Photo by Erin Ng Photography

This article will describe five social enterprises that provide food and cultural opportunities to customers while employees have a chance to gain valuable experiences, fair wages, and benefits.

Scampia, Italy – The aroma of Italian-Romanian Roma cuisine wafts through a theater in a crime-ridden neighborhood. Before the show, people line up to purchase the delicious food produced by Chikù Restaurant, a joint venture of the local Italian and Romanian populations designed to provide jobs where few are readily available. The restaurant space also serves as an incubator program for culinary entrepreneurship and a venue for cultural and educational events. To date, hundreds of people have been exposed to the principles taught, and many have gone on to find better jobs or open their own restaurants. This means fewer people have felt compelled to work for the local Mafia.

San Francisco, California – On an early Saturday morning, the farmer’s market is bustling. The scent of fresh Middle Eastern manakeesh bread leads to Reem’s, an Arab bakery. Reem, the owner of the establishment, believes in the role that social entrepreneurship can have in fostering economic growth and inclusion. Her ideas started from a corner bakery in Beirut, Lebanon. From there she wanted to bring a piece of home to Oakland, California. But she lacked the money and know-how to scale a business.

Reem’s is part of La Cocina, an economic development incubator program that helps marginalized women transform their culinary skills into a vital source of income for themselves and the community. Today, because of this organization, Reem was able to get her business off the ground, owns multiple locations, and employs 25 workers who were previously struggling to find jobs.

Social Entrepreneurship: New Ideas for Solving Poverty

Social entrepreneurship has the power to alleviate poverty especially in places that have chronic unemployment. The United Nations created the Sustainable Development Goals to eliminate the worst of this and other problems by 2030. To most, this may be a dream. But, social entrepreneurs play a significant role in helping people achieve their dreams. Food-focused social entrepreneurship, such as that demonstrated by Chikù and La Cocina, go beyond just eliminating poverty, they provide ongoing support as they assist the restaurant owners and employees to achieve long-term success.

Chikù: Creating Opportunities for People Surrounded By Poverty and Criminality

Originally, Chikù began as a volunteer political organization under the name Chi Rom Chi No. Their goal was to educate children and bring about social reform in a Mafia-ruled, high crime, drug-infested area outside Naples, Italy. Emma Ferulano, a founder of Chikù, explained her aspiration of establishing a space in which the Italian and Romanian Roma populations could unite, learn, and make a living.  According to Ms. Ferulano, in 2005, they developed an organization called Arrevuoto that brought people together to create theatrical productions for students. Chi Rom Chi No cooked for these productions and helped marginalized Italians and Romanians come together and showcase their new fusion cuisine.

In 2010, the food enterprise won a government grant to implement their plans and start a business. As they grew, they merged Chi Rom Chi No and La Kumpania to form Chikù and developed a commercial kitchen space above the Scampia auditorium. Soon, they expanded into catering and selling food at public events and spaces. Their success is a rare bright spot in this area of Naples.

Chikù created bona fide employment and helped employees gain a voice. They were encouraged to speak up regarding ways their business could be run and they were able to speak out against negative forces in the community. Furthermore, the employees improved their skills in reading, writing, culinary skills, and entrepreneurship.

La Cocina: Providing Minority Entrepreneurs and Marginalized Communities With Opportunities

In 2005, the Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment, Arriba Juntos, and the Women’s Foundation of California started La Cocina. The organization is a business incubator for diverse groups and marginalized entrepreneurs.

Before founding La Cocina, many people in the community struggled to run legal kitchen restaurants because they lacked the social and financial equity to create a viable business. In particular, working-class women of color and immigrants struggled to find opportunities in this industry. Today, La Cocina provides a home for 40 new companies and has incubated over 130 startups since its inception. Out of this total, 94 percent of the entrepreneurs are women, and 70 percent are immigrants. The 60 entrepreneurs who graduated from this program have employed more than 250 people and generated over 16 million USD in total revenue as of 2019.

Partnerships within the non-profit ecosystem are critical for the success of social enterprises. La Cocina has partnered with various organizations to teach financial literacy and culinary skills, and provide loans.

La Cocina helps low-income entrepreneurs by giving them commercial kitchen space, market opportunities, and technical assistance. Prospective entrepreneurs go through a program that begins with the basics of setting up a company. After accessing sales opportunities and getting their business off the ground, the entrepreneur is then ready to graduate from the program.

Creating New Opportunities in the Middle East Food Industry

New trends are changing the face of the food industry. Innovative social entrepreneurs are creatively capitalizing on practices from the traditional food industry to make broader social impact. One example is leveraging the cloud kitchen model to help small business owners through economic downturns. The cloud kitchen uses only delivery instead of the traditional dine-in facility. The only things necessary are kitchen space and appliances.

For instance, Kaykroo, based in the United Arab Emirates, is a cloud kitchen platform that allows individual restauranteurs from across the world to enter new markets. Entrepreneurs benefit, as their menus are adapted for delivery. In addition, the entrepreneurs are set up with technology experts who streamline their businesses. In total, Kaykroo helped develop 19 cloud kitchens and brand residences, and 17 food and beverage brands. They currently have over 400 employees and 20 new brands under development.

Another initiative, a partnership between Home in a Bite and Kitopi, recreated the menus of 20 restaurants in cloud kitchens. Chefs in Dubai were sent to each of the 20 Lebanese restaurants to learn the recipes. The original restaurant earns a percentage of the sales. During the recent downturn, this cloud model helped the Lebanese restaurants stay afloat.

Building a Better World Through Food

Immigrants and marginalized individuals have found new ways to lift themselves and others to higher socioeconomic levels. They also improve their community through food social entrepreneurship. Chikù in Italy, La Cocina in California, and the work of Kaykroo, Home in a Bite, and Kitopi in the Middle East provide road maps to success that are both scalable and reproducible. Food social entrepreneurship provides jobs and makes for a better, more delicious world.

By Kholoud Aldabal and Eleni Sivers