When Manal Kahi SIPA’15 moved to New York City for graduate school, she immediately set out to stock her apartment with her favorite staple: hummus. Accustomed to the fresh, homemade variety in her native Lebanon, however, Manal quickly became disappointed with the prepackaged selection she encountered in American supermarkets. “It didn’t even come close to what I get back home — the kind my grandmother makes, or my aunt’s,” she says. “That’s when I started making my own.”
Manal’s homespun hummus soon became a hit among her friends — and looked like a market opportunity to her brother, Wissam Kahi ’04. The siblings got to thinking: In Lebanon, some of the best hummus was made by Syrian expats; what if they could employ Syrian refugees in New York City to cook and deliver the hummus to individual customers, providing work opportunities for the refugees while offering adventurous foodies an authentic experience? The two then expanded their concept, realizing that the market for authentic ethnic food was much broader than just hummus — and Eat Offbeat was born.
Eat Offbeat employs refugees from around the world to cook their own family recipes and deliver the meals to customers in NYC. Hungry clients place same-day orders online by 4 p.m. and the fresh food is delivered in reheatable containers by dinnertime. Each meal consists of an appetizer, entrée, and side dish, and costs about $20.
Wissam and Manal say the startup aims to provide customers not just with authentic ethnic food, but with genuine cultural experiences. “[We want you to] feel like you’re in downtown Baghdad, for instance, or that you’ve been invited to a chef’s own home,” Manal says.
Eat Offbeat recently won $25,000 in seed money from the new Tamer Fund for Social Ventures, which provides early-stage Columbia–affiliated social ventures with financial grants as well as access to the resources — such as one-on-one guidance — of the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise. The business currently employs three refugees from Iraq, Eritrea, and Nepal, and has plans to expand to 10 refugees this year and up to 30 by 2019.
Here, Wissam and Manal open up about their ambitious startup.
How does Eat Offbeat provide an authentic cultural experience?
MK: We have our chefs put together playlists of music from their native countries to accompany the meal. So you feel like you’re having dinner with them in their home. Another idea is to have napkins that show exactly where in the country the recipe originated. [We are also considering making] YouTube videos featuring the chef preparing that food and showing how to eat it, because you may not be familiar with everything that you’re being served. Do you dip this in the sauce, or do you mix this?
WK: We also want to include a small card that tells you the history of the dish: is it a rural delicacy or an urban plate? As Manal says, we offer a story behind the meal, and not just the meal.
MK: And this information will also be featured on our website. We want the website to really be a place where customers can learn more about the chef and about the country and exchange information. We will also link to our social media pages, where we are featuring stories about refugees. We can change the rhetoric around refugees — we want to show the positive side of things.
WK: Our aim is to help New Yorkers discover something new, and it’s the refugees who are helping us discover that. So it’s not just us helping them, they’re helping us.
How do you connect with chefs?
MK: We find them through the International Rescue Committee (the IRC). It’s the main resettlement agency in New York. Most of its mission is to help find jobs for refugees. We’re looking for whoever has a passion for cooking and has recipes to share with New Yorkers.
Do they have professional training?
MK: We don’t require any professional experience. We’re recruiting home chefs — people who cook for their families, who are passionate about food, and who want to share whatever they are making with a larger audience. However, we do offer training on hygiene standards here in New York. We have a chief culinary officer — or a head chef — who oversees the whole operation and makes sure all standards are met. The training also helps the chefs translate their recipes to a larger scale. They cook in industrial kitchens in the city.
What is your average customer like?
WK: Our ideal positioning is for the dinner market, for people who want to eat at home. They want to discover a new cuisine, and they’re adventurous. Maybe you’re a small family or you’re having a party of six to 10 people. Maybe you’re one person. It’s the type of home cooking you can keep in the fridge, so you can order for the week, as well.
How will the Tamer Fund for Social Ventures seed money help you achieve your goal?
WK: We’ve hosted demo events thus far, but the Tamer funding will allow us to [run] a pilot in January and February: it will cover all our costs, including the kitchen rentals, refugee and sub-contractor fees, ingredients. Once we’ve proven the demand, we’re confident we can raise the required money to bring this to scale. We’re also very much looking forward to meeting the Tamer Center board members. We are allowed to reach out to them for advice and counsel, and it’s something we need. We would like to share ideas with them and get their feedback.
The Tamer Fund for Social Ventures is open to all Columbia University alumni and students. To learn more about applying for funding, please visit http://www8.gsb.columbia.edu/socialenterprise/socialventures.