by Manal Kahi
June 15, 2019
This interview with Manal Kahi, co-founder and CEO of EAT OFFBEAT, was conducted and condensed by frank news.
EAT OFFBEAT is a New York City based catering company that works exclusively with refugees.
How did you get started on this work? I know the crux of the business is in hiring refugees, are there particular guidelines about who qualifies as a refugee?
Manal: We're a catering company. We deliver authentic meals that are entirely conceived, prepared, and delivered by refugees here in New York City. Basically the model is we hire talented refugees who are looking to be in the food industry.
They happen to be with the UNHCR, they happen to be refugees by status – but they are chefs by nature.
We train them, for those who haven't had a professional culinary training or haven't had experience working in profession kitchens – we train them so they become profession chefs, we help them scale their recipes and then we deliver their dishes. It's the way they make it at home but they prepare it at our commercial kitchen and we deliver that to mostly offices and private parties or events all over New York City.
image via EAT OFFBEAT
Does hiring a refugee have any complications or benefits?
Manal: Complications? Not necessarily. They are usually referred to us by the IRC, the International Rescue Committee, and maybe that's a good place to answer your question of how we decide they're refugees.
We have a partnership with the IRC, which is one of nine resettlement agencies in the U.S. They help refugees. They help them even before coming here, they provide assistance to refugees filing for refugee status back home.
And once someone is approved they go through the very lengthy security process. They get to the U.S. and the IRC is mandated by the government to assist them in the settlement process. That includes picking them up at the airport, finding accommodations. Part of the assistance they provide is also finding jobs or employment and this is where we come in. Whenever we're hiring they send us candidates who are looking for a job who are recently resettled or who simply just want to be in the food industry. And that's how we hire.
So to answer your question on definition of who is a refugee for us, it's really whoever gets referred to us by the IRC.
Are you hiring full-time or part-time?
Manal: There's a good mix of both. It's a blend. Anyone who's a chef, who has items on the menu, who is contributing to the menu, that's a full-time position, because we need that chef to be at the kitchen whenever we get an order. We have a few positions that are more part-time.
How many people are you working with at the moment?
Manal: We're close to thirty people day to day.
Manal: And that includes every function. That's chefs, sous chefs, delivery operators, customer service, everything all together. And it's a mix of refugees but also a couple of Americans. Especially on administrative functions.
Are you looking to expand beyond New York City?
Manal: Not necessarily and definitely not right now. We would never say "Never", that might happen an some point but for now our focus is really on New York City alone.
Are you set up as a for-profit business or a 501c3?
Manal: We are a for-profit business.
Do you feel like you're mission driven?
Manal: We are definitely mission driven. Definitely heavily mission driven. It's what guides us, it's what defines us, and it's part of who we are. At the same time we see ourselves as a food company first, we are definitely food centric, we're people centric, and the mission is very heavy. But it's very important that we are making money because that's the only way we can actually achieve our mission and keep hiring people and keep paying them decent wages.
Business is super important but for us it doesn't makes sense unless there is the social mission part attached.
Can you tell me a little bit about your own background?
Manal: I'm originally from Lebanon. I came here as a graduate student in 2013. My background was in environmental management. My goal was to go a bit more into international climate affairs. I was working on climate affairs in the Middle East and I wanted to go international. That's part of why I chose to come to New York, to be close to the U.N., multi-national institutions or organizations. And then when I came here, I was a bit disappointed with hummus in grocery stores –
Manal: So that's really what sparked the idea initially. I started making my own. I got my grandmothers recipe and when that became successful here we thought why not commercialize it.
The first step was the hummus, the next step was...
Manal: Exactly the first step was the hummus and clearly the idea was not just make hummus and sell it, it was initially to have it made by refugees here who were being resettled here in New York City who wanted to share their hummus recipes with the rest of New York and commercialize that. That was really the idea early on. Then after that we went to studying the market, looking at the idea and we thought it was much better to go global. We though why not open it to any refugees coming from all over the world and discover these recipes that, just like hummus, are so much better when their homemade or made by someone who knows how it should taste.
We hire based on talent and passion for food regardless of where people come from, but so far it's been very diverse.
Do you think that it's hard for refugees to find work placement?
Manal: From what I see, my own personal opinion, it's different when you're an immigrant versus when you're a refugee. The only difference is, mainly when you're an immigrant you made the choice yourself, so very often you would have taken English classes, you made the choice as to where to go and when to go and why to go. But when you're here as a refugee very often you actually had to.
And why that makes it a bit harder is because when you come as an immigrant, when it's you're own choice, you may have come as a student, you have a bit more leeway and a bit more time to give it more consideration and decide whether you're going to go and what you're going to do exactly. Whereas if you come as refugee very often you just have to flee and you have to make it work with whatever.
I wouldn't say it's extremely hard to find a job. Jobs are available. It's similar to anyone who's looking for a job. It is definitely much harder to find a job that is a decent wage and a good job that makes you proud and that brings your dignity back – because very often you don't have transferable skills, you probably don't speak the language, so if you had training as an accountant before coming here it's much much harder to find a job as an accountant than to find a job at something else you're not necessarily passionate about.
Is there anything you've learned in the process of working with refugees about the refugee process?
Manal: One thing we've learned is that simply by providing a work environment and an atmosphere where people form a community, and they help each other even indirectly by being part of that kitchen and part of that community, people start to integrate and adjust and get adapted to their new lives much easier than when they're isolated and do not have a supportive community around them.
I see it happening in our kitchen.
I see a very high level of resilience that I think is notable and particular. All of our chefs, you can just see it, they're ready to do whatever it takes to succeed and they're very committed to the work they are doing. They are also very adaptable. Whenever we have a problem, something going wrong, everyone is very involved in the work and passionate about it and finds a solution. I think there's that added characteristic that is very common among everyone who's on our team.
What are your goals moving forward?
Manal: We have three goals. The first is to provide quality jobs to talented refugees who want to be in the food industry. The second is more about New Yorkers – it's about introducing New Yorkers to this menu and off the beaten path cuisines and somehow connect them, build bridges, between them eating our food at their homes or offices and us cooking in the kitchen. And the third ultimately is about changing the narrative around refugees, showcasing a different and more positive story.
What do you think the current narrative is around refugees?
Manal: That's a good question. Very often the narrative is around a more negative rhetoric, "they are stealing our jobs, not contributing to the economy, taking resources away." Or if it's positive it's all about how vulnerable the community is and how they always need charity, they always need help. Those are two concepts we are trying to change or at least provide one example where it's not necessarily the case, and we really push our customers to shift perspectives a bit, change perspectives a bit. Because in our case we refugees, we immigrants, are actually helping New Yorkers discover something new. It's all about shifting the table on that.
We're a 'for profit' we're not a 'non-profit'. Part of that is to show our chefs are contributing to the economy. They are contributing to making a richer food scene here in New York. They're active contributors to the economy. They're adding value. They're bringing value. And that's the other thing we want to highlight. They're not relying on charity, they're not taking they are contributing, they're paying their taxes.
The narrative becomes less about pity and charity and more about contribution and resilience.
Seeing people for who they are and what they have to bring rather than the status they came with.
image via EAT OFFBEAT