Podcast

Episode: 98 |
Wissam Kahi:
Eat Offbeat:
Episode
98

HOW TO THRIVE AS AN
INDEPENDENT PROFESSIONAL

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Wissam Kahi

Eat Offbeat

Show Notes

Our guest today is Umbrex member and Booz alum Wissam Kahi, who’s been a close friend of mine since we sat together in the same cluster at Columbia Business School.

In parallel with running his successful consulting practice, Wissam, together with his sister, has started an amazing social enterprise called Eat Offbeat.  https://eatoffbeat.com/

Eat Offbeat delivers authentic and home-style ethnic meals that are conceived, prepared and delivered by refugees resettled in NYC.

Eat Offbeat was the recipient of WeWork’s global creator awards and has been featured in dozens of major publications.

At a time when refugees may not be feeling the most welcome in the United States, Eat Offbeat is creating jobs while also helping to build bridges.

And their food is delicious – I’ve hired Eat Offbeat to cater several events that I’ve run and they always get rave reviews.

Check them out online at Eat Offbeat – and if you’ve got an event in NYC, you can’t miss by having them prepare your meal.

One weekly email with bonus materials and summaries of each new episode:

Will: Hey, Wissam. It is great to have you on the show.
Wissam: Yeah, likewise. Thanks for having me, Will.
Will: So Wissam, we go back to, gosh, I think it’s 15 years now since business school, and being in the same cluster at Columbia. You were at Booz for a number of years, and then you did some work for I guess for it was like a game company, right? And then you’ve been independent now for almost as long as I have.
Wissam: Yes, a bit shorter probably, since 2011 exactly, end of 2011 is when I started my practice.
Will: Awesome. So in addition to being an independent management consultant, and we’ve collaborated on a bunch of stuff, you also have a startup. I really was hoping to focus on that a bit. Tell us about Eat Offbeat.
Wissam: Sure. Eat Offbeat is a catering company that caters to basically corporations, universities, non-profits. What’s different about Eat Offbeat though is that it hires refugees that cook their own cuisine. So a typical meal from Eat Offbeat, would include meals that can come from countries such as Nepal, from Syria, from Iraq, from Iran, from Ethiopia, Africa, et cetera.
What makes it different obviously is that these are very talented often home cooks and sometimes professional cooks in their home countries that make authentic cuisine the way they make it at home. So you can feel this authenticity when you eat it. And it’s also cuisines that tend to be under-represented in the New York scene for example.
Will: And I’ll say right at the beginning here that I’m not a neutral observer. Umbrex have been super proud to have Eat Offbeat cater I think four or five of our events. So you’ve done two of our professional events, several of our social events, and always had fantastic reviews. It’s a super amount of fun having the food, because it’s not stuff that most people are familiar with, even adventurous eaters who like to sample the variety of New York. You don’t have a lot of Yemeni, or Nepalese, or Syrian restaurants. So you might have like a Middle Eastern restaurant, but it’s not so often that you get food that is so authentic and distinctive.
Wissam: You got it. That’s exactly how our pitch. And thanks so much for Umbrex to be one of our most faithful customers. That’s the best customers we have.
Will: Let’s talk a little bit about the idea for the company. So tell me, you have a partner in this, right?
Wissam: Yes.
Will: What’s the origin story?
Wissam: Yes. This is a company that we co-founded with my sister, so it’s a bit of a family story. I’ve been in the US at least this time around since pretty much 2012 or ’11. My sister, who is about 10 years younger than me, came to study at Columbia as well in 2013. In 2015, she was graduating from CEPA, which is the school of international public affairs. And as part of her graduation, the last class, she wanted to do a project in one of the classes. And we were discussing what type of project she would do, and it just happened that she really didn’t like the hummus that she bought in the supermarkets because it was nothing compared to the hummus that we used to have back at home.
Will: And where is home. Maybe you talk just a little bit-
Wissam: Yes, home is Lebanon for us, so we both come from Lebanon. That’s where we grew up, at least the first half of my life for me, and to some extent for my sister. And so what started happening is that she started to make the recipe from scratch the way she learned it from our grandmother. Our grandmother is Syrian from Aleppo. So it’s a recipe that is inspired by also the Syrian version of the hummus. And when she made it, the people, you know who ate it, I had it, I served it at some of the parties that we had at my place, she started at her place.
