Flavors of Home

Manal Kahi

Flavors of Home

  • Words Jacqueline Raposo
  • Photographs Manal Kahi
Flavors of Home

Flavors of Home

“From day one, I never felt like a stranger in this city,” says Manal Kahi of the place she now calls home. “It didn’t take a lot of time to feel like I blended in. Everyone is a stranger here, but everyone is a local.”

In 2013, Manal emigrated from Lebanon to New York for a Masters program in International Public Affairs at Columbia University. While studying for her degree, she found she missed the flavors of home – hummus more than anything. Variations were plentiful on store shelves, but none touched the quality of what she could make herself. Which planted the seeds of an idea.

 

 

 

 

Flavors of Home

She had come to New York during the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon, which by 2014 had 1.5 million refugees flooding a country of 4 million citizens. Living conditions were harsh, prompting fierce phobias from one part of the population onto the other. “There was a little guilt on my end,” she says of her inability to help from abroad. “My grandmother was from Aleppo. So it just made sense – why not have Syrian refugees start making good hummus here?” She expanded the idea into a business that would train passionate home cook refugees from various countries to become professionally licensed kitchen chefs. Each would bring a recipe to incorporate into the catering menu, and they would cook each other’s cuisine as a team. She would rent a shared commercial kitchen and cater to offices and larger parties with a menu representing the best of home cooked food from around the world.

The Columbia program encouraged social entrepreneurship, but Manal didn’t consider herself an entrepreneur. She had never sold anything before. She had no prior experience owning a business. She knew financial investors wouldn’t take a risk on her. With graduation looming, she could either apply to jobs in the corporate world or take the plunge in creating her own.

 

 

 

 

“This was a circumstance where I could afford to fail,” she says of her decision to jump. “I gave myself six months. If it worked, I’d keep doing it. If not, I’d get a job with so much learning and so much to tell that I’d be much more qualified.”

Manal laid out a business plan and got a financial grant from Columbia, she believes they bought into her passion more than anything else. She then tackled the process of setting up her company step-by-step, venturing into unknown territory by Googling how to file the proper paperwork and navigate the complicated New York permit system. “There are rules, and you just have to find them. It’s not as challenging or as daunting as you think it will be,” she promises of the initial steps made easier the Internet.

In 2015, Manal officially founded Eat OffBeat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flavors of Home
Flavors of Home

In less than three years, Eat Offbeat has expanded to a staff of seventeen women and one man. She attributes the imbalance first to the greater number of women who immigrate as refugees. And then, as Eat Offbeat focuses on hiring those who identify as strong home cooks, she sees a gender bias as well. “Hopefully that’s something we’re changing today,” she says of her staff expressing that only men become professional chefs in their home countries. “They tend to think of themselves not as great chefs because they clearly lack role models. My dream is that some of them open their own restaurants someday. That would be great.”

Until then, Manal focuses on being a star entrepreneur in her own right, intentionally working within the for-profit market. “When people meet me, many say, ‘I’m a big fan of your organization’ or ‘I love your project,” she shares of a frustration of the non-profit assumption. “You wouldn’t say that to a restaurant owner or the founder of a company, right? This is not a project; it’s a company. It’s a point for us to prove — that you can be a social business and still be a profitable business.”

 

 

 

 

Flavors of Home

As an entrepreneur, Manal’s risk with that original grant has paid off. Eat Offbeat has now served over 25,000 meals. Her Kickstarter campaign for a cookbook featuring recipes and stories from her refugee chefs nearly doubled its $50,000 goal. Her employees are adapting to their new country, their new work, and their new language: “I can think of one chef who’s extremely confident now,” Manal shares. “She does very well in English, takes in deliveries, and manages the kitchen by herself. To me that’s impressive; how people can adapt so quickly and, if given the right space, become so confident.” With the success of her employees, Manal doesn’t need to micromanage daily operations; instead, she focuses on expanding her business with the full confidence of a true entrepreneur.

“Building systems and seeing them work is a great feeling,” she reflects on her growth. “It makes me want to build more systems. That’s one of the things that give me a rush.”

 

 

 

 

As she looks back on her transition into business ownership, Manal recalls reading that the most successful entrepreneurs grow up with business ownership in their ambition. She knows that’s not always the case, and wants others to recognize that through her experience. To Manal, risking all for a company you believe in and embracing the possibility of failure is more important than having succeeded in business before.

“I always acknowledge that I might fail,” she says of decisions she makes today. “We make a decision: If it works, great! If it doesn’t, you learn from it and after, maybe, make something better that will succeed. You turn the page, and at the end, something works.”

 

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Order from the Eat Offbeat Menu

Thank you to Manal Kahi for providing the Photographs. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flavors of Home

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