Lethal generosity in my neighbourhood: Taste of Wellington West 2009

This Saturday, drug I had the privilege of photographing some of my favourite people from my favourite place in the world doing what they love to do. The event was the third annual Taste of Wellington West festival – when the food shops and restaurants of my neighbourhood in Ottawa give away free samples of thier food to benefit a local food bank. What could be better?

Sushi kids

From a marketing perspective, of course, the idea of giving away free food is a guaranteed hit and a very smart stratgey. But what’s better, I see this as a practical example of a term Shel Israel introduced me to a couple weeks ago – first on Twitter, and later when he visited Ottawa to promote his book Twitterville: How Businesses Can Thrive in the New Global Neighborhoods.

“Lethal Generosity”

Here’s Israel’s own definition of this term from his Web site:

Shel Isreal: Lethal Generosity is the business strategy of doing as much good for your customer as possible, thereby screwing your competitor who has to either follow your lead or ignore programs that serve them.

Don’t you love that idea? Now, “lethal” and “screw your competitor” are hard-edged, cut-throat words. But they get your attention don’t they? In reality this is a “bad cop” way of describing a very “good cop” phenomenon. Because actually lethal generosity only works when you do it the way we do it in Wellington West: generosity comes first; lethality follows.

So here’s how I’d (humbly) alter Israel’s definition to put the emphasis on the strategic sequence of events:

Denvan: Lethal Generosity is 1) doing something warm, human, and generous that endears you deeply to your community, which 2) also has the pleasant side effect of giving you an incredible competitive advantage, 3) forcing others to either follow your lead or look really stupid.

Taste of Wellington West

Heavy construction didn't keep the huge crowds away in 2008 (shown here) or 2009.
Heavy construction didn't keep the huge crowds away in 2008 (shown here) or 2009.

A couple years ago, I helped out with the establishment of the Wellington West Business Improvement Area (BIA) – partially as a response to other local areas who had been running their own BIAs for years – particularly Westboro, Somerset Chinatown, and Preston Street.

Even though we had a blossoming arts community, many dozens of restaurants, our own outdoor farmer’s market, and the biggest cluster of owner-operated gourmet food shops this side of Montreal, other neighbourhoods were getting all the attention because they were organized, and were investing in building their brands.

What’s more, we were facing three years of heavy disruption from a massive and dirty construction project that would replace century-old sewer and water lines and make a wasteland of our street, and chase away customers.

So how do you compete with all that? Well, you build on your strengths. In our case, the incredibly warm and quirky characters who ran the shops and restaurants of our neighbourhood – who could always be counted on to give their time, money, and products to worthy local causes. But now they had a new weapon: a way to organize, mobilize, and capitalize on their native generosity to help them through a tough time.

The trick: to be more generous: 

The more you give, the more lethal you are. Absynthe gave away full sized gourmet Buffalo Burgers - resulting in longer lines.
The more you give, the more lethal you are. Absinthe gave away full sized gourmet Buffalo Burgers - resulting in longer lines.

Generosity, in the form of Taste of Wellington West, has helped us to bring thousands of new customers into our area at a time when most would rather stay away. And it allows locals a risk-free way of trying new places and meeting the humans behind those shops. I particularly love the picture of the kids trying the sushi. It really captures the spirit of the day: passionate merchants sharing their passions with people. 

But even more interesting, the merchants themselves have started to compete with each other to see who can out-generous whom. One high-end restaurant created waves by offering meal-sized Buffalo burgers, while another that had opted not to participate, had to reluctantly start giving stuff away. One of the employees told me: “everybody’s asking where the free stuff is. It’s just easier this way.”

Slideshow of some people pictures from the day:

More pictures here (Picasa Web album of 130+ photos)

What I love about these pictures:

1) The warmth: I’d call these people the salt of the earth, but “spice of the city” is closer to home. Don’t those smiles just make you want to move to my neighbourhood?
2) The energy: these are always hard-working people, but for one day they double their workload to make magic in the process.
3) The variety: from the high end restaurant to the tiny family groceteria, everyone brought something different (and yummy) to the table.
4) The food: my biggest regret is being on the wrong side of the camera again this year! I get hungry all over again looking at these.

10 thoughts on “Lethal generosity in my neighbourhood: Taste of Wellington West 2009”

  1. What a great event and I love the way you’ve connected it with Lethal Generosity.

    Parma Ravioli was the big hit for us. I can’t remember what they were serving, but it was extremely tasty. Pasta, of course.