And the reaction was always, this is really amazing and this is nothing compared to the commercial hummus we buy in supermarkets. So from there on, I told my sister, you know what, maybe we have something there, maybe we should try to sell it. She really wanted to do something entrepreneurial. I also have been wanting to do something entrepreneurial for a while. So it started like that, more like a project. For six months it was more like a university project. But from there the idea evolved. My sister also has the social fiber in her background, a social impact fiber. She worked in environmental consulting before.
She’s been exposed to the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon. So the idea started evolving from just hummus to, who could make the hummus, the Syrian refugees. Syrian refugees was a big crisis at that time. This is back in 2015, ’14, ’15. And it evolved to, hey, why not all the cuisines that refugees can make? So that’s the origin of the story. And the first event really was we called the IRC, which is the International Rescue Committee in New York. We pitched the idea and we said, hey, you have people that are looking for work, you help them resettle and find work.
We would like to test and give them work, so let’s partner together. And it happened very, very easily. We went for a meeting, we met three very talented ladies that made us taste their foods. We had a professional chef with us who worked in very famous restaurants. And I still remember the first meeting, where he took a bite of the first of each lady. And he immediately turned towards me and said, “This is amazing. We can open an amazing restaurant with that.” So when I saw his reaction and when I also, I love the food, I said, yeah, this is becoming reality. This can work. So that was the start.
Will: And then how did the business evolve? So you found your first three amazing cooks. So he mentioned a restaurant. How how has the catering business evolved?
Wissam: To be honest with you, the first idea was a little bit different. The idea initially was to do individual meals that anybody can order. Not catering, but let’s say you want to have lunch or you want to have dinner at your place, you can order from us like any restaurant and we would serve you in New York. I think by starting to compare and work out the logistics, and also doing some math, that we quickly realized that this is not at a small scale, not a financially workable solution because of delivery cost and logistics.
So we said, why not do 10 people and more? This is where the delivery and logistics starts making sense, and we can charge for that. And when you do 10 people and more, we said okay, so that’s corporate catering now. It’s evolved towards corporate catering. We also had inputs and feedback from a Columbia social enterprise club, the Tamer Fund, T-A-M-E-R. So the Tamer Fund is basically a fund that provides startup money. It’s a competition really, open to old Columbia alums. And it provides startup money to the companies that win. This was the first edition.
So we, alongside with five or six, I think five more companies, won the first edition. They gave us the grant, which was $25,000 to start. But most importantly, they gave us this type of feedback also. So we had lots of meetings with them as to what would work and what wouldn’t. So it was a validation of the concept and the refinement of the concept. So that’s how it evolved from individual meals to catering. The way it worked in the beginning, it was a very pragmatic, very slow approach. So really in the beginning we said, hey, we don’t really have a lot of money.
Let’s go to a commercial kitchen where we can rent it by the hour. So we said, hey, how much does it cost? We run two or three hours. We do a few trainings and then we secure an event. We secured one event through word of mouth. We said, hey, let’s do our first event that we organized, we paid for, in a wealthy person’s house that wanted to sponsor us and invited a lot of their friends, some of which work in the media. That’s the first event that we did. It was about 50 or 60 people, and we just rented the kitchen for like two days. We did the event, and we didn’t know what would happen after that event. That was just an event.
Well, after that event, there were a couple of writers there and newspaper reporters, they wrote about us. There was word of mouth, and slowly, slowly we would have maybe one or two events every week just because of word of mouth. And now, two and a half years later, we’re doing about I would say 2,000 meals a week. So it evolved quite nicely. Essentially word of mouth and very, very organically I would say.
Will: Wissam, you recently have won some pretty impressive awards. Tell me about WeWork.
Wissam: Yes. So we were put in place an award that they give to promising startups at various stages, actually for the first time in 2017. There were thousands of people that applied in pretty much every city that we work was present there. And we applied to the first edition in New York. Now I heard that there were about 1,200 companies that applied to the WeWork competition. We were selected as one of, I’m not getting my numbers right, but one of a few, maybe a dozen, or maybe 20 companies that based on our application would go and pitch.
