Thursday, June 22, 2006

Ari Derfel & Eric Fenster, Back to Earth Podcast Interview Transcription

Today's transcript is from my interview with the founders of Back to Earth, an organic catering and outdoor adventure company. One of the things I've enjoyed the most about interviewing people for this podcast is seeing the similarities and connections that arise between people.

For example, both the owners of Back to Earth, and the Executive Director of People's Grocery talk about wanting to create community centers as their Big Visions, Ari echoes Alli Chagi-Starr's seed-planting metaphor, (I will be posting her interview soon), and all of the people I talked to recommend that if you want to be involved in social change work, one of the best ways to get started is by volunteering with an organization or campaign that interests you.

Ari and Eric are really wonderful people--they catered our wedding and Ari married us.

I hope that you enjoy their interview.

You can hear the orginal podcast on Gcast, Odeo or iTunes.

Britt: Hi. Welcome to the Big Vision podcast, where we talk with individuals and organizations who are creating positive change. My name is Britt Bravo, and in today's show I will be talking with the founders of Back to Earth, Eric Fenster and Ari Derfel. Back to Earth is a Bay Area organic catering and outdoor adventure company, and they have lots of good advice for folks who want to start a socially responsible business or organization. So, enjoy.

Ari: Hello. So the question on the table is, is what is and who is Back to Earth. So, we'll start by saying that Back to Earth is an organization, is a group of people, working together with a particular goal and focus in mind. And that is to help people to learn about themselves, to help people connect and learn more about community, and to help people connect more to the Earth. Because we really believe strongly that through self-understanding and self-awareness, through community involvement and community connectedness, and Earth awareness, that we can create a more sustainable, more joyful, more wonderful existence on this planet.

Where Back to Earth comes from is a couple of different places, and it's worth sharing that, so we can get a little bit of a... a clearer picture of what we're doing now. So the brief history is that Back to Earth was originated with a vision that Eric Fenster had when he was on a vision quest in the Owl's Head Mountains in... near Death Valley, California. Sitting there for five days, fasting, not eating, sitting by himself in the desert thinking, "What is it that I want to do on this planet?" What came to Eric was this vision of this beautiful place that had an organic restaurant in it, and there was a community center there, and there was a garden there, and people from the community were getting together and they were eating, and sharing, and learning, and playing music, and talking, and engaging in conscious, healthful living.

So Eric had this vision, he came back from the vision quest, and one of the people he shared it with was me. And he and I were working together at the time at the University of California at San Francisco. And after a number of very inspiring moments that we shared together, mostly in the wilderness, around teaching people, and building community in small groups of people at a time, we decided, you know what, let's make this happen. So we thought about it, well, what's the best way to go from this idea to this ultimate vision of a community center with a restaurant and all this interaction going on? And we looked around us, and we looked at what we had in terms of resources, and we realized, "Okay, I don't have a million dollars; you don't have a million dollars. Everyone else around us is going out and getting millions of dollars to try to just build some giant thing."

And right off the bat, we realized if we were going to do anything, the way that we needed to do it, and the way that we should do it, is by modeling the way the Earth does it: slowly, and organically, and patiently, the same way that a seed is germinated and turns into a sapling, becomes a small tree, and turns into a large one, and ultimately gives birth to more trees. And we said, "Let's do it the same way." So the first thing that we did was we started an outdoor organization, because it didn't require a lot of money. It's where we were already professionals and had expertise, and we found that it provided so much inspiration every time we had a positive community experience with a dozen people in the woods, that it would really help to sort of foster and manifest what we were trying to do.

So we started offering backpacking yoga trips. We started taking youth from inner cities, of places like Oakland and East Palo Alto, into the woods. We did a program called "We Can Surmount" which is like the AIDS ride, which was taking people who had been cancer survivors or affected by cancer, on to wilderness journeys. So the short version of it is that we started the outdoor company, and as we did that, and as we started growing the company and seeing that, wow, we can do something here and we can make this happen, we then were faced with a really interesting opportunity, and that was to cater an event for someone.