    Our second favourite was Thyme & Again (a semi-regular haunt) which served two type of homemade marshmallows — coconut and pineapple — and some delicious meatballs.

    Siam Bistro was a close third with finger potatoes in a delicious sauce that had coriander in it. I love coriander.

    Honourable mention goes to Nectar, which we had never been to before. They served delicious scones and Moroccan Mint Tea. We tried to get a table in Nectar after the event only to discover the place was full. Good on them!

    Sadly, by the time we got to Absynthe, we were told by some lady in line that she was the cutoff for available food. As it turns out, they were still serving and hosting a long line (well past where that woman would have been) at least 30 minutes later. Their burgers sure looked amazing!

    To me, the biggest disappointment was some place called Viva Loca which had set itself up in front of the GCTC. I figure they’re the restaurant in the theatre. They lose huge points on the Lethal Generosity front. They handed out store bought crackers and pieces of bread and had some jarred dips to put on them. They handed out a Viva Loca coupon printed on photocopied Canadian $1 bills.

    1. Hey Mark, thanks for the detailed feedback, which I’ll flag for Annie at the BIA.

      Two things: 1) I heard from the volunteer at Absinthe that she was told they were running out when she started passing the info to the line, but then they managed to get more burgs out. She felt awful about it. 2)Interesting feedback on Viva Loca. They originally weren’t on the roster since they’re not opening till this weekend coming, so I’ll bet they didn’t have their kitchen set up.

      But I guess Lethal Generosity is a two-edged sword when you get “out-given”.

  2. Dennis,
    thanks for sharing (and demonstrating) Lethal Generosity. I missed the Shel Israel session but thought I’d read the tweets. Didn’t see LG come up, and I certainly would have guessed wrong as to what the meaning of the term was. I like your re-definition.

    I guess it’s just one more example of the power of delivering a superior customer experience.

    In looking at the pictures, it looks like the businesses (restaurants) sure invested significant effort & capital. It would be interesting to hear what type of ROI they achieved.

    cheers, Andrew

    1. Hey Andrew,

      Yes, there was a lot invested in the event by the individual restaurants. And I know the BIA is doing their best to tally up all the outputs and inputs they can measure. But to be honest, there isn’t a really clear picture of the “return on investment”.

      And I’d argue that “return” in a bean-counting sense isn’t really the point. The revolutionary thing about lethal generosity is that it gives first and if that giving is done wisely, and is valued by the community, the giver will receive benefits later – both beans and bein’s (the stuff that makes human bein’s happy). Sounds mystical and fuzzy, but I think it just makes sense.

  3. Did you happen to notice, in your travels, whether tasters made it over to the businesses that are really suffering from this year’s construction season – I am thinking of Khatoon, Cozy’s and Vina del Mar specifically.

    1. Hey Miss V, A deep concern of mine as well and a big topic of conversation with the HEDC folks at the post mortem afterward.

      Good news and bad news. Bad news: much sparser attendance than in the West, but also many fewer participating establishments and bigger distances between them.

      Good news: it was much better than last year and the merchants I talked to seemed happy. Vina Del Mar ran out of food, and was whipping up special orders when I got there. Khatoon got a large inflatable “wavy man” from the BIA, and eventually turned it off because they were getting overwhelmed. Helen at Melrose was also doing fairly well, and the band outside the Elmdale drew a modest crowd.

      But it’s a critical mass / participation issue. It would be great to fill in the gaps with some of the food places that would be bigger “draws”: Hinos, Indian Express, Cyclogic, Spring Roll House, etc. But it’s also voluntary. Any thoughts?

  4. Very confused on the Viva Loca front…is this the same Viva Loca that’s between Starbucks and Bridgehead, open since last year? If so, what were they doing at TOWW? Or have they moved? And, yeah…co-opting space outside the GCTC, where Thyme and Again has a restuarant (the name fails me)…not cool.

    That said, my comment to Mark is that Viva Loca, if it is the same Viva Loca that I’m thinking of, does both in house and name brand foods…like the Bagel Shop. I agree though, that if their kitchen wasn’t ready they shouldn’t have participated (and thus, we passed them by).

  5. I love the definition that you shared. It sounds like the domino effect in generosity.

    But, yeah, can i give my own definition?

    Lethal Generosity: Acts of kindness that pushes people (unconsciously or consciously) to being ver dependent on charity.

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