So we went and we pitched to a selection of judges that they selected. They liked us. So then we were one of a dozen companies that went to a big celebration to pitch again in front of, I think I’m not exaggerating by saying maybe 4,000 or 5,000 people. It was a big event in New York. And then we were one of the five companies that won. And since it’s public, yeah, they gave us an award, basically of the $180,000, which was a great push for us. It’s a type of funding actually. So that was great.
But then two months later, they called us and said, now we have global awards, so the winners from each city can compete for the global awards. And they selected our company from New York to compete with other companies from all over the world. That happened in Madison Square Garden back in January. We were not number one, but we were among the 10 people that won, and we won another award of $180,000. But most importantly, we won a recurrent order from WeWork for a thousand meals per week, which was a great push for us. It started in February, and it’s kept us extremely busy since then.
Will: That’s awesome. One thing that I think really resonates with so many people is in the current kind of climate where there’s a lot of animus about immigrants that you are really kind of celebrating that, and making opportunities for refugees. And that part of the story I think really, really resonates and helps probably spread the word. So, I mean, while it’s a commercial endeavor, people, I think at least, I feel really good about supporting your business. Tell me a little bit about that aspect.
Wissam: Well, we don’t talk much about it, but we hope that it’s really conveyed in the mission. It’s actually a double, like the way you said it is right. It’s creating maybe opportunities for very talented people really. So it’s more like bringing their talent to light, I would say. But on the other hand, it’s also helping New Yorkers discover amazing cuisines and the talent. So it’s kind of building the bridges between the refugees and the New Yorkers.
And there’s sometimes when you don’t know someone, you assume the worst. Or even subconsciously, because a lot of the coverage is negative. You may have the best intentions in the world, there will be a negative image often about refugees. But when you bring something positive, and when you bring a positive experience for New Yorkers because they’re eating amazing food, I think the image starts changing gradually, and you don’t associate necessarily refugees with something negative. And you start saying, wow, these are people that are actually bringing talent to this country.
They’re bringing diversity, they’re bringing wealth to the culinary cuisine and also to the job market. So we hope that we’re contributing in that way as well. And the chefs that work with us, it’s beyond the fact that this is a job. They really love this because it’s an opportunity for them to spread their own cultures. And as one of them said, they’ve worked in many jobs before, but this is the first time where they don’t feel they have to adapt. They feel like they’re providing their cuisines and their culture, and New Yorkers in some ways are attracted to them or are enjoying what they’re bringing. And this is something they’re really proud of. So pride is a big word for us and it’s one of our key values as well.
Will: Wissam, I’d love to hear how you have applied some of your lessons learned and kind of experience from the consulting world to founding and building Eat Offbeat.
Wissam: A good example is what we’re doing today. It’s, for example, researching tools and processes that can help us become more efficient, and better, and more structured. So a part of what we did today is we’re implementing a new inventory management system, because we realized that inventory is one of our biggest issues now as we’re growing. So we found a new system and we’re putting it in place, and it’s pretty much at a small scale. Obviously it’s implementing, when you have large implementations in companies, it’s doing the same thing at a smaller scale. So it’s actually doing the entire thing from start to finish.
And a lot of the project management tools that I learned in consulting, I’m applying here. Other things that have been very helpful, I’ve worked on a few projects where I learned a lot about lean implementations, and agile. And this is exactly how we work in our kitchen. We’re implementing lean, we’re implementing agile, we have a lot of visual management systems. Visual management is a big thing in our kitchen. Especially because people don’t necessarily speak English fluently, so we use a lot of images, simple words, checklists. Applying checklists is a big thing for us, for people and processes.
Will: Give me some examples of what you have checklists for.
Wissam: We have a lot of checklists, but here’s a very good example, a delivery person. They have their own checklist before they leave the kitchen as to what they need to pack. So you have a packing list for packing wares for the tent cards that go with each dish. They have the checklist of the actual dishes that they need to pack. Then they have the process, what time they need to call the Uber. We schedule the Uber ahead of time, but then they know delivery time minus 70 minutes they have to call the Uber. And then they have to double check again the address to make sure that there’s no mistake.
