Manal Kahi, Co-Founder of Eat Offbeat

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).

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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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Einat Admony, Owner of Taïm

This is Einat Admony, the owner of Taïm. Born in Israel, she grew up eating Yemenite and Persian food, in addition to Moroccan and Eastern European dishes. She was a curious girl that loved exploring, especially different cuisines and cultures. From a young age, Einat would always help her mother prepare the Shabbat dinner. When she turned eighteen, she served both as a driver and ad hoc cook in the Israeli Army, where she understood that cooking was her real passion and that it was something she would never get bored of. After spending a few months traveling, she came to New York City to begin her culinary career as a chef. 

Einat spent seven years working in different fine dining restaurants such as Patria, Bolo, Tabla and Danube in New York. Because she loves to travel and learn from other cultures, Einat knew the best way to immerse herself in these cultures was to work in restaurants with differing cuisines and familiarize herself with their dishes. These greater experiences made Einat want to start building an empire of her own. In 2005, she opened Taïm: a fast-casual Mediterranean restaurant in the West Village. Realizing many people did not know exactly what Israeli/Jewish food looked like, Einat knew she had to change that. “Israeli food is much more colorful, full of flavors, with spices and layers of excitement that many people do not imagine it to be!”. That said, Taïm is the ultimate representation of how people should eat Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food!

Surprisingly enough, Einat mentions how easy it was to open her first Taïm location. It took Einat and her husband just a couple of months! As we all know, competition wasn’t as fierce and harsh as it is nowadays. And since she did not have any children yet, Einat and her husband had more flexibility on spending longer evenings at the restaurant and building the business.

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After seeing the extensive line of hungry customers craving more and more of her delicious falafel, Einat decided to expand to other locations in Nolita and Midtown. And when dreaming even bigger, Einat and her husband decided to explore nearby cities for growth. Both found that Washington D.C. could be the perfect hub to expand their business. Besides D.C. being very culturally well-rounded, its proximity to NYC made the most sense as to the expansion to a new state. 

So what is chef’s Einat hidden secret to Taïm’s success?! She mentions there are many in order to keep a busy restaurant running, but you always need a key differentiator to keep people coming. For Taïm, Einat is confident about her falafel! In Israel, according to Einat, eating falafel is as cheap as eating a slice of street pizza in NYC. She grew up being surrounded by it, especially because her mother would always make them. But when creating her own, it took her many months to perfect her recipe because she wanted it to be the item that Taïm is known for. Knowing the methods used to prepare the food as well as cook it was very important to her. For Einat, making falafel requires the freshest ingredients, the correct seasonings and flavors, the perfect amount of chickpeas, and the right texture – “crispy, crunchy on the outside but moist on the inside” (Taïm). There are many other restaurants that offer falafel, but many of them leave your plate filled with oil. This is a no-go at Taïm, where falafel are fried but to the precise moment where they don’t become greasy. To Einat, this is a very important difference, it provides customers with richly-flavored products while still keeping them healthy. 

Besides falafel,  Taïm serves a vast amount of other healthy, fresh menu options – many of which are vegan. Having vegan and vegetarian dishes for Einat is extremely important, as she wants to educate more consumers on the importance of cutting down on animal products for health and environmental reasons. Her focus on healthy dishes directly correlates Taïm’s identity of being “a vegetarian mecca, a vegan temple”. 

Educating customers about Israeli food and vegetarian choices as well as watching them enjoy her food and seeing the happiness that it brings them are the many rewards of the business, Einat says. With the amazing team she currently works with and her husband’s constant involvement, Einat is confident that she will be able to expand the business further as time goes on. Although it’s challenging to do so in NYC, due to the intense competition in the market, Einat says, ” if you make it in NYC’s market, you can scale up anywhere!”.

It is always easier to compete with others when doing something one loves and is passionate for like Einat with cooking. She is motivated to continue cooking and can’t imagine what it would be like if she couldn’t. Experimenting in the kitchen is what keeps her going; it is her fuel. Inspiration, she says, comes from multiple sources: colors, music, flowers and other food creations. One just needs to dig deep and find them!



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Rohan Aggarwal, Co-Owner of Queens Bully

This is Rohan Aggarwal, the co-owner of Queens Bully. A first generation Indian American, Rohan was born and raised in Queens, New York and was immersed in the food industry from a very young age. Growing up Rohan’s father owned a chain of Indian restaurants, so from the time he was five or six years old, his weekends and summers were spent working there. He started out cleaning dishes and busing tables, then doing deliveries and, as he got older, worked his way up to serving and bartending. Although he admits that there were periods of time where he disliked the work, he says that he was drawn towards a career in the restaurant industry because “it runs in my blood”. It’s a business that he’s always known and had a passion for and despite the difficulties, he loves it. It was this passion that lead him to ask his father if he could take over the lease for one of his restaurant locations on Queens Boulevard that had closed down two years beforehand. In 2016, Rohan and his friend, Suraj Patel, took over the space and created Queens Bully, a multi-faceted barbecue restaurant that was designed specifically for the neighborhood to love and enjoy. Their focus on building a culture where everyone is treated like family has turned Queens Bully into a neighborhood hotspot where different people of different ages and different ethnicities all feel at home.

Rohan studied hospitality management in college and after spending a year in India learning Indian cooking techniques and helping to operate his family’s restaurant there, he returned to the U.S. and started working full-time for his father. He was placed at Devi, a standalone location that wasn’t part of the restaurant chain, and began running it’s operations. It was there that he saw a need for a caterer with unique offerings rather than your typical Indian food and expanded the business into catering. However, as Rohan came up with new dishes that tied Indian flavors into other cuisines and curated menus to reach a wider variety of customers, he started getting pushback from his chef. The chef had his own way of doing things and didn’t want to get onboard with these new ideas. Since Rohan had only had front of house training in the past, he wasn’t able to communicate on the same level with the chef and make him understand what was needed and why. He realized that his lack of cooking knowledge made him dependent on the chef for the business to function, which wasn’t something he felt comfortable with, so he enrolled in the Institute of Culinary Education. When he graduated from culinary school in 2014, he continued running catering operations for Devi, despite the fact that they had to close the physical location in 2015. He would rent out a commissary kitchen and have the chefs from Devi come in and cook, piecing together the orders as they came. However, the catering business didn’t last long without a standing space to cook from. It was during this time that Rohan and Suraj had started brainstorming about opening their own restaurant. They both lived in the neighborhood and saw it undergoing rapid gentrification and felt that it was needing something different for the community to enjoy. And since they had the space where they envisioned it existing, they started developing their business plan. When Rohan approached his parents with his plan, they were hesitant at first. They didn’t want him to be in the food business because they knew how hard it was. But once they saw his motivation to run his own place and prove that he could do it, they agreed to let him take over the lease for the space. After a few months of construction, Queens Bully officially opened in July 2017.