It kind of came out of an outdoor experience that we had led. We always made delicious organic gourmet food, so someone had asked us, "Would you cater this event?" We sat down thoughtfully and we spent a little time, and what we realized was most restaurants fail, most large ventures fail, fail when they're involving food, because they're so expensive, they're so hard to do, and it's difficult to do them right. So we realized, one thing that could be a really intelligent way to go about doing this would be, let's start a catering company first. Let's develop a following. Let's develop our recipes. Let's build a staff. Let's learn how to work the food world in the Bay Area, which is one of the most competitive food markets in the world. And that would most likely, if it's successful, make it much more likely that we can build a successful restaurant and community center. So, five years later, here we are.

The outdoor program, for a couple of years, is what did it, and then we turned into outdoor program slash organic catering company, and five years later we have a bustling organic catering company with six full time staff and 100 part time people, and we serve amazing organizations like the Breast Cancer Fund, and Clif bar, and Pachamama Alliance, and all these amazing organizations.

And we do lots of weddings, and constantly we provide people, through food, with this self-awareness, with this community awareness, and with this Earth connection, because people eat healthily, or they interact with our staff, and our staff is always vibrant, and positive, and happy, and engaging, so their self feels good, and then we teach them that our food comes locally, and that it's grown locally, and that we try to support local people, and that community connection is made. And then we talk about the importance of organics, and that Earth connection is made.

So that's how we're manifesting it, and we're just now getting ready to put our energy and direction into the bigger vision, which is making the community center happen, making the restaurant. Because we've met with this success, we have the confidence, and the resources, and the sense, and just the experience that a five-year-old tree has as opposed to trying to take a seed, and putting it in the microwave, and turning it into a tree. [laughter] So that's kind of the nuts and bolts, as I would say it, in a big long thing, and I would definitely invite Eric to now add on top of that, what's some of the energy and the spirit that maybe moved you, or whatnot?

Eric: That was well spoken. That's why I always let you speak. [laughter] You get up in front of the crowd and talk about it, it's great. So it... I think you covered it really, really well. And I think that the biggest addition is kind of what I was actually trying to start with, which is where I think the energy of the entire vision came from, which is a... which is... We're at a critical time on the planet right now, where there's so many people and there's so many people that are using an incredible amount of resources, and there's a disparity between those resources, and people are actually starting to wake up and realize that something's got to change. And a lot of people are responding to this calling, and we're really stepping up and trying to activate ourselves.

And the deepest purpose of what we're trying to do is to actually help this shift that is happening, this tipping point that is happening on the Earth right now that is raising a global consciousness around how we walk and tread on this planet, and how we can be more aware of our actions as a community, making the Earth a more sustainable place to live and just generally being... being really aware of our, really aware of our, of our impacts. And providing a solution and a place where people can turn to get some answers, to get some inspiration, and to really support a more sustainable practice on this planet.

So we're really ultimately impacting... our goal is to impact the spiritual and the psychological level, by even relating those into the business world and stepping into... Here's an entity that we've created that is driving change, not just through the material world, but also by opening people's minds to solutions and resolutions that are right here before us, and are fairly simple, but if they haven't actually turned that key, we're trying to help them open that.

Britt: What gave you faith in your vision and made you feel like you could do it and, and make it real?

Eric: The thing that was pretty amazing was coming back from having a really powerful vision and sharing that vision. There really wasn't ever a question on whether that was something that was going to manifest or not. It was, here was my vision, I'm sharing it with you because it's happening, it's already alive. And stepping into it, slowly, there's so many different ways that it could have manifested, and I think just the energy of itself kind of took off like a wave and has... I personally have been riding that wave and it feels like it almost gathers spirit and energy as it keeps flowing, flowing towards, you know, the shore.

And with each person that enters, there's more in the vision because each person is part of that same spirit and energy of it. So, for example, coming back and just sharing with Ari, I just knew he had already felt that inside of himself. And the two of us were able to catalyze even more power for this, for, for Back to Earth. And each time that we keep moving forward it just seems to have it's own momentum. And so yeah, the manifestation of visions is something that just isn't even a question inside of myself, and feels like that's just where I'm supposed to be and what I'm supposed to be doing at this moment.

