The Washington region’s food scene is a cornucopia of culinary traditions, many brought to the area by immigrants who’ve made the the D.C. region home.

Food entrepreneurship is difficult under the best of circumstances, but innovating on traditional cuisines while staying true to their culture is an added challenge for many immigrant food entrepreneurs. So what does it take to market authentic immigrant cuisine to diners in the the D.C. area? And how far can you take innovation before losing authenticity? We explore these questions with a group of young food entrepreneurs who are taking their cultural culinary traditions mainstream.

Produced by Monna Kashfi

Guests

  • Simone Jacobson Cultural Connector and Co-Owner, Toli Moli; @tolimolidc
  • Noobtsaa Philip Vang Founder and CEO, Foodhini; @NoobtsaaVang
  • Margarita Womack Principal, M'Panadas; @MargaritaWomack
  • Tom Van Co-Managing Partner, Four Seasons Restaurant

From Sweet Treats to Modern Staples, Food Entrepreneurs Bring Cultural Diversity to D.C.'s Food Scene

Transcript

  • 12:00:12

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Food entrepreneurship is difficult under the best of circumstances, but innovating on traditional cuisines while staying true to their culture is an added challenge for many first and second generation immigrant food entrepreneurs. Young food entrepreneurs in the D.C. region have taken on this challenge. And whether it's engaging in cultural diplomacy through food or going against the grain to put a healthy twist on an ethnic food staple, they're finding new customers beyond their own immigrant communities.

  • 12:00:44

    KOJO NNAMDISo what does it take to market immigrant cuisine to diners in the D.C. area and how far can you take innovation before losing authenticity? Joining me to answer these questions and much more today is Simone Jacobson co-owner of Toli Moli, a Burmese bodega at Union Market. Simone, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:03

    SIMONE JACOBSONThank you for having me.

  • 12:01:05

    NNAMDIAlso with us is Noobtsaa Philip Vang, founder and CEO of Foodhini, a food delivery service that offers multicultural meals prepared by emerging immigrant chefs. Noobtsaa, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:18

    NOOBTSAA PHILIP VANGThank you for having me.

  • 12:01:19

    NNAMDIMargarita Womack is the owner of M'Panadas, a Latin fusion snack company offering frozen and deli empanadas with a twist. Margarita, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:27

    MARGARITA WOMACKSo excited to be here. Thank you.

  • 12:01:29

    NNAMDIAnd Tom Van is co-managing partner at Four Seasons Restaurant, which is one of the anchor Vietnamese restaurants at the Eden Center in Falls Church, Virginia. Tom, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:40

    TOM VANThank you for having me.

  • 12:01:41

    NNAMDISimone, you and your mother launched Toli Moli in 2016 as a pop-up selling falooda. But you had marketed it as quoting here, "The best dessert you've never had." Today Toli Moli is known as the Burmese bodega at Union Market attracting customers from all across the region. First for people who have not tried it, what is falooda?

  • 12:02:01

    JACOBSONSo falooda is actually one of the oldest desserts in the history of the world. In Iran, the original falooda makers, they call it "faloode." And falooda traveled into south and Southeast Asia where my mom is from in Burma. And it's a layered dessert drink. So it's part dessert and part drink. Has jellies, basal seeds, ice creams, and flavored milk. And we also called it the sort of sweetening of your snack time. So something old for people who are familiar, and something new for those who had never had it.

  • 12:02:35

    NNAMDIHow did you go from a pop-up concept to one of the most popular destinations at Union Market and what is unique about Toli Moli as a bodega?

  • 12:02:43

    JACOBSONWell, I think we're the only Burmese bodega in the world. So that makes us slightly unique. And even just combining those two words Burmese and bodega, it's not something you think of much. But we wanted to be able to offer a place that is a home, a cultural hub for people. And I think what makes us unique is that in addition to serving Burmese food, we're currently the only place in the entire city where you can get Burmese food.

  • 12:03:12

    JACOBSONWe also sell hard to find groceries from what we call the spice diaspora. So you might find Trini hot sauce next to Za'atar from a Jordanian Palestinian family. You might find things, if you are Asian American, that are from your childhood.

