Imagine hummus in 2013. Can’t remember? We can tell you – it was not good.
Lebanese Manal Kahi had the exact same thought when coming to the U.S. for her master’s degree in International Affairs. She was surprised by how popular the dip was and even more surprised when people said how great it tasted. As popular as these brands were, pre-packaged foods never taste as good as if you cook it yourself. And for Manal, it was common to have great quality products since she grew up with an orchard outside her home that was filled with tomatoes, lemons, parsley and other vegetables. Having all of these fresh ingredients, it was impossible for there to be pre-packaged hummus or tabbouleh on her family’s dinner table.
So when she decided that she didn’t want to continue eating supermarket hummus anymore, Manal started making her own and bringing it to her friends’ parties and events. After so many compliments and requests, Manal knew there was a gap in the market for hummus that she could fill. When thinking “who can bring really good hummus to the U.S.!?”, it was a no-brainer for both Manal and her brother, who grew up in a family that created it fresh every day and whose recipe was passed down through generations.
At the same time, the Syrian refugee crisis was continuing to worsen, and many refugees were searching for a better life in the U.S. Manal herself had to leave Lebanon because of the intense turmoil and living in the U.S., she felt powerless watching the devastation in her country. She wanted to help her people but wasn’t sure how to do that across the world. After thinking about the crisis non-stop, Manal connected the dots and found a way to be useful to those who were suffering in the midst of the crisis. She contacted the International Rescue Committee, an agency that helps refugees resettle and find housing, employment, childcare and education. Her initial idea was to solely hire Syrian refugees to make hummus and other kind of authentic Middle Eastern meals. But she quickly found out that hummus in the U.S. was a market that was completely over-saturated and very competitive price-wise. And after seeing so much potential and diversity in the refugees, Manal decided to expand her idea. She started to create a community that would open it’s doors for refugees that came to NYC looking for a job and allow them to create the dishes authentic to their culture. Now, refugees from countries such as Afghanistan, Senegal, Sri Lanka, and Guinea replicate the meals that they cooked back home and deliver them to hungry New Yorkers. That is how Eat Offbeat started in 2015.
Eat Offbeat is a social impact catering company that serves authentic meals made by talented refugees. They cater office lunches, happy hours, private parties and large conferences. The company’s goals are to introduce New Yorkers to real, authentic food products, to build bridges between those eating the food and the refugees who make it, and to flip the narrative to what it means to be a refugee. Most importantly, they focus on erasing the negative connotation around the word “refugee” and educating customers about the human beings behind the food at Eat Offbeat. Because of these refugees, Eat Offbeat is still able to be in business. The refugees themselves are the ones who come up with the recipes, and then are trained over a four to five month period in order to have the recipes standardized and scaled to feed larger groups of people for catering. Over 40 refugee chefs have been trained since Eat Offbeat began by exceptional people like Chef Juan, a Michelin star chef who works with Manal and her team to give each chef the kitchen skills needed to produce their dishes on a daily basis. In addition, these refugees take a lot of pride in their work. All of the dishes served include a small description and a picture of the chef who prepared it. It is part of the company’s mission to ensure that the refugees are being represented and are part of the consumer’s experience. Any dish served is served as a dish from a particular refugee, not the company itself. Giving the chef ownership of their dish restores dignity for an individual that has lost everything and has to start over again in a country separated from their family and friends.
But as in any business, challenges arise. When asked, Manal said her two biggest challenges are the margins on food being too low, and the perception of being a non-profit organization. From an investor’s point of view, Eat Offbeat is sometimes seen as a business that is less aggressive or less profitable because of having refugees as employees and being looked as a non-profit. From a customer’s point of view, the initial thought is usually “Oh, it’s a cute non-profit that supports refugees. They probably are too small to cater for us” (Manal). Manal finds that many customer assume they are a non-profit and can provide free food or discounted food for events or meals. However, she runs a business just like any other restaurant, so changing the way consumers see them is something her team is working on. However, Manal believes that despite these challenges, the impact the business has on the refugees they employ is worth the struggle. “All the effort, all the trouble and all the challenges are worth at the end of the day. Knowing customers are trying something completely new and exotic, and that they are happy motivates our chefs. They are kind of taking a step off the beaten path, and trying to be more open minded to where food comes from; connecting with our team, with immigrants and their status” (Manal).
An open mind brings more opportunities. This is how Manal wants consumers to start thinking when connecting with her business. It is very important for her to build a personal connection between Eat Offbeat’s mission and the customers that order from them. Manal says, “for me, we have achieved our mission if someone tries chef Nazreen’s chicken and goes crazy for it, automatically associating Iran with that dish, rather than anything else they may have heard about Iran or what they think about Iran’s problems. So instead, when they think about Iran, they will think about Nazreen and how amazing the flavors of the chicken were. And how lovely Nazreen is, rather than any preconceived notions they may have had about the country” (Manal). Human connection beyond food is what many food businesses strive to have. These refugees learned in the kitchen with their mothers and grandmothers while most of us find inspiration through blogs and websites. Consumers today don’t have the personal connection that they once had with food, mainly because of the digital era we are in. It’s very rare to have a connection with the people that produce our food but that’s what Eat Offbeat is hoping to change. Manal wants to reconnect people with food and let them know more about who cooked the food arrives on their plates.
Eat Offbeat is a company where they shed light the skills of their refugees, rather than what their status represents. They are refugees by status, but chefs by nature.
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