Queens Bully

Rohan decided to focus Queens Bully around barbecue as an homage to his father. As an immigrant to the U.S., his father was always fascinated with barbecue as a cuisine and planned to open up an American barbecue restaurant at some point in his career. Unfortunately he never got around to opening the concept so Rohan wanted to do it for him and create a place that his father would be proud of. He and Suraj collaborated with their chefs to make barbecue the base of the menu but made sure to incorporate different flavors and put their own twist on certain recipes to showcase the diversities of Queens. Although they have their top selling items that they can never take off the menu, they do change the menu about twice a year to incorporate seasonal items. A lot of the inspiration for new menu items comes from Rohan or Suraj- from places that they’ve traveled or restaurants where they’ve eaten- but they’re also very open to suggestions from their team. Whenever anyone comes up with an idea, they’ll take it into consideration, play around with it and do it as a special one night to see the reaction from customers. If it goes over well, they add it to the menu. For Rohan, one of the best parts about opening Queens Bully is that there are no rules on the menu. So even though their focus is barbecue, their menu is so broad that they can get away with serving any sort of item, which Rohan loves because it allows him to be creative and play around with a bunch of different flavors.

The name Queens Bully refers to Queens Boulevard, which a lot of Queens natives call “Queens Bully” for short. Rohan says that he and Suraj used the term a lot when they used to park in the area and take the train to wherever they would go out in the city or in Brooklyn. Over the years, they started questioning why they were going out in other boroughs rather than staying local and realized that the problem was finding a place near them in Queens that served good cocktails and beers, had great food and a nice ambiance. They realized that other people in the area must be having this same issue and that there was a really big area of the market being missed. So when opening Queens Bully, they really tried to focus on creating a space in their neighborhood that incorporated all of those different factors that they craved from other establishments. Combining those ingredients together has developed a unique culture that makes them stand out from other restaurants. They’ve built a welcoming environment by treating each customer as if they are a part of their family and designing a restaurant layout that works for a couple that’s going out for a date night as well as a bunch of guys who want to watch the game during happy hour. They’ve been able to create an atmosphere that works for any group of people because it’s very laidback and comfortable and doesn’t try to define itself as a specific establishment. It’s all about what the customer is looking for from the experience and working to meet those expectations. For Rohan, running a business that appeals to and meet the needs of so many different people is a very fulfilling feeling. Having created a neighborhood hangout that attracts such a wide variety of men and women shows him that they have created a change in the neighborhood and that people appreciate them being there.

Although customers love the culture at Queens Bully, Rohan says that the toughest part of the business is creating an environment that your employees trust and getting your employees to see the same vision that you do. Rohan had never created a team culture for employees before Queens Bully so he’s dedicated a lot of time to working with each member of his team so that they understand where he sees Queens Bully going and how he or she is a part of that growth. He wants his staff to be excited about what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis and continue learning, innovating and creating to improve their current operations. In regards to the future of Queens Bully, Rohan is clear that Queens Bully will only be one location, since it was built specifically for it’s neighborhood and just that space. As Rohan says “this concept was strictly made for these four walls”. However, once things are running smoothly with Queens Bully, he does plan on starting a larger hospitality group with Suraj. Seeing himself and his team become leaders in the hospitality industry and create wonderful concepts for people to enjoy is what keeps him motivated. They already have a few concepts that they’ve brainstormed and have been working on but they’re focused on finding the perfect fit location and neighborhood-wise. Rohan says that above everything else, what he’s learned from Queens Bully is that neighborhood matters and if you’re not creating something for the neighborhood, it won’t work.



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Antoine Skrzypek, Owner of Cassava House

This is Antoine Skrzypek, the owner of Cassava House. Growing up in Paris, Antoine says that there was always something going on in his kitchen at home and he always loved to cook. As a young boy, he would frequently bounce back and forth between helping his mother in the kitchen and helping his father outside (repairing things around the house or gardening) until one of them got fed up with him and would send him back to the other. Although he never went to culinary school, Antoine says he was lucky enough to be taught next to the greatest chef in the world- his mother. A small Spanish woman who grew up near Madrid, his mother didn’t have any formal culinary training either but rather learned how to cook out of necessity, as she was the youngest in her family and was expected to help her mother in the kitchen. However, her skills paid off when she moved to Paris and began cooking professionally as a chef in people’s homes and catering dinner parties. Antoine would spend his days watching her cook and learning from her as she created meals for their family and entertained friends who were constantly coming over to eat her amazing food. Despite his passion for food, Antoine never sought it as a career because he didn’t have an official culinary background. In France there was a certain expectation about how a chef should be qualified in order to work in a restaurant, so he was hesitant to take that step into the industry. Instead he stuck to more practical occupations with the thought that he could one day pursue it. In 2017, Antoine opened Cassava House and was finally able to realize the dream he had always had for himself- providing joy to others with the food that he grew up eating.

Antoine’s first job was repairing computers. His father was a builder so Antoine had gotten very good at using his hands and was interested in the mechanical part of the tech industry that had just started developing at that time. He went back to school for two years to learn the trade and ended up getting a great opportunity to be a part of the first company in Paris to work for Apple. However, after two or three years, Apple had come up with technology that made repairing computers unnecessary. Antoine got frustrated and unhappy working with electronic equipment and decided to leave the company, jumping briefly into a role at a restaurant in Paris before deciding to join his friend on a trip to New York. After working in a position that wasn’t fulfilling for him, he says he wanted to do some exploring and see what other opportunities were out there. So he packed his bags and bought a ticket to New York, telling his parents, “If I stay, I stay. If not, I’ll come back.” However, it didn’t take him too long to find an apartment, find a job and get going. He stayed in New York for a year, then spent a few months in Miami working at a restaurant before moving to Seattle for six months and then finally settling back in New York. Living in New York, he noticed that between his roommates and friends, there was always someone who needed something fixed or something built that he was willing and able to help with. It went from Antoine building a loft bed to putting tiles in a bathroom and continued growing. Little by little he started taking on larger projects until he needed to hire someone to help him and then another person and then another. Eventually he started running his own interior renovation business but his passion for food never went away. He would work a whole day and then come home and put himself in front of the stove for an hour and half to make a meal for his family. He found himself cooking for his team and catering dinners for friends but still, the renovation business was working for him so he continued to stick with it.

About thirteen years ago, Antoine stumbled upon bubble tea in Chinatown and got really interested in how he could create a clean, natural version of the jelly and fake syrup that other places were using. Unfortunately he soon realized that he wouldn’t be able to make a satisfactory product because the natural juices didn’t blend well and it would be too expensive to make his own, so he gave up the idea. But, having come up with Cassava House for this concept (bubble tea is made out of cassava), he decided to keep the business name just in case he had a chance to revisit it in the future. That chance came four years ago when he realized that he didn’t want to be a contractor anymore. He was no longer interested in his work or motivated by it. He wasn’t happy waking up to do renovation anymore but what did make him happy was cooking. He decided that after so many years being passionate about food, he had to give himself the chance to run his own food business. So he got a business partner to take over the renovation business and he took the next two years to look for a spot for his restaurant, renovate it and prepare a menu. By this point, he had given up on the bubble tea idea because he realized that it wasn’t as healthy or clean as a normal juice. So he started creating a menu for fresh-pressed juices, smoothies, breakfast items, sandwiches and salad that was influenced by the food that he grew up eating and focused on healthy, clean ingredients. For Antoine, it was key that they make everything they could in house- their salad dressings, their condiments, their soups- so that he knew exactly what was going into the food and to keep things from getting overprocessed with unnatural additives. He wanted to keep everything as healthy as possible so he made sure that he could be in control of the items on his menu.