  • 12:03:27

    JACOBSONAnd we also have a partnership with Duende District, which specializes in books by, for and about people of color. So you'll find all the books that I wish I had as a child, books with actually people of color in the stories. So they we're not erased from that narrative. And so whether it's through the food or the literature or what we're making in our kitchen, this is a place that is to welcome everyone.

  • 12:03:49

    NNAMDIWhat was the greatest challenge you faced as you launched and grew Toli Moli and do you think it was unique to your experience as an immigrant food entrepreneur?

  • 12:03:58

    JACOBSONEvery step of the way was a challenge and also a celebration. I think one of the things that maybe everybody here can relate to is that when you're first starting a business one of the hardest things is just figuring out what things are called. So what would you call a thing that has hook and has little pinchy things to put chips on?

  • 12:04:22

    NNAMDII have no idea what to call that.

  • 12:04:23

    JACOBSONI had no idea either. So it's called chip clip and when you spend 45 minutes just looking for that to order that for your shop, that's a big challenge. And it doesn't help that my mom was born in another country. So we're just the blind leading the blind when it comes to those kinds of challenges. Another unique challenge that we have, which is also an opportunity is that we're across from Gallaudet in Union Market.

  • 12:04:45

    JACOBSONAnd early on I was concerned that we weren't able to give the same experience to our deaf and hard of hearing customers. We were explaining falooda for the first time to this new generation of eaters and so we created this huge infographic like almost life size that broke down every layer in the cup. And had we not been across from Gallaudet, I'm not sure that we would have thought to really specifically communicate with intention and be able to bridge that gap between the deaf and hard of hearing community and between ours. I know a total of about 12 signs now and all of them are related to our menu. So I know coconut. I know noodles. I know mushrooms. I know minutes.

  • 12:05:25

    NNAMDIAnd she's demonstrating the signs as she speaks.

  • 12:05:27

    JACOBSONYeah, well, these are things that are a lot of times -- I think entrepreneurs are wired to see every challenge as an opportunity. We create things that didn't exist before us. And there was no falooda shop in the entire region. And there was no Burmese in D.C. And so we felt compelled to make that accessible and to make it available to a wider audience.

  • 12:05:54

    NNAMDINoobtsaa Vang, Foodhini is part food business and part cultural diplomacy initiative. Tell us about Foodhini.

  • 12:06:01

    VANGYeah. So Foodhini is an online restaurant and we hire specifically immigrant and refugee chefs. And we help them prepare and sell all their home recipes direct to customers. So you can order a meal online. Have it delivered to you and we do catering as well. And so really it's about showcasing the talents of local immigrant and refugee chefs. And, you know, it started when I moved out to D.C. from Minnesota for grad school. And I was just missing some of my mom's home cooking.

  • 12:06:34

    VANGAnd so I'm from the Hmong community, which an ethnic group from northern Laos. My parents came here as refugees. And, you know, I grew up eating Southeast Asian food my entire life. And coming out here, you know, I was just really craving that home cooking that home style food. And so I tried to figure out, maybe I can try to connect with a local auntie or grandma and just, you know, buy some of their food. And really what kind of was the ah-ha moment was really kind of integrating my parents story into what is Foodhini right now, which is, you know, they came to this country, didn't speak very much English, not very much education, but one of the things they could do is they could, you know, cook their home foods.

  • 12:07:11

    VANGAnd so really Foodhini is a way to create opportunities for like people like my mom and my dad to, you know, create their foods and, you know, earn a living. But then also share their food and culture with, you know, everybody around us. So that was the, you know, the genesis of the idea. And, you know, we've grown to this point pretty good.

  • 12:07:33

    NNAMDIHow do your parents feel about it at this point?

  • 12:07:34

    VANGMy parents are -- when I started they were extremely supportive. And I think it's, because it's kind of full circle where their journey coming here as refugees and now as being able to kind of see me kind of, you know, give back and to work with those communities, I think they're pretty proud.

  • 12:07:51

    NNAMDIHow many chefs does Foodhini currently employ? And how did you select these particular individuals to work with?

