When Katie Johnston couldn’t find enough philanthropists to fund her social justice projects, she decided to become one herself.
That was no easy task, especially for a young woman with no business experience. But she was – and still is – a woman on a mission. That mission is to genuinely make a difference by assisting some of the world’s most disadvantaged people escape poverty – a lofty goal, but one that she is well on her way to realising.
Katie is the director and founder of EATS, a certified social enterprise that appears as an ordinary restaurant but is so much more.
Her work resulted in a nomination as a finalist in this year’s Young Business Woman of the Year category in the Sunshine Coast Business Women’s Network (SCBWN) Awards. Last year, EATS was a finalist in the Social Impact category of the Sunshine Coast Business Awards.
Katie describes EATS as a true social enterprise – a business that operates for profit but then invests that profit
in purpose-driven activities. The profits go to two areas: expanding the business and helping others.
The aim is to empower people who do not have the financial resources themselves by offering them the opportunity to run and profit-share in their own café,
as well as offering formal training opportunities in the hospitality sector.
The business model is one that aims to be self-sustainable, with inspiration taken from huge franchises such as McDonalds, so the systems in place can be easily maintained by managers and Katie can focus on expansion.
The extensive EATS menu features what Katie calls “classic Aussie favourites”, with a range of burgers, salads, all-day breakfasts, toasties, wraps and more.
“A lot of our work behind the scenes engages disadvantaged youth and helps set them up for life so they can escape generational poverty,” Katie says. “It’s pretty cool, and it definitely gives a lot of fire in the belly.”
That fire has been burning for Katie since as a young woman she was confronted with the sight of people with rotting limbs on a street in Thailand.
“For the first time ever, I saw really hardcore poverty. You’ve got people in Gucci walking past other people with maggots crawling through their legs. It really solidified for me that there is inequality and injustice, and the world is out of balance everywhere,” she says.
“That experience kind of really shook me awake.
I thought, I just can’t do this with my eyes closed anymore. Since then, I’ve been trying to make a difference in the world.”
She also credits her upbringing on a farm in rural New South Wales with instilling in her the values of resilience, persistence and hard work.
“When you grow up on a working farm and that’s your livelihood, and you have a seven-year drought, you learn to harden the f***k up. There are so many things that are out of your control. I know it’s kind of cliché but you’ve got to get up and dust yourself off and go again. And you just become more and more resilient because of that. Challenges should be embraced, not avoided.
“My dad always had a positive attitude, even though he’s gone through such hard times. But every day he would jump out of bed because he had a purpose and a passion to feed the world.”
Katie, who studied behavioural science and organisational psychology at university, worked with social enterprise groups in Kenya, where she worked on a project building food forests, and in Nepal, with an organisation that empowers women to run their own businesses.
But she grew increasingly frustrated by the extreme difficulties in securing funding for the projects. It was while venting this frustration to a business consultant friend that he suggested she start her own business. They chose the restaurant industry, as it was a high-flow business and offered the chance to engage a lot of people.
She launched the first EATS at the Eumundi Markets in 2018, and opened another about a year later at Sunshine Plaza, Maroochydore. She is excited to announce that another four EATS will open before the end of the year, with three on the Coast and one in Brisbane. Work is also underway to open an EATS in Peru, South America, where Katie aims to replicate her business model and partner with some of the poorest communities in that country.
“We’re also partnering up with SevGen, an Indigenous not-for-profit organisation, and we’ll be bringing kids out who are troubled youth from the desert country to do paid internships,” says Katie. “So that’s a pretty cool project we’ve got on the brew.
“Our goal is to go nationwide, and international. And we’ve got the mentors and contacts and, hopefully soon, the resources to be able to do that.
“We’re a for-purpose driven business, so our little fears and insecurities just fall to the wayside when you’ve got people who are starving and dying, and you can change