Updated: Jun 24, 2020
A Lebanese immigrant entrepreneur running a high impact business that changes the perception of refugees and revolutionizes the NY food scene.
“We wanted to stop stigmatizing the refugees by offering them a quality job in return of which they bring great value to America.”
Eat Offbeat's mission:
Giving a voice to underrepresented cuisines in NY
Bridging the cultural gap between refugees and the people who eat their food
Manal Kahi, an environmental scientist originally from Lebanon, got a Master degree in Energy and Environment at Columbia University school of International and Public affairs in New York. She is also a food lover and entrepreneur, and she came into the food impact business where she felt it had potential.
In 2015, she co-founded Eat Offbeat, a catering company that delivers authentic ethnic meals made only by refugees Chefs - mostly women - in NYC. Her three goals are to provide New Yorkers with a unique food experience that is “off-the-beaten-path,” to create jobs for home cooks with refugee status, and to demonstrate the value that refugees bring to America.
As Eat Offbeat is one of the most innovative ventures, it is also the smartest solution in solving the massive challenge of refugee unemployment. Manal is running a high impact business carrying strong human values.
Today she is sharing her vision with Chefs for Impact. Welcome to the community Manal Kahi!
By Manal Kahi as told to Chefs for Impact
How did the idea of Eat Offbeat come up?
“As I landed in NY and was missing a good hummus, I started making my own at home. Even though I’m not a chef, it was better than what you could find at the supermarket. So, it seemed obvious to me that there was an opportunity to be seized. I wanted to bring back the real hummus to NY! At the time in 2013, there was the refugee crisis in Lebanon so it appeared obvious. I had to help at my own level. Who else but a local to reproduce the taste of their homes? Consequently, the idea of hiring refugees came up.”
How do you hire your team of Chefs?
“As we started with selling only hummus, we soon realized we needed to expand the range and to globalize the offer. There were surely so many other recipes that would be so much better if made by someone who really knows what they should taste like. Therefore, we reached out to one of the largest global organizations working with refugees, the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Up to now, we are still working closely with them on a staffing solution.”
While you could have hired immigrant Chefs, why refugees specifically?
“The decision came to us out of a desire to do business while making an impact. I wanted to bring new flavors to New York for people to discover. Refugees come from these places that are underrepresented in the culinary scene in NY (Senegal, Iraq, Afghanistan etc.). I wanted to give them a voice. Our mission is to highlight that refugees are not necessarily always relying on charity. It is the opposite in that they are contributing to the economy.”
Were your employees Chefs in their past life?
“Not necessarily, very few of them were Chefs. The vast majority have never worked at all and this is their first job. But they were all talented home cooks. Of course, there is a training component when joining our team. They will then further improve their skills and knowledge while on the job.”
What have you implemented since the confinement?
“Most importantly, we were able to manage to keep all our people on payroll except the ones that had conditions and were safer at home. As our activity fully relied on people gathering, we are facing a 100% loss of activity. We pivoted within less than a week and decided to address a new audience doing home delivery.
As we received donations and orders from different non-profit organizations (Off their plates, Feed the frontlines, Columbia University), we now also deliver food to hospitals.
We got inspired by their initiatives so decided to do our part at our level. Now for every Menu the customer buys on our website we donate one meal to be served to healthcare workers.”
What is your advice to get through the crisis as a business, while having a positive impact?
· “Be comfortable with uncertainty, we are on a survival mode and that will last for a while
· Pivot as quickly as you can, this is the only way to survive
· Adapt: as refugees, our team has already adapted to so many different situations. Our Chefs have already gone through challenging times and situations, very often more challenging than Covid-19. It was ‘easy’ for them to adapt to something new.
The F&B industry is an unfair industry: minimum wages, very few benefits, no compensation; although we depend so much on their work, especially right now. I hope this is the time to realize that we need to treat these workers better. They are also the heroes we need to be valuing even more. They deserve a living wage and their benefits. Any saving that can be done, whatever the business model, shouldn’t be done on the expense of people.
Our top priority is to take care of our people by paying fair wages, giving them benefits, and providing them with a good work environment. Consequently, we have a high employee retention. The circle is a virtuous one.”
What dish does reflect Eat Offbeat philosophy?
“The Edamame salad that was created by two of our Chefs respectively from Nepal and Syria.
Also, the Sumac brownie, a classic American recipe with an Iraqi twist! These dishes combine elements of different culinary traditions and are representatives of our food.”
Learn more about Eat Offbeat: https://eatoffbeat.com/
Images via Eat Offbeat