Afghan mantu. Eritrean doro alicha. Laotian nam khao lettuce wraps. If you search, you can find these dishes at a NoVA restaurant. But wouldn’t you rather eat them at home right now? Noobtsa Vang, CEO and founder of Foodhini, is betting on it.
The DC-based business currently delivers to Arlington, and Vang expects to expand that to include Alexandria, but starting next month, international food lovers will be able to taste his immigrant chefs’ cuisine anywhere in the country, including elsewhere in NoVA. How does it work? Foodhini kits include ingredients and a recipe, ready to be prepared Blue Apron-style. There’s even information about the chef who created the dish, which is the brand’s raison d’être.
Vang’s parents came to the U.S. as refugees from Laos. Though they struggled to find appropriate work to help support their family, “I was always eating so well,” recalls Vang. When he moved to DC to attend Georgetown, “I was really missing my mom’s home cooking,” he says of her Hmong food, a combination of cuisines from around Southeast Asia. “I was hoping maybe I could find an auntie or grandma in the neighborhood.”
This desire turned into an idea for a company that could help hungry people like him, but also people like his mom, who were struggling to find a job that capitalized on their greatest skill.
In 2016, he joined the Halcyon Incubator, a program that he credits with his company’s early success, as a fellow. He says Halcyon’s frequent pitch sessions allowed him to learn to express Foodhini’s strengths in a way that’s especially important for a social entrepreneur like him. “What I really appreciated about Halcyon is giving me the space to understand Foodhini’s story and my story as a person and be able to share that,” he says. Of course, getting to live in the incubator’s “beautiful Georgetown mansion” for six months didn’t hurt either.
Foodhini expanded from a meal delivery service to also include pop-ups in a number of Whole Foods stores, but those are currently closed due to COVID-19. The pandemic is also what inspired Vang to look to e-commerce and nationwide delivery. His chefs, mostly recruited through refugee resettlement agencies, prepare interesting food so customers worn down by the monotony of cooking at home and child care don’t have to think about what’s for dinner.
It’s a service that helps the chefs as much as the consumers. Vang says that a number of chefs and team members have been able to purchase homes and cars for the first time. “Our original goal was creating living wages and economic mobility,” he explains, adding it’s exciting to see it come to fruition. And, next month, diners from around the country can enjoy the fruits of the chefs’ labor from anywhere.
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