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Nic From "The Fit Inn" Is Giving Away His Business

We’ve been big fans of The Fit Inn since they opened in Melbourne’s North Fitzroy a year ago. Healthy food, available for takeaway, and without an outrageous price tag. Just our kind of thing! So the other week we had a chat with owner Nic Frances Gilley - the original social entrepreneur - and then yesterday we found out that he’s giving his business away! Literally, giving it away! It’s mad. So what’s the whole idea with The Fit Inn? Cormac had a chat with Nic to find out...


So then, give us the background Nic?


Well I grew up in the hotel industry and as a family we owned hotels and restaurants, so I grew up in the business, did business studies at uni and then started working in hotels. Then I had a change and was a stockbroker for a bit and then I gave it all up and went through a whole range of working for not-for-profits and became a social entrepreneur. I was ordained as a priest, got recognized by the British Government with an MBE for services to charity and innovation, and was recognized as one of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs by the World Economic Forum. So I spent the last 25-30 years as one of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs, doing some quite big and new things, and then the last 10 years working on climate change, doing some of the largest energy efficiency campaigns in the world. Actually, the largest, as it says in the Guinness Book of Records!

Then about a year ago I’d had enough of having offices all around the world, flying around, borrowing big lumps of money from banks. I found the whole thing frustrating; at the same time we were doing so much on climate change and nothing much was happening, so I felt like a prisoner of something I’d built and needed to stop personally, not because it’s not a really good thing to do, but I just needed to have a break from pushing so hard…and so I’ve done a bunch of things in the last couple of years.


Fit Inn


Learning yoga, teaching yoga, learning ballet, a whole bunch of different stuff - I wrote a play about how we treat women in leadership - and during that time as I’m getting fitter, I’m thinking: “I’d really like to eat differently”. I grew up eating lovely fat-rich food, bacon and egg sandwiches, pasta steeped in olive oil, all that kind of stuff, French food, lots of butter and lots and lots of carbohydrates, lots of chips and bread. So I’m thinking, I’ve got to change this, I’m getting heavier, I’m doing all this sport, I’m feeling fitter but actually my body’s not getting fitter - why not? So I thought, “I’m going to eat a lot more salads, better ingredients, organic whenever I can”…but I couldn’t find it, so I thought why’s that? So I’m living in North Fitzroy and looking around and it’s not here. Why, when I want to eat healthy every single day, can’t I have a really great salad with a whole range of choice, not just Chicken Caesar every time?

So I thought, as part of my not-working-too-hard and doing things a bit differently, I’m going to have a crack at it. I’m going to open up a café, I’m going to try and work out ways to produce it low cost, but have high-end value and taste in terms of the ingredients and taste and the way we put it together – but low touch. All the nutrients are there, you haven’t boiled it to buggery, you haven’t overcooked it, you haven’t fried it…so I started out about a year ago, we’ve been going a while, we’ve got a nice product that people love, it’s all organic, great juices, smoothies, salads and proteins. You know where they come from, they’re high quality and they’re put together so that they’re consistently delicious. Lots of variety so when you come in and look at our fridge if you’re a vegan, it looks like the whole fridge is for you. All the salads are vegan, all the cakes are vegan, all the desserts are vegan, so it really looks like it’s a vegan restaurant. But then if you’re a meat eater or paleo, you come in and you go “oh look, all the salads are paleo and there’s lots of meat too”, so because you put it together yourself and the meat’s not in anything or the vegan stuff’s not in anything, it means that lots of people who’re concerned with food, what they’re eating, what they’re putting in their bodies, it really works well for them.


Something which I’ve noticed is becoming more and more important to people is the local aspect to food in terms of sourcing and so on – do you have much of that going on?

Well when it’s fresh organics you end up going as local as you can, really. Sometimes you can’t get a kiwi fruit unless you buy it from the other side of the world, so we tend to try and take kiwis off the menu if that’s what we’ve got to do. But we’ve also got lots and lots of superfoods that come from Latin America. So yes, we try and keep the bulk of the stuff low mileage – I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life cutting CO2 emissions, the last project we delivered cut 6,000,000 tons of CO2, the equivalent of taking every car in Australia off the road for a year, so I get and understand emissions and I’m passionate about that. However, we’re offering something to a customer that I really want them to enjoy, so…local where possible, but with the full and exciting flavours that make the food amazing, has a great story and has great suppliers. So not all local.




Mmm hmm, finding that balance is something we struggle with in Loving Earth as well, so much comes from South America, our cacao and so on, but because supporting indigenous growers is such a major part of our project and that’s where we get these great products from, it’s something we have to work with. So also on the idea of balance, at the moment we’re seeing this ongoing breakdown of the assumption that business is totally unrelated to socially progressive initiatives. But that’s something you’ve been focused on for what, the past how many years?