Cassava House Outside

Antoine believes that their focus on healthy ingredients combined with their unique flavors and their ability to appeal to plant-based, vegetarian and meat-heavy customers is what sets Cassava House apart from other restaurants. They have an extensive vegan menu and all of their sandwiches can be transformed to satisfy a vegan diet. Antoine says that this wasn’t a specific choice that they made or something that they thought needed to be done to meet a demand in the market, it was just natural for him because he grew up with that kind of cooking. They didn’t eat meat every day at the table in his house, his mother came up with her own ways to incorporate protein without meat, so it was normal for him to have that reflected in his menu. And it felt right that he use some of his mother’s recipes throughout the menu as well. Which is why the way they do things at Cassava House is really unlike the way it’s done anywhere else. A lot of their flavors are different because they combine ingredients that customers wouldn’t necessarily expect to go together. It creates an entire experience around the food because it causes customers to think through their palate and try to pick out the flavors that they’re tasting. Antoine says that watching customers try the food and seeing the surprise on their face when they taste something unexpected is the most rewarding part of the business for him. Those reactions have made him realize that the food is different but also brings people joy because it’s something new that they’ve never tried before. There’s a double reaction where they’re satisfied but also surprised by the flavors in a great, fun way and hearing compliments from customers on top of that is even more rewarding. Hearing people say that it’s “original”, “great”, “unexpected”, “unique” and seeing them react to the recipes that seem so normal to him will never get old for him. He created the menu items to be food that you want to sit down, savor and enjoy. He doesn’t just want to feed people, he wants them to be happy with what they eat and taste the difference of food that satisfies your palate.

Since the business started two years ago, the menu has definitely expanded. Antoine says that he has an endless list of sandwiches that he’s always working on and he pays a lot of attention to feedback from customers to see what items they like or don’t like so they can adapt the menu accordingly. As a business owner, the brainstorming of recipes and the introduction of new menu items keeps him motivated to continue exciting his customers with the unexpected. Right now he’s working with their chef, Laura, who’s vegan, to start exploring more vegan protein options and work towards creating sandwiches around them. But staying on top of what customers may and may not like is difficult, especially when you’re trying to create items that people can eat every day. You don’t want to introduce a new item that isn’t up to par with your current offerings and lose potential future customers. Which is why Antoine focuses on keeping everything very consistent so that customers can come into the restaurant multiple days in a row and always have their food taste the exact same. Antoine admits that the food consistency is challenging but after so many years, dealing with these issues doesn’t bother him because he’s finally in an industry that he’s passionate about.


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Stephanie Acurio, Founder of The Rollin’ Oat

This is Stephanie Acurio, the founder of The Rollin’ Oat, a mobile oatmeal bar that is committed to redefining the way consumers think about this staple breakfast item. Born in Peru, Stephanie moved to Miami, Florida with her family when she was 13 years old after her father retired from the Peruvian Navy. Independent from a young age, she started working in the restaurant industry as a bus girl when she was 15 but really got involved in hospitality while she was in school for interior design at The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. Over the course of her program, she worked in many different positions at a lot of different restaurants, from Asian fusion to seafood to Italian, and started getting more involved in food, cooking a lot and researching recipes for different cuisines to use the skills that she was learning at each place. She says that it was during this time that she really fell in love with food and working in diverse establishments made her appreciate different types of food and their unique flavors. Stephanie was also very much in love with New York, where she had access to so many cuisines all in one place. She visited every chance she got because she loved the fast-paced vibe and that each day you were able to interact with new people and see new places. She felt that she was getting comfortable in Miami and wanted to challenge herself to do something new so she decided to move to New York by herself in the summer of 2016. As she began working in New York, she found that during her commute there were a lot of breakfast items, like bagels and scones, that were full of carbs and sugars, but nothing healthy and filling, like oatmeal, that she could take on the go. It was out of this realization that The Rollin’ Oat was born. This mobile business has not only revolutionized oatmeal, proving that a “fast food” item can be unique, healthy and delicious, it’s also made oatmeal more approachable for adults with sweet and savory options that make you see breakfast from a new perspective.

Although Stephanie had a heavy background in food, when she moved to New York she decided to switch careers and go into sales. She got hired at Equinox and worked there for the next two and a half years. Working at Equinox introduced her to the health and fitness industry and made her realize the importance of combining exercise and clean eating to maintain a healthy lifestyle. She found herself trying to balance her foodie habits with eating healthy, which was especially difficult when it came to breakfast given her fast-paced lifestyle. She loved oatmeal because it was tasty and full of health benefits but whenever she bought it, she found that it was always loaded with milk and sugar and had the same boring toppings. She began asking herself, “What are my options here? How can I take this to work?” In 2018 she left Equinox and started working in a corporate role in the financial district in Jersey City. And although this building had a food hall on first floor with a ton of options for lunch, there were no breakfast options. Again she had run into the same issue of where she could go to get a healthy breakfast. She thought that if someone could just open a portable oatmeal bar with different fruits and toppings, they would do so well because there was so much foot traffic in the area between people commuting to and from the city- it was a huge, untapped market to sell to. At this point she had already realized that her new job wasn’t working out for her because it wasn’t the role that she was expecting and she didn’t like to sit behind a desk, so she started playing around with oatmeal and putting different toppings on it. Since she had already had the idea in her head and felt like she had enough money saved to get the business off the ground, she decided to create it herself. She had always wanted to be her own boss and knew at some point that she would run her own business, so she trusted herself and took a leap of faith. She quit her corporate job in October and by the end of February, she had her first event booked.

From the very beginning Stephanie had a vision of what her business would be and who she would sell to: health conscious adults that could see the value in the nutrition factor of the oatmeal but could also appreciate the uniqueness of the product. However, figuring out the logistics to get the business up and running was much more difficult than she expected. Although she wanted her idea to come to life and be successful, after five months in business Stephanie admits that the most challenging part of the business so far has been creating it by herself. Since no one had created a concept like this before, she had no frame of reference of where to get started and she didn’t have any connections in the food industry in New York to ask for help or advice. She realized that she would have to figure everything out on her own and started doing tons of research, staying glued to her computer for hours every day. She began examining other food cart concepts in the U.S. and internationally and ended up getting her cart from a company in Seattle. But since she needed both hot and cold compartments in the cart (hot for oatmeal, cold for toppings) she had to further customize the cart to what she needed. After figuring out the measurements through trial and error, she was able to create a space for a cooler on one side of the cart and then drilled two holes for the pots of oatmeal on the other. Once she had the cart ready, she learned that she was required to cook all of the food in a commercial kitchen in order to be able to sell from a cart. She needed to be in a space with the proper cleaning supplies and equipment to make sure that her food was being held to the same standards as a restaurant’s food would be, so she began renting a commercial kitchen space in Jersey City. After renting the kitchen, she thought she just had to get permits for the cart to move it wherever she wanted to sell. However, after calling a ton of people and asking a lot of questions, she found out that a permit is required in each city that you sell in unless you’re doing a private event. With this information, she was able to get a permit to sell in Jersey City. But, as her business expands, she’ll need to start the process over again in each city that she wants to sell in.