  • 12:07:58

    VANGSo right now we have four chefs. We have Chef Majed. He's from Syria. We have Chef Mina, who's from Iran. Chef Yebralem, who's from Eritrea. And Chef Mam who's our Lao chef. And so when we first met Chef Mam who was our first chef, it was really just me connecting with a friend. And she was like, I think this woman makes amazing food at Temple. Like I think she'd be great for what you want to do. And so we met up. Had a meeting at my friend's house and she just made a huge spread of food for us.

  • 12:08:29

    VANGAnd the first bite I had I was like, oh my gosh, we have to get you on Foodhini. And so, you know, fast forward two years and now she's still with us. She's kicking butt and more recently we've been working with organizations like the IRC, Casa de Maryland to work with these organizations, because they're working with immigrant and refugees, you know, on the ground helping them resettle. They're able to identify who might be looking for a job or who might be looking to work in food. And so they've been really great partners with us.

  • 12:08:58

    NNAMDIBut food -- meal delivery business in this case, Foodhini also delivers immigrant stories. Tell us about the chefs that you employ now and the stories they tell.

  • 12:09:13

    VANGSo the really big point of Foodhini is to connect you to the person behind the food. I think, you know, you can find good anywhere. But I think what really makes a meal great and special is to know where the food comes from and who makes it. And so really when you order a meal from us you get a chance to learn about the chef, learn about their story, to see, you know, what their inspirations are, what their passions are. But then also they're able to kind of write a little hand written note on the back that kind of, you know, shares a little bit insights about why they made this particular dish or why they use this ingredient. And I think, you know, that's been the most important is building that human connection and really having that chance to get to know the person behind the food.

  • 12:09:53

    NNAMDIBut there is no shortage of food delivery options services in this region. How do you cut through all that competition?

  • 12:10:01

    VANGI think for us it's always been about that connection, that human connection. I think you could order, you know, right now you could order, you know, from 30 different restaurants on Grub Hub or some of these delivery apps. But I think, you know, what sets us apart is that we really -- we want you to know who's making your food. We want you to know their story, where they're from, you know, what inspires them, because I think when you get that you really feel the love and the care that they put into their food.

  • 12:10:24

    NNAMDIWho's your customer base? Who are you selling to?

  • 12:10:28

    VANGYeah. We're selling to basically anybody who's hungry. We've seen a lot of great feedback in people, who really come for the mission first. They believe in what we're doing supporting, you know, communities of diaspora. And, you know, they're coming here and learning about these different people and their cultures. But then when they get the food, they're like, "Wow, this is really good food." And so you kind of get that really nice full circle of the mission and the product.

  • 12:10:54

    VANGAnd vice versa people come for the food and then they realize, oh, my God, the mission of the organization is so interesting. And you get that kind of double bottom line. So we've just kind of seen people from all over support and more. When we first started out we saw a lot of people who like to kind of plan out what they're eating for the week. And, you know, like to be able to pick and choose what they want ahead of time. And so we've seen that kind of grow into where we are now.

  • 12:11:21

    NNAMDIWe're talking with immigrant food entrepreneurs inviting your calls, 800-433-8850. Have you tried any of the products or restaurants our guests are talking about today? Of course, today is the first day of our spring membership campaign. We're encouraging you to become members of WAMU. You can do that by calling 800-248-8850. That's 800-248-8850. And you're about to learn a lot more.

  • 12:11:59

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with immigrant food entrepreneurs. We're talking with Tom Van. He's co-managing partner at Four Seasons Restaurant, one of the anchor Vietnamese restaurants at the Eden Center in Falls Church, Virginia. Margarita Womack is the owner of M'Panadas, a Latin fusion snack company offering frozen and deli empanadas with a twist. Simone Jacobson is the co-owner of Toli Moli, a Burmese bodega at Union Market. And Noobtsaa Philip Vang is founder and CEO of Foodhini, a food delivery service that offers multicultural meals prepared by emerging immigrant chefs. Noobtsaa, you recently branched out beyond meal delivery. Tell us what you have going on at Whole Foods.