Well, I was first recognized in this BBC television program, they did this study on two people running “not-businesses and not-charities” and they called them social entrepreneurs, and it was the first time I’d heard the phrase and the first time it had been used by the media in Britain. I was 28 then and I’m 53 now so I’ve been calling myself a social entrepreneur for 25 or so years. I actually wrote a book that won the non-fiction award in Australia about five or six years ago about social enterprise and I think, for me, I’m not interested in the duality. I’m not interested in doing a business over here so I can make some money in that and go and do some good somewhere else - because that’s charity and charity is never enough to make significant change. If you want change in society, charity is great for raising issues, for doing demonstrations, but if you want as many people to eat organic beans as are currently eating McDonald’s French Fries, you need to come up with a story, a gift, an option and a price that actually makes that real for people…everything else is just play. If you want significant change in society you have to understand the market. I personally hate that, but I play along with it, because it’s what we’ve chosen. If you don’t embrace it, if you don’t make a profit, banks won’t lend you money and you can’t go to scale…and if you don’t have scale then you don’t make a significant contribution or a change.

So in terms of your question, take Bosch Tools for example. They’re amazing, they’re 50% owned by the family and all that money goes to a trust and is given away, but the trust has no say in how Bosch Tools are run, so they could have – and I don’t know if they do, it’s a long time since I looked at them – shit practices, a shit product, all kinds of different things, but then 50% of it goes to charity. That doesn’t make the difference, it doesn’t change society. So this product, I’m trying to deliver high quality, organic, great tasting food that’s really, really healthy for you at a price point that’s the same as everything else around me – and it’s tough. My ingredients are probably at least 50% more expensive than everything else that’s around. If I don’t do that, I’m playing to the 5% that love organics, and that doesn’t shift things. You’ve got to push it if you want change.

So from your accent I can hear that you’re not from Melbourne?

I’m not from Ireland either! That’s where you’re from?

It is, yeah.

Hahah, well I can hear that too, but yeah, I’m from Southampton, worked in London in my early 20s and then lived in Liverpool between 25 and 35 and then came out here.

So before you started getting involved in organic food and so on, were you much of a foodie?   

Well my first ever job was cleaning dishes in our family hotel that did great French food, great steaks, all that sort of lovely stuff, so I’ve chefed, I’ve served, I’ve been a wine waiter. I’m not a foodie the sense that I can’t stand reading shit about it or watching those silly programs on telly, but I am someone who actually knows about wine, who knows about meat, so I would say that I’ve lived in that space and I love quality. The interesting thing for me, because my focus is French cooking, it’s always about the meat and the wine and you stick a salad and some pommes frites on the side. The interesting thing for me over the last couple of years that’s changed is, “what vegetables look great today?”. What are the colours like, how am I going to put those together, am I going to add a cheese to that, or a meat to that, and then last of all, do I want to drink a wine with that, does my body want that tonight? So for me it’s really shifted.

In a way then I think you’d be a typical Melbournite in those tastes!

Hahah, f*** off!! Why would I be a typical Melbournite, aren’t they watching My Kitchen Rules?!

Hahah, well more in terms of having an appreciation for good food but a consciousness of health and so on?

Well currently in Melbourne, you’re right, there’s definitely this thing about, “let’s explore beautiful tasting food”. For those of us who live in the inner city, I think we think Melbourne’s like that. Of course, I worked with the Brotherhood of St Laurence in Australia for five years and I know that in Melbourne, 80% of people are not eating like that, are not buying that food, and half of them are actually struggling to have quality meals. Most of it’s coming from shit takeaways. Now that 20% of the three million, which is 600,000 people, that’s a lot of people and they are going to great restaurants and they probably have a better understanding of food and a desire to have great food that, I should think, is not matched anywhere else in the world. I think this is probably the best place in the world to eat and that select group of punters are probably the most food-cultured palettes on the planet.

You said something very interesting there, in that 80% of people aren’t eating like that. Do you see that improving?

Well, I’ve designed something to try and keep the costs down so that rather than 5% of people eating organics and 20% eating quality food, if you create great tasting food available at a competitive pricepoint, maybe the market grows. I’ve given up worrying about trying to change stuff – there’s, whatever, 20 billion planets round the galaxy, there’s probably other life out there. We’re just a little planet…I used to really worry about, “oh my God, we’re getting it wrong”, but my own personal interest now is to just make it more available. I’ve made it work for myself, now can I make it work to the extent that someone might invest in this and say “I’ll make sure there are thousands of these places around the world”. That would be interesting.


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