Local Roots recently interviewed Ciara McKeown, the Marketing & Partnerships Manager at FoodtoEat. FoodtoEat is a woman-owned corporate catering concierge service that focuses on working with immigrant, women and minority-run restaurants, food trucks and caterers throughout NYC.
Can you tell us a little bit about FoodtoEat and how it started?
FoodtoEat was started in 2011 by Deepti Sharma. Deepti comes from a political background and after years of campaign work, community-building activities and a passion for diverse food choices as a first generation Indian American, she stumbled upon an idea while waiting in line at a food truck for a cookie. She realized that some of NYC’s most delicious food creators were so small that they didn’t have the infrastructure to reach tens of thousands of potential clients who could make their business sustainable. What started as an individual ordering platform for small restaurants soon morphed into a concierge service that connects food vendors with opportunities for growth - ultimately helping them strengthen their own business skills.What is FoodtoEat doing to empower small businesses and the chef’s behind them?
It’s our mission to bring people together around the communal table and to create a more diverse food community by championing small businesses from every neighborhood. When we start working with a new vendor (as we call them), essentially we become an extra branch of their sales and marketing efforts- presenting their menu to our clients, recommending dishes that our clients should try and placing the final catering order in our system. Once it’s placed, our system sends it directly to the vendor and their team so that they can prepare the food and execute the delivery on the day of the meal. The goal is to get their food in front of corporate clients that they might not otherwise have had access to so that local businesses can expand their reach beyond their standard delivery zone. Our idea is to get companies to start thinking about diversity and using their corporate purchasing power to invest back in small businesses and the communities that they work out of. So not only are we providing our clients with a variety of culinary experiences, we’re also helping these amazing food businesses book large catering opportunities.
#IMadeYourFood is an ongoing social campaign that focuses on telling the personal stories of the local food vendors that we work with at FoodtoEat. We found that a lot of our clients were confused about where their food was coming from- if we were cooking it, if someone else was cooking it and we were delivering it, if we were employing immigrant, women and minority chefs… our mission wasn’t translating correctly. So we decided to start interviewing and photographing the owners, chefs and operators of the local businesses that we work with to put the focus back on the core of our business: the vendors.
Today in NYC, we can get food pretty much anywhere, at any hour and we tend to forget about the men and women who are staying open until midnight or waking up at 3AM to create that food that we receive. We get so wrapped up in our busy lives that we don’t take the time to think about and appreciate the person, or people, who put our meal together. We believe that it’s important that our clients (and New Yorkers in general) have a better understanding of the human beings that create and cook and deliver their food everyday: their background, their beliefs, their passion, their “story.” And that by telling their stories, we can create an emotional connection with food again, one that’s been lost as the accessibility of food grows. We hope that sharing these stories will bridge the gap between vendor and consumer and make consumers more intentional with their food choices.
One of my favorite stories is the story of Charles Chipengule, the chef and owner of Jaa Dijo Dom, an African catering business that serves cuisines from different African nations to educate customers about dishes that are traditional for each region. Charles started working in food in his native Botswana, Africa but due to gender stereotypes, he was never fully given the opportunity to pursue his dream of becoming a chef. So he decided to emigrate to the U.S., saving up for a year and eventually selling his house and his car to be able to afford the plane ticket. When he arrived in New York, he started washing dishes at an Indian restaurant and then hopped around, working at different restaurants throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens before enrolling in cooking courses to further improve his skills as well as get familiar with food plating and the utensils and machinery that he didn’t have in Africa. After working in so many different restaurants, he realized that there was a serious need for African food in NYC’s food industry and that he could make the cuisine more accessible to New Yorkers. He started his catering business, Jaa Dijo Dom, in June 2017 and in two years has gone from running the business by himself (prepping the food, cooking the food and doing the deliveries alone) to having five employees. Although it’s been difficult for Charles to navigate the food industry as an immigrant- he’s had to put all of his own money into the business as well as borrow money from friends and family because banks won’t give him a loan- he’s never given up. He sees both the culture in Botswana and the conversation around African cuisine in New York changing and it motivates him to keep working. His passion and his perseverance despite all of the challenges that he’s faced is truly inspiring.
How can men and women throughout NYC get involved in the #IMadeYourFood campaign?
By sharing the stories being told! The only way that we can get consumers to think about these small businesses and spark change in the industry is by creating awareness. Now more than ever before men and women are looking at where they spend their money and the impact of their purchase. By putting a face to the food that they’re receiving, it creates an emotional connection to the food that we believe is key for humanizing the food industry again. You can help us make a difference in the local food community by reading the stories on the #IMadeYourFood tab on our website or by checking out our social media and sharing a story that resonates with you with the hashtags #IMadeYourFood and #IMYF. Tag us @foodtoeat!
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