Then 10 minutes before, they check if they need to call, sometimes some customers want to be called 10 minutes ahead of time. If they are 10 minutes delayed, more than 10 minutes delayed, they call the customer. So there’s a number of processes that we put in place, and they have on their checklist. And we made it mandatory. It’s been pretty annoying for people and it’s been a fight, but mandatory to actually use a pen and to do the actual checklist, not just mentally, but use the pen and fill it out on paper. So that’s an example of a checklist that we’re using, and I’ve seen it happen and work before in one of my projects. I know it’s important.
Will: Give me an example of lean that you’ve implemented.
Wissam: Well, a couple of things, there’s visual management in our kitchen, I think, as it has been inspired by one of my lean projects, because visual management is big in lean. It’s basically basic instructions as to where to put stuff, how to use the kitchen, what to do and what not to do in our kitchen. That’s one thing. The second thing is the practice of the morning huddle to divide up the work. And this is something that we just started a month ago, so it’s really basic, but it’s making sure that every morning you have a five to 10 minute meeting where you divide up the work in the kitchen, and everybody has clear accountability of what they need to do in three, four hour chunks.
Will: I love that, man. Lean ops work that I’ve done, that gets me super excited that you got checklists and huddles and scorecards and visual management. That is awesome. [Convon 00:19:14] system-
Wissam: Yeah, exactly. It’s not perfect, I have to tell you. We’re working on it every day, but you know, that’s the intention, and some things, it takes time. You realize after five or six months, things start solidifying. So, yeah.
Will: What’s your current thinking about the vision for the kind of vision for going forward? Are you going to focus on New York City for the long term? Do you have ambitions to set up other cities? How are you thinking about the growth for Eat Offbeat in the future?
Wissam: Yes, that’s a very good question. You know, it’s like when you eat your, how do you say, what’s the expression? Your eyes are hungrier than your stomach often? It’s the same thing sometimes when you’re starting something. You have more ambitions than what you can handle, and you have more ideas than what you can do. So, there’s the stretch and then there’s the reality. I think the pragmatic plan that we’ve realized after a lot of back and forth is that, first of all, we’re barely scratching the surface of the New York catering market.
There’s just so much to grow still in New York, that we said this is working for us. We still have to grow here. So the first priority is grow the catering business in New York. Now beyond that, once this is solidified and we’re working there, there are opportunities to expand into other cities. In fact, in the first year or two of operations, we’ve been contacted by other cities saying, hey, why don’t we replicate the project here? And we’re thinking, I mean it’s still more of a project of potentially how could the project be, or the concept be franchised to other cities? But this is still, it’s still a project, an idea.
The third thing, which is more realistic, is we’re starting to have decent media coverage, and the idea is to say, there is a brand that is starting to form, we hope at least locally. Could we start leveraging this and have dry products that we can start selling? I’m talking about things like spices, like baklava, that have a longer shelf life. And perhaps at later stages things like hummus or something like that. That can start very small like in local coffee shops, in distribution in niche markets. But if it’s works, you know, we could expand and think of how can this become bigger. So that’s the third idea.
Will: Yeah. Dry or, boy, I’d love to have some frozen meals that you could get at your local store. Maybe FreshDirect or something.
Wissam: Yes, that’s another, actually you mentioned that, we’re trying a partnership now with a frozen, not exactly a frozen individual meal distributor, but frozen items for large scale caterers that do it like, similar to the Sodexo’s of the world, if you want. We’re experimenting with that too.
Will: And how do you dip in and out of working on this business while also doing a pretty substantial practice for your management consulting?
Wissam: Yes, that’s a good question, and it’s a continuous struggle. I’m pretty fortunate, I have to say, that I’m in partnership with someone that I trust completely, who is my sister, who is working 150% on this business. So I think because I have this luxury of having somebody I trust, I can work, you know, dedicate work with her and be able between the two of us to lead the business. So the way it happens is when I’m working intensively, let’s say on a consulting project, we have pretty much a long call every day, where she is running all the issues, and we’re discussing and brainstorming the issues together. So she’s there and executing all the time.