Ari: Yeah, I would add two things to that that are fairly similar to what Eric said. The first is that I think, for me, and probably for him to a certain extent, what gave us the confidence to do it was, was definitely each other. That sense that here's this other person excited about this, willing to do this, and the sense that we both got from each other that there's a lot of competence and a lot of skill was there. And I think I can speak for me, Eric can speak for himself I think, when he first shared the idea with me and we first decided we wanted to do it, there was just an energy about it, there was a lot of love there. I think he and I had a lot of love for each other, and for the idea, and forwarding it was just a buzzing thing that said, "Here I am!"

And that's the other thing that I would say -- and I know you can relate to this because of the work you do, Creating a Life Worth Living and all that kind of stuff -- is part of having the confidence to do this is looking at it not even from a perspective of confidence -- and that's what Eric was even talking about -- responding to the energy of the Earth. This has been much more of a thing like, this is what you do. . . .[pause] It's the moving part that makes me cry, because it fills you with inspiration, it's not like, yeah I've got the confidence, I can do this, this is what I do. This is what Eric does. This is what we're here to do. How are we going to do it?

And if you wake up every day and you just know that's what you do, then you're just going to figure out, because I don't really want to do anything else, he doesn't really want to do anything else, so there's not really a choice. This is what we've got to do. And in that regard, it's about adjusting a lot of the way you approach things. It's not about making a living meaning I do some work to get money, it's about this is my living. My living is doing this; Eric's living is doing this.

So if other people are trying to get a sense of, "How could I do that?" Well, change your relationship with money, change your relationship with what you think making a living means, and change your relationship to what it means to make a living by thinking about it in the sense of, who are you, what do you do, what's inside of you, what is burning, what contributes, what empowers people, not what oppresses people, what adds, not takes away? And I just think that's the deep sort of... call it what you want -- religious, spiritual element of it -- that is, that makes the sixteen hour days sitting in front of a computer that is the most antithetical thing that either of use would do with our energy, palatable.

Britt: A lot of people feel like money is on one side and doing something good is on the other side, and you've been able to make a living doing something positive. Why do you think that is? Why has it worked?

Eric: The strongest answer, I would say, to the question of how can you do something that's going to feel good and also work financially for a lot of people is exactly what Ari was even just saying. It is analyzing what you're trying to get out of life and having faith and belief that if you make a shift, that things are just going to work out. And there's never been a question for us from the beginning that we were driven to make this work. And we needed to make it work on all levels, from financial, to sustainability, to sustaining the amount of time and energy we put in, which is not always the easiest thing to figure out.

But when all these things, when you pour your energy into something that you believe in, and that is going to be a positive contribution, it seems to actually just respond by working. So, I think ultimately, the biggest thing I would say for a recommendation for someone who is excited to make a shift is just believe that it's going to work, and know that if you take that jump and that leap, that you can trust yourself, and trust that the universe will actually take care of you.

And for the first three years of running Back to Earth we had this fun concept of financial karma that we kept on throwing around, which is that if we keep pouring energy into what we do, that it will karmically come back and take care of us. And finally it seems that we are shifting into a place as our team grows and as our vision grows, and as our business grows, that everything really is aligning to take care of each and every one of us, and we're really supporting the community, and ourselves, and we're supporting businesses and individuals that are actually making a positive difference. So as we're making a positive difference, we're actually in this network of support of all these incredible organizations and human beings who are doing wildly amazing work, and it almost just raises each of us up to the highest level. So it's actually really powerful when you tap into the flow of amazing work.

Ari: When we talk about this, we clearly come from an energetic place, a lot of the time. A big 'and' to add to Eric -- is when you look at sort of just the quantifiable logistics of what makes it work, you can't separate out... particularly, if you want to find that inspiration to do something good and make a living. Everything Eric said is important; you need to come out of that approach. At the same time, the first two years of Back to Earth, I had a full time job, Eric was working full time. So there, two years of making your company happen, with full time jobs, coming home, working till two in the morning and working, on the weekends all the time. So when people think about, "Oh, I want to do this," be clear. Be real.