  • 12:12:38

    VANGRight. We just started a partnership with Whole Foods just in early January. So we actually started our first fast casual little food stall inside the Whole Foods store at Foggy Bottom. So our first -- one of our amazing chefs, Chef Majed is serving up his delicious chicken shawarma every day for hungry customers. So it's been really great to see. We've been there for about three months now. The Whole Foods has been amazing. And we've seen a bunch of customers come back and be like, that's the best shawarma I've ever had. Or people are like, I'm from the Middle East and this is the best shawarma ever. So it's been really fun to see that. And I think over time we're going to work with Whole Foods to kind of look at looking at additional locations down the road and creating some additional food stalls around there.

  • 12:13:23

    NNAMDIHere's Beatrice in Silver Spring, Maryland. Beatrice, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:13:28

    BEATRICEHi. Can you hear me?

  • 12:13:30

    NNAMDIYes, we can.

  • 12:13:31

    BEATRICEYes, thank you, Kojo. I wanted to say I'm from Silver Spring and I feel blessed, because we have so many options in Silver Spring including lots of Ethiopian amazing foods. In the whole D.C. area -- I was at Union Market a few weeks ago and I had the pleasure to eat at Toli Moli. I had never tried Burmese food and I tried the dumplings and I tried a vegetarian dish and it was spectacular. And I was blown away by the diversity of food at Union Market. It was just unreal. So blessed.

  • 12:14:04

    NNAMDIThat's how you were supposed to feel. Right, Simone?

  • 12:14:05

    JACOBSONYes. Thank you so much. I remember you, Beatrice. It's so nice to hear you.

  • 12:14:10

    NNAMDIBeatrice, thank you very much --

  • 12:14:11

    BEATRICEThank you.

  • 12:14:12

    NNAMDIThank you for sharing your story with us. Margarita Womack, you took a very unconventional path to food entrepreneurship. In fact, you're a scientist by training with a PhD in evolutionary biology. How did you end up in the empanada business?

  • 12:14:27

    WOMACKIt's a bit of a long story, but in a way I like to reinvent myself. And as you grow, as you evolve, as your life changes, you find that different things are fulfilling. I find also that there is lots of parallels. Believe it or not the skills you learn in science are actually extremely useful for business.

  • 12:14:51

    NNAMDIEmpanadas are pretty ubiquitous in this region and they're a staple food for many Latin and Hispanic cultures, but you're putting a twist on these classic recipes. What is different about M'Panadas?

  • 12:15:04

    WOMACKSo we are trying to bring empanadas in a different space and different market. So making them healthier, but keeping the portability and deliciousness of empanadas. So that you can bring them home, keep them in your freezer, and in a pinch when you're running late for that soccer game with your kids and you need a good snack for them be able to pull them out, put them in the oven or the microwave and have a healthy satisfying snack that's going to keep your kids going for the rest of the afternoon. Or for yourself, Hey, I went out. I come home. I'm hungry. I don't feel like cooking something, but I need something before you go to bed. Get your empanadas.

  • 12:15:43

    NNAMDIBut when you started in this business it wasn't easy. You started a catering business. One of the reasons you started it is you wanted to help a friend, who was also an immigrant. And you discovered that is somebody has a business here they might be able to stay. That didn't work out, did it?

  • 12:15:57

    WOMACKIt did not unfortunately. Yeah, so a friend wanted to come to the U.S. and stay in the U.S., of course, legally. And that lined up well with a desire I had to start a business of my own. I come from a family business in Columbia. And so it's something I grew up with and something I wanted to do. And it was very difficult to get involved. The family business as far as there's a large geographical distance to start with and then it's not the usual things for women to get deeply involved with the business.

  • 12:16:27

    WOMACKBut here was an opportunity to do two things at once, help this friend and try it myself. And it seemed like it might just work out. And we thought we could do it out of our kitchen in Maryland, which is not legal. And there's a number of countries that have a deal with the U.S. where if you have a business that is based in some way -- it's tied to your country. You invest. You start this business and you need essential personnel for your business to work, then there's a particular type of visa that you can obtain. But unfortunately that did not work out. Then I ended up by myself with this idea. But I was really enjoying it and ended up quitting my teaching job over it and now doing this full time.