And then lately I’ve been trying to dedicate essentially 50% of my time physically, if not more, on the business. So making sure that the projects that I have, that I take, at least do not require me to be physically present at the client all the time, and that I can dedicate some physical time in during the day to the kitchen several days per week. And then I have to tell you, I work a lot of nights too on my other business, my consulting business. So it’s hard.
Will: Wissam, do you have any morning routine or any kind of productivity routines, maybe things you’ve done for a long time or maybe practices you’ve recently adopted, that you found really work for you?
Wissam: Not really, I’m actually someone who could benefit from a certain morning routine, I have to say. I’ve unfortunately found that every day for me is so different that I’m lacking maybe a routine. So, I don’t know if I can tell you I have something there. I’m more of a late night person than a morning person.
Will: Oh really.
Wissam: Yeah.
Will: Late nights, you feel that’s when you really get productive and creative and get work done?
Wissam: You know, it’s a bit weird for me, because I try to think, when I’m really thinking I have a problem in my mind, I would think about it all the time. And then if I’m falling asleep and then the idea comes to mind, let’s say at 12:30 or 1:00, then I would just wake up and go, and say, hey, let me work on it. Then I will put in an hour and a half or two of work, and then go back to sleep, but that doesn’t happen every night. I’m more of a spontaneous worker than a scheduled worker. I find when I schedule things, inspiration doesn’t come to me versus the spontaneous inspiration.
Will: What advice would you give for other independent professionals that are thinking about starting some additional business on the side?
Wissam: Honestly, I think the first advice is financially make sure that you have the stability that it requires, depending on what you’re starting. I think you may not see the money for a while. So make sure that you can sustain it financially, because to me it feels more like a marathon than a sprint. You have to be certain that you can sustain the marathon. So have a plan for how you can survive, say one year, two years with the project. For me, I’ve been lucky because I did not have to obviously leave my consulting job, which I still really love, and that’s what helped me.
And second is time management and attention management. Perhaps time is one aspect of it, but the second aspect is focus, for me is the ability and sometimes discipline to say, you know what, yes, my client can take my entire time from me. But sometimes I need to say, this afternoon I dedicated to shift my focus and attention to my business versus consulting. Because otherwise I’ve made the mistake where, even if you’re working two and a half days or three days a week, if you’re thinking about a problem, you can think about it all week, and that’s not helpful.
Surprisingly, I feel when you switch focus to different problems, sometimes inspiration comes for the problem that you abandoned, at least for me. Last thing is make sure you have a solid partner, if you’re not doing this alone. I think working in two or three, especially two people is very helpful, somebody you trust.
Will: Finally, I want to mention on the show here, just some websites. So if you are listening and thinking about checking them out and placing a catering order, it’s Eat OffBeat, one word, eatoffbeat.com. Is that right, Wissam?
Wissam: That’s correct. Eat Offbeat, and one word, Offbeat, O-F-F-B-E-A-T, dot com, exactly. Exactly.
Will: And I’m sure it’s there, but just what’s the path to kind of place a catering order? Is it just click on the website? And maybe just tell people like how that process is gonna work out?
Wissam: Sure. So it’s very easy. You can place an order for 10 people or more. It can be 10 people, it can be a thousand people if you want. We’ve done a thousand people. Typically it’s two days’ notice for 10 people, we could do even a day notice in advance. For a thousand people, obviously a little bit more than two days. You can place the order directly on the website, most people do. And if you require some customization, you can also do it on the website. But for some big orders or some special events, or you have questions, in the website there is a number that you can call. And then obviously you can talk to a live person who is an event director, or to myself, or to my sister to discuss your order.
Will: So if you’re out there listening and anywhere near New York, or planning an event in New York, I definitely recommend it. We’ve been super, super happy. Everybody loves the food, and it adds an element of adventure, and a great story as well. Wissam, I think what you’re doing with Eat OffBeat is really fantastic, it’s inspiring. Thanks for taking the time to be on the show.
Wissam: Thank you. Thank you, Will, I appreciate it.

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