If you live in New York and you’re tired of the offerings on Seamless, now there’s another option for lunch delivery: food you’ve probably never heard of before, prepared by a refugee chef.
A mother from Nepal will make you dumplings called momos; an Iraqi mom will make you oroog, a tender, spicy beef patty. Eat Offbeat, a new meal delivery startup, finds the most talented cooks among new arrivals, hires them to work in a commercial kitchen, and then puts the most interesting food on the menu.
It’s a way to give newly-arrived refugees much-needed jobs, but it’s also a way to offer truly authentic food from all over the world. “Of course we want to help refugees and help them find employment, but we don’t define ourselves as someone who helps refugees–we’re helping New Yorkers discover something new, and see the value in what these refugees are bringing,” says Manal Kahi, cofounder of Eat Offbeat. “It’s really about helping New Yorkers rather than the opposite. We want to change the narrative around that.”
When Kahi moved to New York from Lebanon two years ago, one of the first things she noticed was food. “I was a little disappointed with the hummus I found in supermarkets,” she says. “So I started making my own, based on a family recipe. People around me hadn’t had homemade hummus before, and they found it mind-blowing. When I mentioned that to my brother, who’s a very business-minded guy, he said, ‘Hey, we should sell it.'”
As they thought about who they could work with to make the hummus in bigger batches, Kahi thought of Syrian refugees. “The refugee crisis was already a thing in Lebanon when I left,” she says. “So I had that in the back of my mind–I felt a bit helpless about the situation.” Her hummus recipe originally came from her grandmother, who was Syrian. Kahi and her brother realized that new refugees in the U.S. could be ideal cooks for the startup, and that they could make more than just hummus.
“We ourselves were very curious about other countries too, so that’s why we thought why not make it a bit more global, and include people from everywhere,” she says. So far, the startup works with three women, from Eritrea, Iraq, and Nepal, all referred by the International Refugee Committee, a large nonprofit that helps refugees with resettlement. An executive chef trains them on commercial food preparation, and helps plan the menu.
The startup offers meal delivery, rather than a brick-and-mortar restaurant, in order to reach more people. “It’s much more scalable,” she says. “We really want all New Yorkers to be able to experience this kind of food, this kind of new cuisine.” There’s a minimum order of five servings to begin with–intended for a group of coworkers, a corporate lunch, or a dinner party–while the company grows. Later, they’ll offer individual orders. They hope to quickly grow, and plan to hire a chef from another country next week.
“Once this is successful, once we do well in New York, we would love to expand to other cities where people are curious, adventurous eaters,” says Kahi. “There are refugees everywhere.”