  • 12:17:13

    NNAMDIYou've said that being a Latina woman selling empanadas often causes people to have certain assumptions that work to your disadvantage. Tell us about that and how you address some of these stereotypes and assumptions.

  • 12:17:25

    WOMACKSo many times when I talk to mentors, for example, it's been surprising, because it's something that they don't even think about. Oh, well, you're selling empanadas. You're obviously selling these to the Hispanic population in the area. Like, not necessarily. Actually, I'm trying something different. I'm trying to bring it to mainstream supermarkets and something for everybody. And it's something difficult to break through.

  • 12:17:47

    WOMACKThere's also the idea of empanadas, that it's not something healthy. People think of that as a treat from a farmers market, for example. And that's not necessarily the case. That's the magic of empanadas. You can really customize them in any way you want, and they can be as healthy or not healthy as you choose them to be. So, bringing them also into the frozen space is, again, something that just doesn't line up with people's expectations.

  • 12:18:13

    NNAMDIHere is Mike in Washington, DC. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:18:17

    MIKEThanks for taking my call, Kojo. First of all, sustaining member, so make sure everybody, that they haven't done their pledge, do your pledge.

  • 12:18:23

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 12:18:24

    MIKESecondly, been growing up here my whole life, and I developed a motto, which is the best thing about being American is that if you sit still long enough, the rest of the world will show up and feed you. (laugh) And it's a lovely, lovely way to go through life, so thank you to everybody who came to feed us.

  • 12:18:40

    NNAMDIYep, and that's what we're talking about today, with the people who came to feed you. Thank you very much for your call. Here is Gilty in Washington, DC. Gilty, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:18:51

    GILTYHi, Kojo. Great to be on this show again. I'm a person of Indian extraction, and what I'm calling about is the affordable Indian cuisine in DC, or lack thereof. The DC Dosa pop-up in Union Market is one of the few affordable Indian eateries in the DC area. There are plenty of famous restaurants, (unintelligible) but they're not affordable. You have plenty of affordable Indian eateries in Virginia, and maybe some in DC, maybe in Maryland. And I guess because that’s where the Indian -- there's a lot of Indian extraction population residing in those areas.

  • 12:19:35

    NNAMDIAnd so that's where you find them.

  • 12:19:36

    GILTYBut DC -- I know a lot of people in DC, American friends who love Indian food. But I'm pretty sure that there's an entrepreneur who can set up more affordable Indian eateries in the DC area like DC Dosa, that it will become very popular.

  • 12:19:54

    NNAMDIWell, hopefully, they're listening right now, and they will take your advice. So, thank you very much for your call. Let's talk with Tom Van. Tom, speaking of Virginia, your family owns the Four Seasons restaurant...

  • 12:20:05

    VANThat's correct.

  • 12:20:06

    NNAMDI...at the Eden Center in Falls Church, Virginia. How would you describe the Eden Center to someone who's not familiar with it?

  • 12:20:12

    VANSo, Eden Center is a staple for the Vietnamese community. Back in -- after the Vietnam War, they started to immigrate over here, and then to settle here. Eden Center is where we have, any celebration Vietnamese culture, we would go there. That's where we can find authentic Vietnamese food, any items that you find in your household, you can buy them there. Yeah.

  • 12:20:40

    NNAMDII recently spent the day at Eden Center, and we posted a video of my visit on the blog today. You can take a tour of the Eden Center with me. Go to kojoshow.org/blog and click, and you will find it at the top of the page. Tom Van, why did you decide to revamp the restaurant and reopen it last April as the Four Seasons, after three years?

  • 12:21:01

    VANWell, after I took over from Viet Royale in 2015, we ran it for, yes, we ran it for three years, and it hasn't changed much. We're trying to introduce the new menu, but we kept the name, and the concept may not go well. So, we decided to change the atmosphere, the environment, the lighting, the name, so that way we're kind of rebranding ourselves and bring a new look, a new environment to the Eden Center Plaza, shopping center.