Rollin Oat Cart

The positive side of building the business on her own is the fact that Stephanie is now in control of every aspect of it, from the menu to the logo/branding to her social media, all of it comes from her. With only one hourly employee who helps her with big events and her boyfriend who helps her with networking, she truly is a one woman operation. She came up with all of the recipes for her pre-made bowl options (bananas foster, s’mores and margherita, just to name a few) and is continually thinking of new recipes to taste test or new offerings that she can provide to improve her customers’ experience. Although her business started with the oatmeal bar as it’s only product and her events were going well, she felt that things were beginning to slow down as the summer approached. She realized that consumers may not want hot oatmeal in the summer so she came up with her overnight oats, which she pitched as a new summer product and sampled at companies where she had already done events. She now has a delivery service set up so that clients can order their overnight oats on Friday for the following week and stock them in their fridge at the office. Another new product that she launched for the summer is her oat milk. She realized that she was buying a lot of oat milk to make the overnight oats and decided to cut out the middle man and start making it herself. She looked up a recipe and made it over and over again until she figured out her own flavor and recipe that she could generate in large quantities. For Stephanie, the most rewarding part of the business has been feedback from the customers. When things get stressful or she gets worried that a recipe won’t work but then she hears customers raving about the food or the business concept itself, that to her is priceless. Which is why it’s important to her that The Rollin’ Oat always has something new and exciting for customers to be surprised by and look forward to. She’s always been a person who looks for and embraces change so she doesn’t want to keep just the same five or ten bowls on the menu. She wants to keep it fresh and change up the bowls every month so that she can continue expanding the idea of what oatmeal can be. And when times get tough, the feedback from customers is what keeps her going because it lets her know that her business idea is going to work.

Stephanie says that jumping into the fitness industry at Equinox and getting that sales training was so beneficial because it really prepared her for owning her own business. As a business owner, you have to be able to sell your own product and due to her sales training, she knows the questions to ask when people are interested in the product and she knows how to get people to see the value in what she’s selling. The Rollin’ Oat has allowed her to use her background in sales, food and design to create a unique product that shows people that oatmeal doesn’t have to be boring or plain. It can be fun and different while also being good for you. Moving forward, Stephanie plans to permanently station a cart in Jersey City and then open another cart in Manhattan and continue to grow the business from there, eventually having multiple carts in multiple locations between New York and New Jersey. But as of right now, just being able to run her own food business is deeply rewarding for her because food is her passion and seeing her vision come to life after always believing that she would do it one day motivates her to keep working harder to make her plan a reality. She wants the business to be successful because she knows that it can be but also because she needs it to work. This business is her future, so she’ll continue to think of new recipes and products and do research and hustle and promote the business because it’s up to her to keep things going. But, she says, “when you love what you’re doing, you don’t ever stop”.


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Brigitte Saldarriaga, Operations Manager, and Cristina Girbu, Store Operations and Franchise Training Manager, at The Hummus & Pita Co.

This is Brigitte Saldarriaga, the Operations Manager at The Hummus & Pita Co., and Cristina Girbu, the Store Operations and Franchise Training Manager at The Hummus & Pita Co. Brigitte was born and raised in New York and has been working in the food industry for eleven years. She attributes her passion for food to her family, most of whom she says work in this business. Her dad was a waiter and a chef for seventeen years, her cousin is the executive chef at Gabriella’s and her uncle is a chef at Carmines, where her cousins also work. After starting her career as a cashier at Lenwich, she steadily moved up the ranks to take over the operations of their catering department before moving to The Green Summit Group, where she worked her way up to COO. She now runs the operations for The Hummus & Pita Co., a position that she took over this past January. Cristina, conversely, had no background in food before applying for the job of cashier at The Hummus & Pita Co. seven years ago. Originally from Moldova, a small Eastern European country between Romania and Ukraine, Cristina move to the U.S. after university because she wanted to work rather than get married, which her friends and family were telling her was her next step. At the time, she says, she never thought that she would become an integral part of such a huge team. She just applied to the job that she found on a hiring website to learn about the restaurant industry. In fact, she doesn’t even really like to cook. It was simply an opportunity that she took advantage of because she likes to learn and she’s good at understanding how things can operate effectively. She worked her way up to assistant manager then general manager and now does the company’s franchisee training, the highest position within the store operations. Although Brigitte and Cristina come from very different backgrounds, both have found a home at The Hummus & Pita Co., which they say operates like one big family, thanks to David Pesso, the co-owner of the business. The “mastermind” behind everything they do, David has used his family recipes to build a fast casual concept where they continue to create the home cooked food that his mother and grandmother used to make. Their focus on traditional, authentic recipes has lead The Hummus & Pita Co. to be known for their fresh, healthy and delicious menu items, which are made in house daily.

David was raised by a single mother in Brooklyn, NY. Like Cristina, he doesn’t have an “official” culinary background but growing up in Brooklyn enticed him to open up bagel stores and he had a few silent partnerships within the food industry over the years. However, he came up with the idea for The Hummus & Pita Co. when he was young and kept it in the back of his mind until he was able to bring the vision to life. The Hummus & Pita Co. is different from other Mediterranean restaurants because it’s a mixture of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean influences, just like David, who’s half Greek and half Israeli. He wanted to make sure that the food from his childhood was woven into the fabric of the business rather than only being something that they produced. So he worked with his mother to create the concept and execute it so that he could be sure that he was getting the culture of the restaurant right. Which is why in every location they have a shawarma next to a gyro, Turkish salad, Morccan carrots, Lebanese cauliflower, etc., all of which you very rarely see together. When the business first opened in 2012, Cristina says that it was mostly David, herself and the rest of the team figuring out operations together- seeing what worked and what didn’t work and adjusting from there. Everyone was learning together, slowly putting in the foundation of the operating system that they use today. David was very involved in the day to day operations, coming up with different ideas on how they could improve and asking her opinion on whether it could be executed or how she thought it could work better before trying it out. He used his team as a sounding board and welcomed their feedback if they saw a better way to do something because he wanted to make sure that he was constantly reviewing every part of the business for improvements. Being a feedback-driven owner is how Cristina believes that David has built the business so successfully. 

Most of the recipes for the menu items at The Hummus & Pita Co. come from David’s grandmother, which is why he insists on making them the traditional way although they have modern technology now that would make it a lot quicker and easier. He doesn’t want to stray away from tradition and lose the flavor that handcrafting the food provides. Their main chef, who has been with The Hummus & Pita Co. since it opened and has twenty years of experience, has helped document all of these recipes and figure out how to mass produce them. Every recipe started, and continues to start, as a single serving recipe and then once David and his mother feel it’s up to par, the entire company will taste it and give it the okay. The chef then creates the proper ratios for each ingredient and the proper maintenance for the food so that it can be replicated and produced at each location. As the menu has grown, everything continues to be David’s recipes. From the seasonings to the spices, they use specific ingredients, a lot of which they have to import or special order, because almost all of their food is made in-house on a daily basis. They make their items fresh every day and don’t use any preservatives to keep the dishes as healthy as possible. Unlike other restaurants, nothing is prepackaged or mass produced. Everything is prepped to order and after so many years in business, they know how to forecast their volume each day so it’s rare that they have food left over. If they run out of something, they have preps that are there throughout the day and night that can make anything that they need. Because their kitchen team makes the food using traditional methods, there’s a lot of skill, dedication and patience that goes into the food creation every day. Not only does this allow you to taste the freshness and quality of their food, the love that they put into their craft makes it even more delicious.


