Food for thought

Inside the refugee-run kitchen helping to change the narrative around immigration

Many bosses claim their company is like a family. In the case of New York-based food delivery service Eat Offbeat, however, it’s more than just a cliché. The for-profit business, which was founded by Manal Kahi and her brother Wissam in late 2015, hires refugees to cook their native cuisines for corporate clients or private parties, catering for as many as 800 people.

“When you go to the kitchen, it does feel like a family, because everyone has empathy for the others because they’ve all been through the same thing,” says Manal. “And, of course, they’re all cooking together, and usually you do that with family.”

The close-knit team contains its own support mechanism for new arrivals, she adds. “There’s always someone who will offer help with the commute, or explain how to open up a bank account – all the little details.”

Eat Offbeat was born of hummus, and the global refugee crisis. The siblings had moved to the US from Lebanon to attend college, when Manal, missing the taste of homemade food, began preparing hummus at home based on a recipe passed down by her Syrian grandmother. Her friends were wowed by how much better it tasted than the brands available in supermarkets and restaurants.

“That’s when we realised there was a business opportunity,” says Manal.

At the same time, a refugee crisis was unfolding in the Middle East, with millions of Syrians fleeing across the border to Lebanon and other neighbouring Arab states.

“It was a natural connection to say, ‘Why not have Syrian refugees make great hummus, or whatever else, and introduce New Yorkers to it?’” she explains.

“People want to hear a different story and they want to show that they support what we’re doing, especially in the current political climate”A $25,000 grant from Colombia University’s Tamer Fund for Social Ventures, matched by a similar amount from the founders, was enough to get Eat Offbeat up and running.

A little over 18 months in and the business is stable and profitable. Kahi says they are “growing every month”, and the staff is too. Currently there are four people working on the admin side and “a mix of around 20 full and part-time chefs and delivery operators,” hailing from countries including Syria, Iraq and Eritrea. Signature dishes range from a Nepalese cauliflower dish called Manchurian, to Iraqi biryani.

Kahi admits that many customers come at first because they’re intrigued by Eat Offbeat’s story and social message.

“We know, from experience, that there are a lot of people – at least in New York – who support us and support our mission,” she says. “They want to hear a different story and they want to show that they support what we’re doing, especially in the current political climate. So they buy our food, initially, as a way to voice their opinions.”

But, she stresses, “most of our customers come back. And when they come back, they’re coming back for the food, because it’s really good”.

That’s no doubt helped by the fact that chief culinary officer, Juan Suarez de Lezo, is a professional chef who’d previously worked at Michelin-starred restaurants. “And he’s the one training [our chefs] to make sure it’s all standardised”.  

Kahi says it’s hard to put an accurate number on repeat custom right now “because we’re still growing, so we have a lot of new customers”, but ventures that, compared to the industry standard, “it’s a very good rate”.

In the future, Kahi says they would like to see Eat Offbeat replicated in “every city where there is a community of what we like to call ‘adventurous eaters’ – those who are willing to go the extra mile to discover new, off-the-beaten-path cuisines. And cities that are also hosting newly arrived refugees, of course.”

An equally important goal is that Eat Offbeat’s staff become known for something other than their official status.

“Clearly our mission is that we hire refugees,” she says. “But we know from them that they don’t like people to frame them by their status. They want people to see them beyond that: as mothers, family members, great chefs, artists, or whatever else.”