It is not easy to be a warrior for good on this planet right now. You have to be willing to say, "I'm not going to go out and party as much and do this as much and do that as much because this is more important, and through my work I will hopefully find that joy and that inspiration that happens." So that's one huge element of it, and there's other things that Eric and I definitely have. The first that's always worth noting is that even without wealth... If Eric and I don't have individual wealth compared to what wealth is in this country, we still have a wealth that surpasses most people in the world. We're not married; we don't have kids; we don't own homes. Right, so all these things together, if you've got a lot of passion and you don't have those things to think about, and you're willing to change your relationship with money, you can go ahead and do it.

So now if somebody wants to do this and find an inspiration to start, they need to think about those things. And that's part of why it's great to have another person who you trust, and who is equally inspired, and who you really know you're seeing everything eye-to-eye on because you can help each other figure those things out and work through those challenging times because on that reality-logistics level it's not easy. And that's been the sacrifice we've made with our lives. So you just, you need to be there.

And I think what we share is that being there is less of an issue or a question. We're just lucky we were made that way, the color red's the color red. So if someone isn't made that way, then cool. Talk to people like us, talk to you, find out how to make that happen, because it is there. It's paradigm shift. It's thinking about it differently.

Britt: Do either of you have anything to add for folks who are interested in starting a business? Any other tips, or advice?

Ari: First of all, if you want to do it, do it. Second of all, if anyone tells you can't do it, that's one less person you have to compete with on the road to making it happen. Third, do not fall into that trap that says you need to have a business plan before you go ahead and do anything, that's a giant myth. You need to have clear sense and focus, and an intelligent approach, but you don't need to wait your whole life until you have a 40-page business plan to start doing what it is you need to do.

And then get help. Get advice. And the more you try to find out from people who know, who can help you, the more you can avoid falling into holes and getting yourself into trouble for things that would hold you up that you don't need to be held up for. And that's kind of vague, but it just means like, speak to someone and find out, should I be nonprofit, should I be a C corporation, should I be an S corporation, what's the difference? And when you find out, what do I need to know, and how much does it cost, and can I talk to someone about all of the little nuts and bolts? Because those are the things that usually get you -- when you're going from idea, to project, to "ooh-I-got-some-business," to small business, to medium-size -- you get those snags. And if you can find people who are willing to talk, that's a good way to do it, and we're those kinds of people. I'd add, that's my thought.

Eric: I'll add, to get excited, to be passionate, and enjoy every moment of tinkering and figuring out everything as you go, because it is a journey and it will take you on a roller coaster ride, but it's fun and you can laugh about it the entire time, so enjoy it.

Britt: Thanks for listening to the Big Vision podcast. For more information about Back to Earth, go to And if you liked the opening music, it was an excerpt from Kenya Masala's "Mango Delight". You can learn more about Kenya's work and his music by going to And finally, if you want more information about Big Vision career and Project Consulting, you can check out my website, at Thanks for listening!

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  1. What a nice one. Took me about 10 minutes to read it all but it's fascinating.

    Good job Britt.

    ps: I agree with starting by volunteering with a campaign or organization that interest you.

    Mihai Traistariu

  2. Anonymous11:14 AM

    I have actually used their services for one of my parties and their food was not very good. They have a good idea but really need to improve up the quality of food and service they provide.

  3. I'm sorry you didn't have a good experience with them. They catered our wedding and we still have people who tell us that it was the best wedding reception food they've ever had.

  4. alex tamburro2:59 PM

    I've experienced Back to Earth for an event, everything was so fresh and delicious, I was amazed how unique their food was from a traditional caterer...and the staff seemed truly happy to be serving, a rarity in the food service biz...
    It is also refreshing to see a company that values something other than only the $$$.
    keep up the good work, good luck!


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