Both Brigitte and Cristina agree that the most important piece of the business is customer service. They say that David is very particular with the people that he hires because he wants all of their employees to be a representation of the brand. The store employees specifically are the first people that a customer sees when they enter the store so he doesn’t want them pushing the customer along the line like they don’t care about the food, he wants them to be dedicated to what they’re selling. Which is why their training process takes about two weeks and has three different stages: shadowing, side-by-side and validation, eventually having the new employee take over a station on their own and get reviewed by a manager. But whether you work front of house or back of house, every employee has to know all of the recipes, allergens and how each item is made because they have such unique ingredients in their dishes. Using the wrong item, like black peppers instead of red peppers, completely changes the flavor profile of a dish, so the little details are the most important. However, most of their employees are very passionate about the business and their food. Cristina says that almost all of the employees from their original team are still working at The Hummus & Pita Co. and if they didn’t start with her, most have been working there for three to five years, so they’ve all known each other for a while. They spend more time together than they do with their actual families and have become a family themselves, the head of which is David. Brigitte says that David has become sort of a father figure to the company, they all want to impress him because he’s so hands-on and involved in the business. He leads by example, often jumping on the line to help serve people and supporting his team when they’re short-staffed. Being raised by a single mother and also being a parent himself, he’s very understanding that life happens sometimes and is very flexible with his employees in regards to childcare issues, always offering for them to bring their son(s) or daughter(s) to the restaurant to hang out while they work. He believes that the work he’s doing is for everyone to succeed together and wants his employees to be as passionate about the company as he is, because they’re contributing to that success. And that inclusive attitude has allowed his employees to create their own supportive, family dynamic.

As The Hummus & Pita Co. continues to grow, they’re putting a bigger emphasis on food allergies and dietary restrictions. When the business opened they had vegetarian and gluten free menu options but have since developed the menu to include vegan options as well, which they’re continuing to add more of. They’re always thinking outside of the box to come up with new ideas (like the chickpea chiller and the chickpea smears) to meet the different demographics and communicate with those communities to show that they’re a comprehensive restaurant where people with all different eating habits can come together for a delicious, healthy meal. They’re also looking to expand the business itself, now with franchises in Connecticut, New Jersey, Colorado and Michigan and planning for Atlanta and San Diego later this year. For Cristina, being the Franchise Training Manager, the most challenging part of the business is creating a team that supports one another, understands the brand and promotes it. Teaching others about the business is something that motivates her as a leader but she wants to make sure that the people she’s training are as engaged with the business as she is and are working with the same dedication that her team in New York does. But the more they expand, the more room there is for error, which is frustrating to her, since she helped build the business. Her goal is to train the franchisees to be able to speak about the brand as well as she and David can and she enjoys learning better ways to teach that. However, both Cristina and Brigitte agree that David is the motivating factor behind the business and the selling factor that gets a lot of franchisees on board. Seeing how hard he works and how dedicated he is to the business is inspiring and makes you want to be a part of the growth, no matter how tough it gets.


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Nir Kahan, Co-Owner of Hokey Poke

This is Nir Kahan, the co-owner of Hokey Poke. Growing up in Israel, Nir says that food was always a “main stage event” in his daily life. In Israeli culture, food is extremely important and there’s a huge focus on high-quality, locally sourced, fresh, seasonal ingredients in everything from street food to upscale restaurants. So although he didn’t come from a heavy culinary background, being raised in this environment gave him a unique appreciation for food and an interest in how dishes were created. However, it wasn’t until he traveled the world in his twenties and spent six months in Japan that he was introduced to the super high-quality ingredients of Japanese cuisine that he had never seen before. He was inspired by the focus that the Japanese people put on these ingredients, even more so than in Israel, and how devoted they were to the food creation process. It was a form of art that they took great care and pride in and it allowed Nir to value fresh fish and the authenticity of food creation in a way that he never had before. From that point on, although he wasn’t cooking in his own place, he was always working in kitchens and playing with food. So when poke started getting popular in New York in 2015/2016, everything infused in his head, leading to the creation of Hokey Poke- a restaurant that combines the fresh Hawaiian-style cuisine with super fine, high-quality Japanese ingredients and aggressive Middle Eastern flavors.

Nir moved to New York in 2009 when his first daughter was born. His then-wife had started an organic food company and they moved to the city to develop the brand and open a few locations. While she and her business partner were running the business, Nir was managing operations for Hummus Kitchen, a childhood friend’s restaurant on the Upper East Side. Hummus Kitchen allowed Nir to get experience in customer service, business logistics, operational skills and speaking with vendors. He worked there for one year and credits his time there for giving him the confidence to dive into the food industry in New York and run his own restaurant. After Hummus Kitchen though, he worked in finance for four years until he got the opportunity to work in food again. He was asked to be involved in The Picnic Basket (which he is no longer a part of) by a friend’s brother and bring Mediterranean influences to the New York lunch scene. However, once he saw the poke trend starting in New York, he knew he had to be a part of it. He got the owners of The Picnic Basket to turn their second location into a commissary kitchen so that he could open a poke shop in the empty space next to The Picnic Basket. And since he was so excited to start playing with the idea of fresh fish that could be more creative and flexible than sushi, he decided to leave The Picnic Basket and focus on this new business. Since Nir isn’t Hawaiian and poke has more aggressive flavors and bigger mix ins than traditional Japanese food, he started to bring in touches of his Israeli background, incorporating the bold flavors of sesame and chickpeas into his menu. After a few months of prep, Hokey Poke opened in February 2016.

Hokey Poke Team

Nir says that his mindset of mixing flavors and playing with cuisines as well as his insistence on always using the best ingredients that he can find led him to working with poke. He and his team try to locally source as much as possible, but they always find the freshest, most high-quality ingredients because they understand the importance of healthy food. He buys only sushi grade fish that typically only high-end sushi restaurants use and has a bunch of different vendors that he orders from to make sure that they’re always getting the highest quality available. Although this hurts his profitability because his costs are so high, as a father Nir strives to feed his daughter the best stuff that he can and that’s the same way he looks at what he feeds his customers. He wants to use the best ingredients because he wants customers to associate his business with a unique poke experience and to know that when they purchase his food, they’re eating healthy, in a friendly environment with friendly service. With so much competition between poke restaurants today (he estimates that there are about 80 in the area), he wants customers to remember the quality of the food but also their service. Nir says that the team he has now is the most amazing, fun, supportive and loving crew that he could ask for. They’ve become a little family and his top employees who have been with him for a while now know the operations so well that it’s allowed them to grow the business and expand the menu. He believes that half of having a unique menu is having an awesome team that can sell it and that’s what he has right now. And once those two things come together, it’s magic. Their service, along with the unique influences combined on their menu, has allowed them to differentiate themselves from their competition.

The most rewarding part of the business for Nir is when customers make an effort to give him a compliment about how amazing the food was. It’s something that truly brightens his day and that he never gets tired of hearing. And since the base of their customers are recurring clients, it’s even more rewarding to know that the food is consistently delicious and that they’re enjoying it so much that they’re coming back multiple times a week. On the flip side though, the rise of social media and online ordering platforms has been the most challenging part of the business for Nir. He sees the benefits of it- increasing their exposure and introducing them to new clients, helping them to book catering jobs with people who have never tried their food before, keeping them on their toes to always be at their best every moment the restaurant is open- but, being older, it’s a little more difficult for him to understand the social media platforms and utilize them for sales. However, he understands that walk-in customers are no longer the business and that you have to bring people in with your online presence so he’s trying to adjust. But the fact that anyone can be a food critic now means that he or she can destroy your hard work over one experience. The change in the way the public interacts with food has shifted what customers expect from food service. He finds that people care less about the food itself and more about the convenience and fitting it into their schedule, which has caused Nir to constantly be apologizing for issues that he usually has no control over and losing money because of it. But, because so many customers rely on sites like Yelp and Grubhub, it’s better for him to lose the money than get a bad review on a platform that he has no control over. People take these platforms seriously so he has to as well or else his rating will drop and then “you’re fighting the statistics” as customers choose between you and thousands of other restaurants. Because your online presence is so powerful, Nir says that he’s gotten used to using these platforms as a marketing tool and if an issue does come up, “killing any complaint with kindness”.

