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Elliot Fiks, owner of the Whole in the Wall Health Food Restaurant in Binghamton, NY, has always been a free spirit. He’s always liked to cook too; at age 12, he and a friend started experimenting with making homemade butter from cream, and selling it door to door. By the time he graduated from Binghamton University with a self-designed Bachelor’s Degree in Social Change in 1977, it was clear that Fiks was a maverick, and a political idealist – who loved food.
While in college, Fiks ran a successful business making 200 whole-wheat bagels a day and selling them to the food co-op at the university. The campus co-op quickly developed a reputation and the bagels sold out every day . Discussing his bagel success with a friend, they joked about opening a health food restaurant. Soon after, he noticed a beautiful old building that might have possibilities and within a month he was making bagels in the morning and renovating for the rest of the day. For two years he worked on restoring oak floors, moldings and wainscoting, and buying used restaurant equipment at auction.
Unable to afford replacement of an expensive, but cracked, plate glass window at the front of the restaurant during renovations, Fiks crafted an unusual frame out of molding to hide the crack. Contractors hired to help with renovations began referring to the restaurant as that “hole in the wall” and Fiks realized he might make the name work. Searching around for the origin of the phrase, Fiks found that Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid hung out in a place near Casper, Wyoming referred to in original documents by uncertain spellers as “Whole in the Wall”. Fiks identified with and appreciated the connection to Cassidy, a Robinhood–like character who lived to become an inventor in the 30’s, despite the belief fostered by the popular movie starring Robert Redford, that Cassidy died in a Bolivian shoot-out. In December of 1980, Whole in the Wall opened for business.
From the start, Whole in the Wall was successful, serving whole foods, salads, vegetarian entrées and, of course, bagels. Fiks runs it as a collective or co-op where employees become limited partners over time, following the social change plan that he developed while at college. Since then, Fiks and another partner have added a line of excellent all-natural pesto sauces which they are marketing online and to over 100 natural food stores, gourmet shops and upscale food chains.
In 1996, Fiks noticed that there was a lot of perfectly edible waste in the food preparation process and thought it was a shame to discard food, when so many go hungry every day. He thought he might be able to make a kind of soup, from all of the usable bits, so he began freezing them until he had enough to try and create a recipe. An old folk tale, Stone Soup, came to mind. In the stone soup story, a hungry man convinces villagers he makes soup from stones, when he really cons them into adding their vegetables to his pot. In the end, he and the villagers share the delicious soup; the lesson being that many can be fed if we share what little each has to offer. Many restaurateurs routinely donate left-over food to the needy, but Fiks’ concept went further. In making “Stone Soup” Fiks actually cooks specifically for the needy, which requires time, effort, and resources.
Since then, Fiks goal has been to convince restaurateurs nationwide to join his campaign to make the delicious Stone Soup. He believes that Stone Soup represents a high quality, untapped food source and has personally provided 30,000 meals to hungry people by making about 5 gallons a week with ingredients from Whole in the Wall. He often goes to schools to show children how to make it, spreading his message about feeding the hungry to all who will listen. Fiks received recognition from National Public Radio when he was honored with an E-Town award for humanitarian acts by unsung heroes.
The Small Business Professors' Words of Wisdom
Supporting entrepreneurs like Elliot Fiks is the best part of having a newspaper column. His commitment to bettering our society is awe-inspiring, but it is not unique. Entrepreneurs everywhere are making socially responsible business decisions, donating their time and resources to good causes and helping their businesses grow in the process.
- Case History: Whole in the Wall Health Food Restaurant www.wholeinthewall.com
- Entrepreneur’s Strategy: Help others using your business as a resource.
- Could This Work For Me? Giving of yourself always comes back to you ten-fold.
For two years he worked on restoring oak floors, moldings and wainscoting, and buying used restaurant equipment at auction.