D.C. restaurant incubator Foodhini was ahead of the curve when the novel coronavirus reached Washington. Operating out of a kitchen in Brookland, the company was built as a delivery service that gives partnered refugee chefs a place to share their food and culture. Although it has added pop-up stalls at two local Whole Foods stores and has moved into catering, delivery orders have sustained Foodhini during a dine-in ban put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Founder Noobtsaa Vang says the company has seen a 50 to 75 percent jump in online orders over the first month of the public health crisis, and he wants to share that audience with even more immigrant cooks. So the company has added a new “Foodhini Marketplace” feature that allows independent vendors to sell packaged food on its platform. The first partners to join are M’Panadas and Arepas & Empanadas District.
“Restaurants and food producers are taking a big hit,” Vang says. “We have this platform to reach customers. How do we use that to support other fellow immigrant food producers?”
He met M’Panadas’s Colombian-born owner, Margarita Womack, years ago while cooking together in Union Kitchen. She has since grown the retail business to sell empanadas inside local health food stores and Whole Foods across the Mid-Atlantic.
“She reached out to me and said, ‘We are trying to pivot to figure out how to keep business going,” Vang says.
He sold out of the first 50-order batch of her crispy South American treats in the first three days. After seeing some early success with the marketplace, Vang plans to add more partners soon.
“Restaurants are hit so hard. Revenue is down 80 percent,” he says. “Hours are being cut and people are being laid off. It’s been really tough. We said, we already have this online platform to leverage and help other restaurants sell their stuff.”
Foodhini’s full-time chefs are already serving dishes from the Ivory Coast, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Laos. Selling market items will help the company make up for some of the revenue it lost outside of delivery. Its year-old food stalls at Whole foods stores in Foggy Bottom and H Street NE had to temporarily shut down.
“It was going great, and then COVID-19 hit,” Vang says. “People are staying home. Habits of where they eat have changed, so we had to scale back there.”
Foodhini’s latest full-time chef, Veronique, relocated from the Ivory Coast last year. The French-speaking chef joined the company in September through a connection with refugee agency Ethiopian Community Development Council. She employs a French fricassee technique for chicken that’s pan-fried in parsley sauce, steeped with vegetables, and served with vermicelli jasmine rice. Foodhini’s resident Lao chef, Mam, makes a dish with tofu or chicken and pumpkin curry with jasmine rice.
Foodhini was in the process of expanding into more Whole Foods locations, but those plans are now on hold. Foodhini had also built an events business, catering weddings at the National Cathedral and corporate events at various Hilton hotels. A large base of nonprofit customers included the World Bank.
“Many are put on hold, but we will be ready when it picks back up,” Vang says.
The “silver lining,” he says, is Foodhini had already had an in-house delivery team ready to capitalize on limited dining options around town. The service radius recently expanded into suburban Maryland, including Takoma Park, Bethesda, Silver Spring, Chevy Chase, and Mount Rainier.
“That keeps us alive and afloat,” Vang says. “We were positioned with strong infrastructure for delivery. We provide a great way to still experience different foods from different places.”
Internal operations have adjusted to the times, with workers maintaining 6-foot distances inside the kitchen. Drivers wear masks and gloves while dropping off packages outside customers’ doors.
“We’ve had to make a lot of changes on the fly to make sure people are safe,” Vang says.