  • 12:21:35

    NNAMDIHow difficult was that? Did inheriting the reputation and legacy of the Viet Royale make things easier or harder for you as a new restaurateur?

  • 12:21:45

    VANIt was a mixture of good and bad. It's good that we -- we may lose some old faces, customers, but it's good that we gain some new faces, as well. Yeah.

  • 12:21:57

    NNAMDILet's go to the phones. Here's Leon in Bowie, Maryland. Leon, your turn.

  • 12:22:03

    LEONYeah, I'm just recalling empanadas that I ate for many years in Georgetown, Sam the Argentine baker. And they have this combination of olives and meat, and I don't know what all, and I've never found anything like it recently.

  • 12:22:21

    NNAMDIMargaret?

  • 12:22:23

    WOMACKI heard about this place, actually, and we have a version that's similar, but we've taken out some of those Argentine elements. We don't have the olives or the eggs or the raisins, are the three that make the saltena, Argentinean version. But I don't know. I haven't seen the exact Argentinean version. Actually, yes, there's a place in Rockville called El Patio, and it's an Argentinean restaurant, and they serve the very traditional Argentinean empanadas. So, that's a place you might want to try.

  • 12:22:50

    NNAMDIThere you go, Leon. We have the answers here for you. All you've got to do is call 800-433-8850. Shoot us a Tweet @kojoshow or email to kojo@wamu.org. We'll be continuing our conversation with immigrant food entrepreneurs, but we'll be taking a short break first, because this is the first day of our spring membership campaign. We'd love you to become a member now, or to renew your membership by going to WAMU.org, or by calling 800-248-8850. And here's a lot more.

  • 12:23:21

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with immigrant food entrepreneurs. Tom Van, you are taking some lists with the menu at Four Seasons, offering dishes that are unique recipes of the restaurant, and not from any particular region of Vietnam. What did you decide to take the risk of innovating new recipes, rather than just sticking to traditional dishes?

  • 12:23:40

    VANWe want to bring a different taste to the community, so they can try, rather than just sticking with the old, traditional Vietnamese food. And that would make us stand out more than other restaurants at the shopping center.

  • 12:23:57

    NNAMDIWhat kind of feedback have you had about that from the community?

  • 12:23:59

    VANMostly positive feedback. As it turns out, people will come back and try it again and again, and then spread the word to their friends. And they all love the food.

  • 12:24:12

    NNAMDIAnd I certainly enjoyed the variety that I had when I visited the Eden Center.

  • 12:24:14

    VANThank you. Thank you.

  • 12:24:17

    NNAMDIMargarita Womack, do you think entrepreneurs who are trying to market an ethnic or cultural dish or type of cuisine face, well, different challenges than a food entrepreneur who's bringing a more mainstream product to the market?

  • 12:24:31

    WOMACKYes and no. So, definitely a double-edged sword, there. You have areas like metro DC, where you have people that are very well-educated that travel a lot, a very diverse, multinational community. There's an advantage, here. People are going to be much more open-minded. But now, if I try to sell Empanadas in the middle of rural Nebraska, that might be a different deal. So, getting going in an area such as this, and then maybe expanding to New York, California, places like that, there's an advantage, but it's not going to be easy to break in in every part of the country.

  • 12:25:09

    NNAMDINoobtsaa, same question to you. Do immigrant food entrepreneurs face challenges that are unique to promoting an ethnic food product?

  • 12:25:17

    VANGI think there are definitely unique challenges, you know, coming from a ethnic background. You know, because your pallets are just different, so what you're used to is probably not what a lot of other people are used to. So, I think, you know, just getting people used to -- or kind of introduce them to different tastes and textures I think is always something really, really important. But I think that's part of the fun of it, too, right, is you get a chance to share something really special and different with people that normally probably might not be able to get it so much. So, I think that's kind of the nice flipside, as well.

  • 12:25:53

    NNAMDIYou developed Foodhini at the Halcyon Incubator at Georgetown University. Can you talk about food incubators and what role they play for those launching something new?

