Startup Profile: Foodhini

In less than a year, meal delivery service Foodhini became an example of the American Dream by creating a space for immigrant refugee chefs to seek employment, training, and connection with the Washington, DC community.

Noobtsaa Vang, Founder and CEO of Foodhini, spoke with us about what he does, why he does it, and what makes Washington, DC the center of social impact.

What do you do?

Foodhini is an online restaurant. Our mission is to create sustainable opportunities for immigrant refugee communities and give customers unique food options. Our chefs come from countries like Tibet, Syria, and Laos, and we give them a space where they can make and sell their authentic home cooked recipes directly to customers.

What is the inspiration behind your company?

My mom came to the United States as a refugee after the Vietnam War. It was tough for her to find decent work in Chicago, where she first settled, because she didn’t speak English and didn’t have much education. She ended up working odd jobs to make ends meet. We moved to Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota when I was a young child. I grew up eating my mom’s great Hmong food and when I moved to Washington to attend Georgetown University in 2014, I missed her cooking. I thought to myself, “I wish I could just find an auntie or grandma in the neighborhood and have their food delivered to my house.” Creating a space for people like my mom, who was already a great cook when she arrived in the States, to make and sell home foods directly to the consumer would not only generate new opportunities for immigrants but it would also introduce new foods to people outside those communities. I couldn’t believe this didn’t already exist.

What neighborhood in Washington, DC are you located in?

We operate out of the Union Kitchen food incubator in Ivy City.

What do you love about DC?

DC is a great city. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t love it. When I came to the city as a student three years ago, I felt a different, unique type of energy here. People are open to meeting others, trying different things, talking about different topics. It’s a very inclusive, open-minded community. People want to support brands and products they believe in.  

How has DC contributed to your success?

As a student in DC I got to know the city, the kinds of people who come to DC and want to live in DC. Having that level of comfort was a great first step. My network at school provided me with a strong group of mentors and supporters, and introduced me to the Halcyon House incubator, where Foodhini was launched. The community here is made up of people that are well-traveled and come from all over the world. That global mindset lends itself to a community that is more adventurous and interested in trying new things. It’s a unique city that brings together all those elements – network, community, and open minds – and made it a great location to start Foodhini.

What is the Washington, DC impact economy like?

The DC ecosystem for impact businesses is special. It’s where everything comes together – nonprofits meet government meets businesses. It’s a big reason why I came to DC in the first place and it’s really awesome to be a part of this community that is strong and growing.

What is the advantage of being a for-profit social enterprise?

Scalability.

Using a for-profit model allows us to have a bigger position and pursue questions like, “how do we take this to the west coast? Another country, even?” For me, social enterprises need to be able to merge mission and profit. Operating within this model, we allows us to invest in our chefs, showcase their stories, give them living wages, and follow through on our goals. If we are able to build a sustainable, for-profit model for Foodhini without philanthropic support, then why wouldn’t we? Nonprofits are vital for overcoming many issues. By generating our own resources, we’re not taking any away from those nonprofits that truly need them in order to solve the problems only they can solve.

Although it’s only been less than a year since you officially launched, have you been able to see an impact on your immigrant chefs?

Absolutely. They’ve loved connecting with the community. It’s neat to see that we’re giving them a space to jump off from and gain recognition. People are talking about them and using their names.

For the customers too, it’s a way for them to get involved and have a great meal at the same time. A lot of people care about what’s going on with refugees and immigrants both at home and abroad and this gives them a chance to connect with that community, put a name and a face to it, and take action in an impactful, enjoyable way. People really like getting to know their chefs, the inspiration behind the food, the culture and traditions that are a part of enjoying the food. Food has the power to/capability of bridging differences and connecting people.

What’s next for Foodhini?

Since we started in October with just me and one amazing chef, Chef Mem, we have brought on three more chefs, one line cook, a couple delivery drivers and more delivery options. We’ve recently started offering catering, which has really picked up.

Long term, we want to take this model and expand it into different cities.