Wissam Kahi, a Lebanese immigrant and entrepreneur, owes much to his grandmother, who taught him to cook and appreciate food, but he can thank Donald Trump for his early business success.
In the past few weeks--starting right around the time Trump took office--the co-founder of Eat Offbeat has seen a spike in sales at his New York City-based catering business. Last month alone, Kahi--whose company hires refugees from all over to design and prepare meals for events--says his sales doubled. The uptick, he adds, is absolutely tied to Trump's presidency, or more precisely, Trump's recent efforts to prevent immigrants from certain countries from entering the United States.
"February tends to be a slow month, but this was our best month ever," says Kahi, who wouldn't disclose annual sales, but did reveal his company made more than 11,000 deliveries in 2016, its first full year of business. "There's definitely been a clear pick-up since the travel ban," he adds.
The president signed an executive order last month temporarily barring citizens of seven predominately-Muslim countries from entering the U.S.--and barring refugees indefinitely. While that initial plan was thwarted by a judge in San Francisco, the president issued a revised executive order in early March. That measure has also been temporarily blocked by federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland.
Even so, the effort to prevent refugees from entering the U.S. is helping companies who hire them--like Eat Offbeat--enjoy their own kind of "Trump bump." "We try to stay off politics, but obviously our existence is a bit of a political statement," says Kahi, who attributes his recent success to New Yorkers' increased awareness of the refugee community.
Kahi isn't the only entrepreneur experiencing a boost thanks to Trump. "In a weird way, [it's] been the best thing for our company," says Chris Chancey, the co-founder and CEO of Amplio Recruiting. His Atlanta-based staffing business resettles refugees from countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Congo, many of whom work in factories that supply parts to companies like Tesla, Google, and Amazon. "It's allowed people to become more educated about the issues," Chancey says.
Meanwhile, Susan Cohen, the founder and chair of the immigration practice at law firm Mintz Levin in Boston, says she's noticed a considerable "outpouring of support" for refugees--especially in the wake of Trump's election. Cohen works with several companies that have pledged to hire refugees. "There's generally much more support for refugees than there was before," she says. (Cohen also represents Mansueto Ventures, Inc.'s parent company.)
Seeds of Tradition...
Of course, Trump can't get all the credit. In Eat Offbeat's case, Kahi's grandmother deserves some kudos. Born and raised in Aleppo, Syria, she had a special hummus recipe that neither he nor his sister, Eat Offbeat CEO Manal Kahi, could soon forget. When the siblings moved the New York in 2012, they began replicating the dish and selling it to their friends.
At the same time, the international refugee crisis was escalating--the number of asylum claims in the European Union reached more than 627,000 in 2014, up from around 226,000 six years prior. By 2015, more than 50 million people around the world had been forcibly displaced from their homes, according to Amnesty International data.
"We said to ourselves, 'Why just hummus? Why don't we start a business that sells refugee cuisine?'" Kahi recalls.
Fast forward to 2017, and the startup now employs 16 refugees from 11 countries, including Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, and Nepal. These chefs are tasked with making their native dishes, such as Potato Kibbeh, an Iraqi meal of mashed potatoes and marinated ground meat.
...And Seeds of Doubt
Still, not everyone is keen on supporting businesses that hire refugees. Earlier this year, for example, when Starbucks committed to hiring 10,000 refugees in its stores worldwide, hundreds announced via Twitter that they would be boycotting the coffee company. "While President Trump is working to get American jobs, Starbucks CEO wants to hire 10,000 refugees. What about us?" one incensed user wrote.
Eat Offbeat says it hasn't run into too much criticism--beyond the occasional Facebook comment. Still, as it considers expanding to new markets across the U.S., this could be a barrier to growth.
In the future, in addition to considering franchising, the company is looking to sell packaged products in bulk, such as baklava. And earlier this month, it launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce a cookbook. (In just over one week, Eat Offbeat exceeded its goal of $50,000. As of publication, it's raised more than $84,000 with nine days left to go.)
In the current political climate, as many have taken issue with Trump's so-called "Muslim ban," the founders admit that running this business isn't easy. "It is emotional, because there is a lot of ignorance, and people do not have the opportunity to meet these immigrants," says Kahi.
There are, of course, upsides. "[Our workers] enjoy being here," he adds, "because for once, they are doing something from their home country and New Yorkers are adapting."