  • 12:26:02

    VANGYeah, so there's actually two incubators that we were part of. The Halcyon Incubator, which is a social entrepreneurship, an incubator that supports people working on social impact or environmental impact stuff. And then we're also part of Union Kitchen, which is where we cooked out of first. So, it was a commercial kitchen that we shared with a bunch of different food businesses.

  • 12:26:22

    VANGAnd I think, you know, now we've moved on to our own kitchen, which has been great, but I think the beauty of it being an incubator is that you're able to learn from all your peers. Everybody's going kind of through the same things. And you're able to say, hey, this, like, I'm trying to print out this label, and it's not printing out correctly. And somebody's like, oh, try this or try that. And I think having that camaraderie and everybody knowing, you know, what it's like to hustle and go through the struggle is definitely something that you'll always take with you.

  • 12:26:51

    NNAMDISo, you found it a worthwhile experience for you as a food entrepreneur.

  • 12:26:54

    VANGI did. I mean, I'm not from a food background. I was an engineer before, and dived into this industry, and I'm learning as I go. So, I think it's really important to be open to hearing what other people think, but then also being able to share kind of the struggles you're going through, or the challenges. Because, really, you now, we're all in this together, and we're trying to just get some really great food out to people. So...

  • 12:27:17

    NNAMDILet's talk with Nancy in Washington, DC. Hi, Nancy.

  • 12:27:21

    NANCYHi, Kojo. How fun to talk to you.

  • 12:27:24

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 12:27:26

    NANCYI'll keep it brief. I'm calling about empanadas, for your caller. Julia's Empanadas -- I came in late. I asked your producer, I hope they didn't already say that, but it's tradition, Washington, Adams Morgan tradition, the greatest, precious empanadas. And they have olives, eggs, raisins in the saltenas with the chicken. And then the Chilean beef also has olives. And they're quite delicious and quite authentic and wonderful. And I'm lucky enough to live in DC and I can get food from other cultures every day.

  • 12:28:07

    NNAMDIMargaret, what's different about your empanadas?

  • 12:28:10

    WOMACKSo, I've tried Julia's. They're much larger. They're a different kind of dough, and they have a variety of fillings that are not necessarily -- they're great and very diverse and indeed authentic, but not necessarily kid-friendly. We are focused more on, like, young families and snacks that will work for kids. And our preparations are different, right, and ours are something you pick up at the grocery store from your freezer aisle, versus going to the store and buying them fresh.

  • 12:28:36

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Nancy. Seepable (sp?) emails: my wife is Filipina, and we do a majority of our shopping at international markets like H Mart. As for restaurants, there are surprisingly few in the area, considering that Filipinos are such a large part of the Asian Diaspora. But you point out, Simone, that there are Filipino restaurants that people can find around here. Correct?

  • 12:28:58

    JACOBSONYes, absolutely. Two of our favorite restaurants, period, also happen to be Filipino. Bad Saint was voted one of the best restaurants in the country. And that's a huge trend to see moving away from Asian restaurants being best Asian and just being the best. And the second is Purple Patch, and Purple Patch is in Mount Pleasant. And I would encourage anyone listening to support both of those places. Both are excellent and very authentic and owned by some of the most hardworking, kind-hearted people who also happen to be great chefs.

  • 12:29:33

    NNAMDITom Van, what are the challenges of trying to market Vietnamese cuisine -- which has a very long and established history and tradition -- to non-Vietnamese customers?

  • 12:29:44

    VANThe challenge is to have those new customers try the food, get them to the door, make them eat the fermented fish, the shrimp paste, and then the smelly fish, right, the sauce. Many of us, we stay away from that, the fish sauce. But the challenge is to bring them to the door and have them try first. And once they try it, they will love it.

  • 12:30:08

    NNAMDIDo you lose Vietnamese customers when you aim to attract more mainstream diners?

  • 12:30:13

    VANNo. We refocus for a variety of customers. That's including the non-Vietnamese customers and Vietnamese customers, as well. So, we're not focusing on one ethnic group. We try to make the food that is edible for or delicious for every customer.

