Where do ideas come from that change our communities and world for the better?
Often, we think that they’re born from the desire to address a social or environmental need, and from there, we build organizations and businesses that can address that need.
But sometimes, it happens differently. Sometimes, the business idea comes first, and then it’s built in such a way that it can have a positive impact on the community or world.
Take Manal Kahi for example. Manal and her brother Wissam started a catering company called Eat Offbeat that delivers authentic ethnic meals made by refugee chefs in NYC. Here’s her story:
Define the problem:
Hummus issue & market opportunity
Manal moved to the United States from Lebanon, Syria in 2013 for graduate school, in the midst of the country’s refugee crisis. When she made it to the U.S., she was happy to be here for many reasons, but one thing repeatedly stood out to her: she couldn’t find hummus that was as good as she was used to in Lebanon. She started making her own, and soon realized that there was a demand for Lebanese hummus. Her brother Wisam was the first to see it as a business opportunity — to sell good, authentic hummus to New Yorkers.
Match refugee chefs with catering company that distributes ethnic foods
When they started thinking about how they could produce it, the social impact idea was born.
“It started initially with that business or market gap that we had identified, let’s say, in the lack of good, authentic hummus in New York City and trying to think of how we could make that happen. We started thinking of who could make the best hummus.”
Manal and Wisam realized that the best people to make authentic ethnic dishes are the people who cook those dishes at home, every day. Because they were so aware of the refugee crisis, the idea quickly came to them that they should find home chefs who happen to be refugees, and train them to become professional chefs.
This would not only allow them to fill the market gap they identified (and have access to high quality, authentic hummus themselves), it would also allow them to provide real employment opportunities to refugees who might not otherwise have access to full-time, paid jobs or job training.
What’s important to note at this point is that Manal wasn’t an entrepreneur, nor did she set out to be one.
“I didn’t conceive of myself as an entrepreneur. I didn’t have in mind to start a business or to launch something like that, especially not a food business.”
But she had a vision, and her brother Wissam brought skills to the table that would allow them to move forward as a team. When they first started, they needed to decide which model to build their idea around — would they go nonprofit? For-profit social enterprise? Something else entirely?
First, they considered the nonprofit model, which Manal says was tempting because of the potential for grant money and fundraising. But after careful consideration, they realized that a for-profit partnership social enterprise model was better suited for their work. Here’s why:
- They were prepared to build out a financially stable business, that would allow them to be sustainable without the need for grants.
- Similarly, because they knew they could be a social enterprise, they didn’t want to be in a position to take away grant money and funding from other initiatives that didn’t have the potential to be for-profit.
- They want to shed a different light on refugees, as employees individuals — not people who need charity.
“It was important for us that our chefs see themselves as working, regular employees in a regular company. They fill out their W-2 forms. They go through the entire process so that if at any point they want to join a different company later, they’ve been through the entire process of working for a for-profit company. Now at the same time it makes them feel like they have regular job and it’s not a charity situation. They don’t need charity. Most of the time they just want to work.”
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Partner with International Rescue Committee (IRC), find, hire and train team, start distribution
In order bring her impact idea to life, Manal had to build thoughtful alliances. One of the most influential was Eat Offbeat’s partnership with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of the biggest resettlement agencies in the United States. This partnership allowed them to better understand how to work with refugees, and what the need was. From there, the IRC was able to connect Eat Offbeat with those who might be interested in working with Eat Offbeat. Still today, when Eat Offbeat is looking for new chefs, they reach out to the IRC, who is able to identify candidates who have a profile that would be a good fit. The partnership is incredibly effective, as the IRC is in the best position to match refugees with Eat Offbeat, providing Manal with more time to focus on the business itself.
Grow in New York first, expand to other cities down the line
Since launching in November 2015, Eat Offbeat employs around 20 chefs, and has cooked for over 30,000 people all over New York City.
Eat Offbeat has grown since its launch in November 2015, and continues to grow in the city.
Now that Eat Offbeat has established systems and processes that work around recruitment and training, and has a clear sense of their customer base and demand, they are working to expand further in New York City. Once they’re able to reach a point where they feel as though they’re ready to expand further in terms of reach and capacity, they plan to scale by expanding to other US cities, and then potentially even beyond food.
“The plan for us is to really grow our model here in New York, test it and grow it here in New York first, before we go elsewhere. Ideally, in the future, we would love to replicate model elsewhere in all those cities where there’s a big community of what we call adventurous eaters. The idea is to start going beyond food, after that, start seeing what other experiences we could offer that are not necessarily strictly related to food, but going a step beyond that.”