For Nir, one Hokey Poke location is challenging but not enough so he’s thinking about franchising in order to expand into more locations. He says that it’s definitely scary because the industry is super risky to begin with and on top of that, it’s way more difficult to succeed in NYC than in other cities. But he believes that they have a really good product that customers enjoy. Also, he recently started a new business called The Chick Shop, which has become his new “baby” and is starting to pick up traction. As much as he loves Hokey Poke, he sees The Chick Shop as an extension of himself because it’s the food that he grew up eating but couldn’t find the quality that he appreciated in New York, so he decided to create it himself. Because of this new venture, Nir’s business partner, Shay, has taken over the main operations for Hokey Poke but Nir still runs all the back office duties. But as they go through this transition, Nir’s focus is continuing to provide the friendly service and high quality-food that Hokey Poke has always been know for. He says that when people come into the restaurant and meet their team in person, it creates a longer lasting relationship because they can see how hard they work to make every customer happy. And the satisfaction of customers will always be their main priority. As Nir says, “that’s the reason we’re here, you know?”


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Yariv Stav, Co-Owner of The Picnic Basket

This is Yariv Stav, the co-owner of The Picnic Basket, a fast casual restaurant that Yariv says “takes the tastes of my home and adapts it to New York”. Inspired by Yariv’s upbringing in Israel, every item on the menu at The Picnic Basket has a little bit of a Mediterranean twist on it, which Yariv says the New York market was looking for when he and his co-owner, David Vacnich, opened The Picnic Basket in 2009. Both Yariv and David saw the market shifting towards cleaner, more wholesome options as customers became more health conscious and focused on the ingredients going into their food. And they saw an opportunity to introduce the inherently healthy nature of Mediterranean food into New York’s food industry in an unassuming way- with sandwiches and salads. Fast forward 10 years, Yariv says their food has become so popular because it’s made to order right in front of the customer and because all of their ingredients are either made in-house or delivered fresh every day. They have no preservatives in their food and instead use Mediterranean flavors and spices to create high-quality cuisine. For Yariv, the extra work that they put into their food to create the unique and distinctive tastes that The Picnic Basket is known for is worth the effort; because their commitment freshness is what makes the difference.

Food wasn’t always Yariv’s passion. After serving in the army in Israel, he got really interested in interior design and decided to go back to school for three years to study it on a deeper level. When he finished his program, he worked in interior design and graphic design for ten years before deciding to go to culinary school in Israel. While he was working in design, Yariv had also started working with Bite NYC, a food business that a childhood friend had started and asked him to be a part of. The plan was always for Yariv to come to the U.S. and run the business with his friend but it continued getting delayed because of the other work that he was doing. However, after culinary school, Yariv says that he got lucky and the timing finally lined up for him to move to New York. He moved in 2005 and right away began managing Bite with his friend. It was while he was working at Bite that he was connected to David, his friend’s brother, and that he was inspired to open his own restaurant. He wanted to create a concept similar to Bite but make it more upscale with fresher ingredients. Working at Bite allowed him to realize what he would improve on at his own place and from his experience in the food industry, he believed he knew what customers in New York liked. It would be a different feel and a different taste from Bite and other sandwich places and opening a space in Midtown would attract the lunch crowd that Bite missed at it’s downtown location. Yariv approached David with the idea and with a menu already formed in his mind. He knew exactly the restaurant that he wanted to open and a few months later, they opened their first location in the Fashion District.

Yariv says that he grew up with two very different styles of cooking, both influenced by his grandmothers. One was Russian and one was Libyan and although both cooked a lot, he was heavily influenced by his Libyan grandmother’s food. It was the majority of the food that he grew up eating during his childhood so it was important to him to incorporate those pieces into the menu. Since Yariv had a clear idea of what he wanted the restaurant to be and what the New York crowd likes, he created the entire menu for The Picnic Basket, which he says he wrote down like a recipe book. And he focused the menu around sandwiches and salads because the “picnic sandwich” was their original source of inspiration. They wanted to create sandwiches that customers would feel like they or a loved one had made in their kitchen at home. That was handmade with love and consideration and the freshest ingredients, which led them to the name, The Picnic Basket, for their business. It also led to the design of their store, which they wanted to fill with picnic tables that unfortunately didn’t fit, but instead includes earthy hues of brown and green throughout and a wall that says “picnic” in a variety of languages to represent the ability of a picnic or a sandwich to transcend cultural differences. Now, as the business grows, Yariv says he’ll pull inspiration from other cuisines he tries or places he visits or is planning to visit. He likes to incorporate new flavors into the menu as much as possible but always keeps a focus on sourcing the freshest ingredients that the item requires to get the correct taste.

Picnic Basket wall

In addition to their focus on freshness, consistency is a key factor in the day to day operations at The Picnic Basket. Since their second location opened in 2010, Yariv says that he’s particularly hard on this because he wants a customer to be able to go into either location and have their items, especially the sandwiches, taste exactly the same. For Yariv, what’s most important is that the dressings on each sandwich are correct. He wants a customer to taste all of the ingredients in every bite so it matters how you put the dressing on and how much of the dressing you put on. The dressings are all about the taste and not having the correct amount can change the whole meal. Which is why all employees have to train at their flagship location so that Yariv and his team can teach them their system for putting the ingredients on a sandwich: dressing, vegetables, cheese, meat. The sandwich creation has to be done a certain way because it’s very important that the customer get the whole experience of their food, which can be thrown off if it’s made incorrectly. Yariv says that he can now sense if someone is a sandwich maker. When they come in to train, he has to watch how they hold the knife and cut the bread because the way they cut it shows him a lot. There’s a certain way that you cut the bread that you can do it in one slice and if you cut it the wrong way, you’re going slower. Since they’re making most of their orders between 12PM and 2PM when customers are on their lunch breaks, it’s important that the sandwiches are made well but also that they’re made quickly. Their food is made to order so when employees are making them on the spot, they have to be quick and efficient and even something as simple as the way they cut the bread can throw off their rhythm. However, he’s able to tell right away if someone has the skill and after they shadow an employee in the kitchen, they study the menu and then get asked questions on it. The goal is that when they’re fully trained, they can make any sandwich correctly from memory in just 45 seconds.

Yariv’s philosophy for running a business has changed a lot over the years. He says his opinion right now is different than it was three years ago because there are a lot of different factors that have changed recently, including taxes, minimum wage, rent and competition of other businesses opening. But his advice for those looking to get into the food industry is to understand every part of the market and treat it as an equation. Think of the concept that you want to create and ask yourself how many people you can serve in a day and work backwards from there. Go through all of your financial expenses (rent, salaries, etc), estimate your cost, estimate your revenue based on the customers you’re serving and what they’ll pay for your food and work up from there. Right now he admits that the conditions are the hardest he’s seen since he opened his business but he believes that passion, no matter what, has to be a key part of your business and your reason for opening it. In his experience, if you’re passionate about what you do and you have a good product, customers will come. For Yariv, customer satisfaction is the most rewarding part of the business and the most important. He says that they get all kinds of feedback, both positive and negative, and he reads and responds to 99% of it because they help him learn, especially the bad reviews. But as long as he continues to create high-quality products with the freshest ingredients that bring others joy, he’s happy. 


