“People want to get involved, but there’s no bite-size way for them to get involved,” said Ashkar, whose motto at Falafel Inc. is “food for good.”
At the shop, the bite-size star is the falafel — crisp, light nuggets based on a recipe from Ashkar’s mother. His parents are both Palestinian immigrants.
Why philanthropy through falafel? Beyond his personal affinity for the fried chickpea balls, Ashkar saw firsthand how falafel — really good falafel at that — was a staple at the refugee camps he has visited. To further emphasize the message, the shop has a rough, plywood-heavy design, to resemble what you might see in a camp. Pictures of refugees hang on the walls.
Ashkar is the chief executive and founder of the Hult Prize Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that sponsors competitions for students launching social enterprises to solve global problems. This year’s challenge (prize: $1 million in seed money), selected by former president Bill Clinton, is “Refugees — Reawakening Human Potential,” and Ashkar decided he’d try to do the same thing the organization was asking of others.
He ultimately would like to open 100 stores around the country, with the goal to having franchises owned by refugees who worked their way up through the company. Ashkar would also like to eventually transition the company into an employee-owned operation.
Perhaps it sounds a bit heavy for a falafel shop, but Ashkar said he thinks he has the right balance for being a social-minded food business.
“In terms of being salesy, we don’t sell it,” he said of the charitable aspect. That’s because Falafel Inc. doesn’t have to, though plenty of customers to date seem willing to be educated. It’s built into the concept, and customers won’t feel pressure or guilt. (Similarly, over Memorial Day weekend, Ashkar converted his former franchise of Oklahoma Joe’s into a new brand, District BBQ, which will donate 10 percent of its profits to efforts aimed at the economic development of low-income workers, such as through English training.)
Ashkar hopes more businesses will adopt his model, but there are plenty of other ways restaurants and food operations are doing their part to raise money and awareness.
Owner Rose Previte of Compass Rose has been hosting “khachapuri dialogues” (named after its signature dish, the Georgian “butter pizza”) since January to talk about all kinds of issues. May’s focused on the Syrian crisis. Also last month, the restaurant’s Bedouin tent, where reserved group dinners consist of a trip across the Compass Rose menu, featured Syrian food, with proceeds going toward groups doing humanitarian work there. The restaurant recently hosted a refugee welcome dinner, too.
Previte said the news coming out of the region has made her feel helpless. She said her contribution may be small, but it’s something tangible that, without being too preachy, takes advantage of her best resources — space and food.
“We’re a restaurant. This still needs to be light,” Previte said. “We’re not a think tank. We’re not a nonprofit.”
She counts her customers as another valuable resource since many of them are service-minded with global experience in government or nonprofit organizations.
Receptive customers are one reason Noobtsaa Philip Vang thinks his Union Kitchen-based business, Foodhini, has been successful. The meal delivery service employs immigrant chefs, and two of the three current chefs are Syrian refugees.
In Washington, Vang said, “People are just really socially aware of what’s going on around the world.” Residents are also well-traveled and open to trying different foods, he said.
When customers order a meal, they’re directly supporting the immigrants, who have a chance to tell diners about their food and themselves on personalized cards included in the package. In addition to the three main chefs, Vang employs other immigrants in positions such as line cook and delivery driver. Eventually, through working with churches and resettlement agencies, he hopes to have a total roster of 10 to 12 chefs, each making two or three dishes a day.
Doron Petersan’s vegan Sticky Fingers Bakery has devised its own process for vetting candidates for its charity of the month. Organizations apply to be the beneficiaries of a special cupcake, and several bakery employees put their heads together to choose them. A dollar from each cupcake sale goes to the selected group. May’s organization is Comfort Cases, which provides supplies and other items to children in foster care. Previous charities of the month include the Human Rights Campaign and Alley Cat Rescue.
Petersan said local food businesses are particularly engaged in their communities, citing the Day Without Immigrants and Women’s March on Washington as examples of how they’re socially aware and willing to take a stand. Plus, she said, “Most of us did something else beforehand,” meaning owners and chefs often already have their own set of causes and issues they’re dedicated to.
“There’s a really big connection here between serving and service,” Compass Rose’s Previte said.
Petersan likes doing a featured cupcake each month because it’s an easy way to track donations, but it also fits perfectly with the business model of a bakery. The cupcake might keep people coming back, so the cycle of sales and contributions can continue.
Ashkar said the sheer volume of transactions that food businesses do make them the ideal platform for greater good.
“I can’t think of another business that touches as many customers on a daily basis,” he said.