New Startup Offers Food Cooked by Refugees

NEW YORK — When Manal Kahi moved to New York City to attend the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, she immediately set out to stock her apartment with her favorite staple: hummus. Accustomed to the fresh, homemade variety in her native Lebanon, however, Manal quickly became disappointed with the prepackaged selection she encountered in American supermarkets. “It didn’t even come close to what I get back home — the kind my grandmother makes, or my aunt’s,” she says. “That’s when I started making my own.”

Manal’s homespun hummus soon became a hit among her friends — and looked like a market opportunity to her brother,Wissam Kahi, a graduate of Columbia Business School.  The siblings got to thinking: In Lebanon, some of the best hummus was made by Syrian expats; what if they could employ Syrian refugees in New York City to cook and deliver the hummus to individual customers, providing work opportunities for the refugees while offering adventurous foodies an authentic experience? The two then expanded their concept, realizing that the market for authentic ethnic food was much broader than just hummus — and Eat Offbeat was born.

Eat Offbeat employs refugees from around the world to cook their own family recipes and deliver the meals to customers in NYC. Hungry clients place same-day orders online by 4 p.m. and the fresh food is delivered in reheatable containers by dinnertime. Each meal consists of an appetizer, entrée, and side dish, and costs about $20.

Wissam and Manal say the startup aims to provide customers not just with authentic ethnic food, but with genuine cultural experiences. “[We want you to] feel like you’re in downtown Baghdad, for instance, or that you’ve been invited to a chef’s own home,” Manal says.

Eat Offbeat recently won $25,000 in seed money from the new Tamer Fund for Social Ventures, which provides early-stage Columbia–affiliated social ventures with financial grants as well as access to the resources — such as one-on-one guidance — of the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise. The business currently employs three refugees from Iraq, Eritrea, and Nepal, and has plans to expand to 10 refugees this year and up to 30 by 2019.

To learn more about Eat Offbeat, visit http://eatoffbeat.com.