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Franco Noriega & Milan Kelez, Co-Owners of Baby Brasa

This is Franco Noriega and Milan Kelez, the co-owners of Baby Brasa, the first organic Peruvian restaurant in New York City. Franco is the architect behind Baby Brasa but with Milan’s help has transformed what was once a small eatery into an international business. Franco and Milan have been friends for fifteen years after meeting in Peru, their native country, when they both were both working as models. At the time, Franco was already living in New York City. He had moved to the U.S. when he was 18 to study acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and was discovered as a model two years later. He modeled for the next few years but grew tired of the industry when he felt that he had hit the ceiling of opportunities available to him. After feeling like he was his own brand as a model, he wanted to create a business where the brand could be bigger than himself and grow exponentially. It was this idea, and his recognition that there was a huge lack of options for Peruvian food in the city’s food industry, that pushed him to enter the restaurant business and create the concept behind Baby Brasa. However, it’s been Franco and Milan’s ability to transform Baby Brasa into a lifestyle brand and their awareness that great ideas come from the people who surround them is what has made Baby Brasa so successful.

Growing up, Franco was always exposed to the restaurant business because his parents were restaurateurs who owned several different food chains in Peru. He says that he was born into the entrepreneurial side of building businesses based around food because his parents were always opening up a new store at home every three or four months with a new concept or cuisine and then selling the store once it was established. So when he decided to leave the modeling industry, it felt natural for him to transition into the restaurant business that he’d been familiar with his whole life. He decided to enroll in the International Culinary Center (ICC) to get his culinary degree, always with the idea of opening a Peruvian restaurant as soon as he graduated. In 2016 he opened the first Baby Brasa on the Lower East Side. It was a tight space with eight seats that offered counter service, takeout and delivery but he used it as a temporary location while he was sorting out the permits for a larger location in Brooklyn. But as the process dragged on and he continued to hit roadblocks with his restaurant in Williamsburg, he decided to shift gears and focus on building his business in Manhattan. He began looking for spaces and found a spot in the West Village that he says he had been crazy about his whole life because he had always seen it as a prime space for a restaurant. He loved the architecture of the building, the windows and the fact that it was located on the corner of 7th Avenue S. After seeing the interior, he immediately fell in love with it and decided to expand the business into this 100+ seating space where he had always envisioned the business operating.

It was during this time that Franco reconnected with Milan, who was working as a fashion and film producer. Although he didn’t have any experience in the restaurant industry other than being a maitre d at a restaurant in Brooklyn for a year, both Franco and Milan see Baby Brasa as a “production that never ends” and used Milan’s skills in bringing a project to fruition to open this new location together. They took six months to renovate the space and opened the second location in May 2017. Once the second space opened, it didn’t make sense for them to have two operations running at the same time, especially because they found that the food traffic on the Lower East Side was very limited. So they closed their first location to the public and turned it into a ghost kitchen, which has now become their catering division, and began to focus on building the reputation of their larger space. Although Franco had created all of the recipes for the menu and was involved in the kitchen at the Lower East Side location, he decided to remove himself from the kitchen in this new space and concentrate on the business operations. Watching his parents build up businesses and then sell them to someone else throughout his life taught him that you can’t be a part of the restaurant’s equation in order for it to work. So he trained a chef to use the recipes that he created and run the kitchen so that he wouldn’t be involved in daily operations. Instead, Franco put his energy into building an empire around the Baby Brasa brand.

As a brand, Franco and Milan want customers to associate Baby Brasa with being cool, sexy and healthy. Coming from the background of the modeling industry, they’ve always been concerned about what they’re putting into their bodies as individuals and believe that now eating healthy has become cool and trendy for consumers. Which is why everything at the restaurant is organic and made with fresh ingredients. They’ve used their food knowledge to come up with delicious dishes that are good for their customers, which they see as an added benefit of the restaurant- the customer doesn’t have to figure out if  dish is healthy or not because they’ve already designed them specifically to be healthy, yet also flavorful and filling. The design of their restaurant also ties into their brand and is very cohesive throughout the whole restaurant. It was inspired by their love for the beach and the warm weather climate that they grew up in and incorporates a lot of bright colors, greenery and street art, which they’ve always been fans of. Both the mural outside the restaurant and all of the walls inside were done by street artists that they brought in to create their own designs. From their work with street artists in the community, they ended up creating The New Allen, which is a street art collective that they started and now have more than 30 walls in Manhattan designed by the street artists that they work with. They’ve also started a Baby Brasa apparel line, which includes sweatshirts, t-shirts and beanies, all with their restaurant name and logo on them. Because they’ve created such a clear brand voice and style for their business, they say that they have social media influencers coming in all the time to take pictures because being in the restaurant is part of the experience. Which is why every angle in the restaurant has a very specific design so that you can take a picture from anywhere and the background will always look good. Since influencers have become the new marketing device and give them free advertising, Franco & Milan made sure to keep social media appeal in mind when creating the layout of the restaurant to make sure that every area can double as a space for a photo shoot.

Franco says that one of the toughest parts of the business is dealing with employees. With any restaurant, the human workforce is so important but it’s also very tough to make multiple personalities work well together and it’s difficult to have to rely on other people to take care of the daily operations of your business. They do have some staff members that have been with them for a year but generally it’s a revolving process, which they believe is part of the nature of the restaurant business. Most of the men and women that are in the food industry are there because they’re in the middle of a transition and are trying to do something else with their lives. However, they also see their revolving staff as a positive part of the business because they always have new energy coming in and out. Franco and Milan believe that a core part of their business is that they’re really open to great ideas. They don’t think that they know everything and they’re always asking themselves, their staff and their customers, “what could be better here?” and take all responses and ideas into consideration. They’re always open to suggestions for how they can improve the business and constantly learn from their mistakes to try and get better every day. Their menu has evolved in the same way. Although they started out with all of Franco’s recipes, now they’ve had so many influences from so many different incredible chefs that come in and cook in their space that they’ve added these dishes to the menu. They pride themselves on being a big platform for young talent, who they always invite to the restaurant to explore what the culinary world is for them and express themselves in whatever way they think makes sense. They’re always looking to add new items to their menu so if any of these young chefs have dishes that they think would work, they’re always open to the idea and willing to see if it’s a fit for them.

Because they focus so much on the business from a brand perspective, Franco and Milan admit that they’re not as interested in how much the restaurant can physically produce but how much the brand can produce. Which is why they’re in the process of franchising the business and have two franchises opening in Miami and Rio de Janeiro by the end of the year. They believe that franchising is the best way to grow without having so much responsibility on their end and is a seamless way to extend the brand internationally. They have really high goals for themselves to open a Baby Brasa restaurant in every city that they’ve traveled to in the past and love visiting or want to travel to in the future, so that they can enjoy their food around the world. However, once the business is established and running efficiently, they see themselves selling the business and letting someone else take over the operations, similar to what Franco’s parents did with all of their businesses. He says that they’ve always had an exit strategy but are enjoying the process of building a successful business. For Franco, one of the most rewarding parts of the business is when he’s wearing a Baby Brasa sweatshirt on the subway or walking in the city and people will recognize it or ask him where they can buy one. It shows him that their efforts to create a strong brand are working and it inspires him to think of more ways that they can promote Baby Brasa. He says that that recognition as well as the crowds that come in on the weekends confirms to him that even in such a competitive market like New York, they’re on the right path, and it pushes them to keep moving forward.

