for many of my creations, including some of our new Asian flavor ice creams. Growing up in Taipei, milk tea, bubble tea, red bean soup, black sesame gluttonous ice balls were all my favorites. This year we are also launching a new Asian flavor line that will include Black Sesame, Milk Tea, Milk Tea topped with tapioca pearls recreate a frozen bubble tea, and many more!
I love stinky tofu, but it may be a bit on the far end of acquired tastes even for the adventurous New Yorkers. At least for now…”