A company based in New York City is recruiting a group of refugees from around the world to help bring their own culinary delights to the Big Apple and beyond.
When Lebanon native Manal Kahi joined her brother, Wissam Kahi, in New York City in 2013 to earn her master’s degree at Columbia University, she soon found herself missing her grandmother’s hummus. Store-bought American hummus couldn’t hold a candle to the homemade stuff from home, so to quell her homesickness, Manal pulled out her grandmother’s recipe and began making it herself.
“I had high standards when it comes to hummus, and I was a bit disappointed with the variety that I found here in grocery stores, I practically called up my grandmother and asked her how to make her hummus,” Manal, 32, tells PEOPLE. “I started making that recipe at home. And everyone around me started raving about it!”
Manal saw that there was a market for this homemade brand of hummus amongst her friends, and it gave her an idea that she mentioned to her brother—they should find a way to sell it.
As the siblings started to think about the idea in 2013, there was a refugee crisis occurring in Lebanon. A quarter of the country’s population was made up of Syrian refugees, totaling some 1.3 million people in a country of just over 4 million.
“You can only imagine the type of issues and hostility that these refugees were facing, amongst many other issues,” Manal says. “There was a little bit of guilt that we felt by not being able to do anything about it. But then there was this opportunity to do something here in the United States.”
The siblings realized that the people who could make hummus that tasted like the one from home were people who had actually come from home.
“That was really it,” Manal says. “We wanted to bring great hummus made by Syrian refugees here.”
With that inspiration, Manal and Wissam, 43, founded Eat Offbeat, a catering company that provides culinary jobs to refugees from Africa, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Nepal and around the world. The company is for-profit, meaning employees pay taxes and “bring something of value to the local economy,” the siblings explain. These refugees-turned-chefs are also introducing New Yorkers to foods they might not easily find, even in such an expansive city.
“We knew there were so many other dishes that, just like hummus, were so much better when they were homemade, when they were made based on a grandmother’s recipe versus an industrial recipe,” Manal says.
Eat Offbeat operated out of spaces provided by WeWork—a company that provides shared office space for startups and entrepreneurs, and recently announced its own global refugee hiring goal to employ 1,500 refugees over the next five years. With the help of the International Rescue Committee—who helps the company identify home cooks who want to be in the food industry—Eat Offbeat has hired about 30 people, with chefs stemming from about 17 different countries. Once a chef is brought on, they have complete freedom to do any dish they choose, and in this freedom, they help to expose new sets of people to dishes from their home countries with a dash of their own spin on it.
“The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive so far. Most of our customers actually come to us, so they hear about either through the media or someone recommends us,” Manal says. “Usually, they come to us because of the mission. They are intrigued by what we do or by the entire story.”
Eat Offbeat is up for a $1 million grand prize at WeWork’s Creator Awards Global Finals on Jan. 17. “The Creator Awards is a global initiative that recognizes and rewards companies and individuals across all industries and stages of growth,” Adam Neumann, co-founder and CEO of WeWork, tells PEOPLE. “From Austin to Berlin to Tel Aviv, over 10,000 people attended seven events around the world and WeWork helped support over 150 entrepreneurs making a difference in their communities.”
If they win, Manal says they would use the money to move their kitchen in Long Island City to a storefront in another part of the city so their chefs are more accessible to the public.
“Now, the challenge is to bring it beyond New York, and maybe, even to other countries,” Manal explains. “It’s going to help us invest a little more in tech and make sure we turn into a company that sustains itself even better… and find a new home and keep growing.”
Expanding the business and continuing their mission to give jobs to refugees will hopefully show the country, and the world, the value of displaced peoples.
“This is a way to give people an insight into the culture and the families, and really to connect with people,” Manal says. “Not to necessarily learn about that country and that culture through the eyes of that person, but through their hands and the dish of that person.”