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Kristine Quattrone, Owner of Q Events Catering

This is Kristine Quattrone, the owner of Q Events, a catering and event planning company that she’s been running, almost exclusively, for the last sixteen years. Kristine has had sales people work for her in the past who she’s trained on her approach to catering, the software she uses and her menu, but most of the time that she’s been in business, she’s been the one coordinating with each client directly, building custom menus and taking care of everything from the food to the flowers to the DJ. Kristine started cooking at a very young age. She grew up sitting in the kitchen with her grandmother helping her cook and learned the basics of cooking from her grandmother and her mother. She started working in the food industry at 12 years old, cooking hamburgers and hot dogs and scooping ice cream at a beach concession stand on Long Island. When she turned 16, she started busing tables and soon after she began working as a waitress and a bartender. However, despite all of her experience in different areas of the industry, she said that she never really realized how her summer and part-time jobs had tied into her love for hospitality and events until she got to college. Originally an accounting major, she ended up transferring from Suffolk Community College to Montclair State University to pursue a degree in Commercial Recreation and Leisure Studies after enlisting ten of her friends to help her put together a keg party at her house and recognizing that designing and executing an event was her passion. The fact that this passion turned into a food catering and event planning business, she says, happened organically. The uncertainty of the hospitality industry has never been easy for Kristine and being a single mother in such a fast-paced environment presents it’s own set of challenges as well. But being responsible for her own future is what she loves most about her business and what drives her to keep moving forward.

After focusing on event planning throughout college, Kristine got a job as an administrative assistant at Calvin Klein. Within six months she was promoted to Special Events Coordinator, which was a position they created for her to be the liaison between the PR department, the marketing department and the facilities management department to set up for any event that was taking place internally or externally for Calvin Klein. After a few years she was promoted to Food Services Manager, where she was responsible for coordinating catering from their in-house food service department for on-site and off-site events and meetings as well as the wait staff that delivered the food. Since she was still working on all of the events with the facilities management team as well as managing this small food service department, Kristine had her hands in a little bit of everything that was going on in the building and says that she felt very much at home in this position because she loved balancing both sides of the job. However, in 2003, Calvin Klein was sold to Phillips-Van Heusen and the food service department was eliminated. Kristine was asked to stay and transfer to the facilities management team but after working in a role that she enjoyed so much, that combined her love of food and events, she decided to leave and start her own business. Kristine opened Q Events that same year (2003) and started out operating out of Guy & Gallard, which she used as her commissary kitchen. She says she basically took her food services department and turned it into her business because she already had the contacts at the rental company, a book of waiters that she had worked with in the past and personal connections with a florist and a DJ. Ironically, her first client at Q Events ended up being Calvin Klein after someone from the PR department called her for an event proposal and decided to give her a chance when she said that she had left Calvin Klein but had started her own catering and event planning business. She realized that she could leverage the contacts that she had already made and began reaching out to friends and colleagues who had been laid off from Calvin Klein to see if they needed catering or help planning an event at their new companies. Because they knew her work and how good she was, they booked her.

In 2004, looking for a new kitchen to run her business out of, Kristine attended a business card exchange where she met Eric Patel, the owner of a restaurant in Midtown called Bagel & Bean. Eric was looking for someone to help him with sales to expand his business and had extra kitchen space, so they decided to start working together. Kristine used his restaurant as her commissary kitchen for Q Events but also cooked and worked with Eric’s staff to help him expand his business from just breakfast catering to lunch and happy hour catering. It ended up being a great fit for both of them and Kristine continued working out of Eric’s restaurant on and off for the next fifteen years. Although Bagel & Bean was technically a competitor to Q Events, Kristine says she never looked at it like that. In fact, she says that she doesn’t look at any other catering company as competition. In the food industry, there’s always going to be competition no matter what, so she focuses on her own business and how she can increase her own sales rather than worrying about what everyone else is doing. She admits that she may check out other companies to make sure that her pricing is competitive but she strives to do her own research to stay on top of food trends and make sure that she’s meeting customer demand. When she first started Q Events, she created the entire menu (which includes breakfast, lunch, dinner, appetizers and desserts) herself and it’s been evolving since then. Kristine believes that what makes her unique from other catering and event planning companies is that she has a lot of fun with her menu items. Her food is delicious but not pretentious and is presented beautifully while also being filling. And she’s constantly coming up with new menu ideas, trying to be as creative as possible, especially when it comes to appetizers. She recently launched her “Kristini” Bar, which gives clients all of the bruschetta, cheese, meat necessary to build their own crostini. Kristine believes that at the end of the day, you’re only responsible for yourself, which is why she keeps trying new things that are fun and different from what everyone else is doing.

For Kristine, the most rewarding part of the business is when an event goes smoothly and she gets compliments on the food and everyone has a good time. When that happens she says that she really feels that she’s accomplished something and hearing compliments from clients reassure her that she’s doing it right. But the toughest part is the fact that she’s chosen the life of an entrepreneur so the risks are much higher, which can be scary, especially as a single mom. She briefly opened a cafe in Long Island City when she was pregnant thinking that it would be easier to consolidate her catering operations into her own location and because she had always wanted her own storefront. However, she quickly realized that both the cafe and her son needed 150% of her time and it was very difficult to do both. She ended up closing the business after a year and went back to focusing on catering. However, she says that being a single mother in this industry today is still an extremely difficult challenge that she faces daily. Her job entails long and often unconventional hours, which has made it a hard to find a babysitter as well as expensive when she is able to find one. So not having a set paycheck at the end of the week can become very stressful. But Kristine always tries to see this challenge in a positive way and make that her motivation. She’s constantly meeting with existing clients, networking to find new clients and improving her menu because she knows that she has to create her own business to be successful. As an entrepreneur, you’re always nervous and you’re always asking yourself how you can improve. Kristine says the key is staying active in your efforts as well as never giving up your belief in yourself if you’re doing something that you’re passionate about.

Kristine now works out of a commissary kitchen in Hell’s Kitchen that Eric introduced her to where five companies work out of the same space. It has a centralized purchasing department, a billing department and the entire kitchen is brand new. Kristine has been there for about a year and loves the fact that the cost is shared by herself and the other business owners because it helps her allocate those funds toward other projects she’d like to focus on, like her social media presence. Because she’s responsible for every facet of her business, it’s difficult to stay on top of everything at all times but she’s committed to not getting lazy when it comes to her clients. She recommends that anyone starting out in the food industry get comfortable attending networking events because selling your product to customers is all about the connections that you make. You have to constantly be in touch with your current clients and talking to new clients because there are always other caterers or restaurants looking to get their business as well. Kristine also recommends preparing yourself for a lifestyle change, not only in regards to the long hours that you’ll be working but also the way of life that starts once you become your own boss. She admits that you can’t really go back to a corporate job once you’ve worked for yourself because being your own boss is one of the best parts of the business. But it’s important to remember that the person that will hustle the hardest for your business is you and you need to put the work in to see the results. That’s the belief that Kristine has operated under since she started her business and it’s kept her and her business running for the last sixteen years.

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