  • 12:30:33

    NNAMDISimone, is there anything you would do differently in the launching and growth of your business if you had to go back and do it all over again?

  • 12:30:40

    JACOBSONI think anybody who's starting a business for the first time would like more money. I think for us, you know, my mom is the youngest of six children, and she came here when she was just going to college. And so, you know, we didn't start the business with a lot of money. And that's actually, I think, made us really smart about what we've done, because when you don't have a lot, you're very careful about how you spend it.

  • 12:31:11

    JACOBSONAnd so as we move into the next phase of growth for our business, we're trying to attract more financial support. We had incredible community support with the start of Toli Moli, but as we go into our new ventures, we're looking also to be a little bit more confident and also aware that you need a little bit of startup capital to really be able to breathe and relax a little bit, and not always be counting every stick.

  • 12:31:42

    NNAMDIYou mentioned new ventures. What's next for you as a food entrepreneur?

  • 12:31:46

    JACOBSONWell, we are so excited. This is 30-plus years in the making. We will finally have our own sit-down restaurant. The restaurant is called Thamee. Thamee is the Burmese word for daughter, and it's also a term of affection or endearment. So, you would call a younger person thamee. And in Burmese language, we don't have the word I. So, we don't refer to ourselves in the first person as I. I would refer to myself, if I were talking to you, probably as thamee, or as another word that shows respect.

  • 12:32:17

    JACOBSONAnd so this restaurant is an opportunity for my mom to shine. She has been cooking out of a kitchen that is smaller than most people's home bathrooms, (laugh) or closets, even. For three years now, she's been able to do amazing things with such little space. And she'll finally have a full kitchen to be able to present Burmese food to all of Washington in our new home on H Street Northeast.

  • 12:32:42

    NNAMDIWow, good luck. Noobtsaa, you've said that you want your chefs to outgrow Foodhini someday. What do you envision for them?

  • 12:32:49

    VANGYeah, I think what we set out to do originally is to create a space for creating jobs and, you know, creating good livings for, you know, immigrants and refugees that come into this country looking to better themselves. And I think part of that is, you know, them being able to share their food. But then, you know, we work with people of all different skill levels, so people who are chefs who are professional trained, or other chefs who maybe have just been cooking their entire lives in their homes.

  • 12:33:15

    VANGAnd so it creates an opportunity for chefs to learn and see maybe they would like to maybe become a lead chef someday and help train other chefs. Or some chefs have an opportunity to work at, like, our store at Whole Foods and be able to grow and learn how to manage an entire kitchen and restaurant and be able to go someday and say, hey, I want to maybe start my own place in the future. And what's great about what we're doing is we create a place for our chefs to get their name out, right. People know their food already, they've tried it, they're able to follow certain chefs. And I think that's what we've been seeing so far.

  • 12:33:48

    NNAMDINoobtsaa Philip Vang is founder and CEO of Foodhini. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:33:52

    VANGYeah. Thank you so much for having me.

  • 12:33:53

    NNAMDISimone Jacobson is the co-owner of Toli Moli. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:33:57

    JACOBSONThank you.

  • 12:33:57

    NNAMDIMargarita Womack is the owner of Empanadas. Margarita, thank you.

  • 12:34:01

    WOMACKThank you.

  • 12:34:01

    NNAMDIAnd Tom Van is co-managing partner at Four Seasons restaurant. Tom, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:34:06

    VANThank you for having me.

  • 12:34:07

    NNAMDIToday's conversation was produced by Monna Kashfi. For more on local immigrant food culture, check out our website. You can find a video of my visit to Eden Center in Falls Church, Virginia at kojoshow.org/blog. It's all part of my 20th anniversary, where I've been getting out of the studio to talk to Washingtonians all over the region. Coming up tomorrow, a new report named Washington, DC the most gentrified city in the country. We'll explore that report's findings and what happened to get the District to this point. Plus, we'll sit down with the Japanese Ambassador to the United States to talk about the history of the District's famed cherry blossoms, a 170-year-old gift from Japan to the US. That all starts tomorrow at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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