Im­mi­grant En­trepreneurs Poised To Shake Up The U.S. Culi­nary Land­scape

ForbesWeekly - - NEWS - BY NINA ROBERTS, FORBES CON­TRIB­U­TOR

The mam­moth Fancy Food Show re­cently took place in­side Man­hat­tan’s cav­ernous Jav­its Con­ven­tion Cen­ter. End­less rows of ex­hibitor booths and pav­il­ions filled the vi­brant, verg­ing on fren­zied, trade show fea­tur­ing more than 2,600 food com­pa­nies world­wide. It was lo­gos-a-go-go as far as the eye can see. Any type of ed­i­ble item imag­in­able was rep­re­sented, from tra­di­tional jarred tomato sauces to pasta made with cricket flour. Over­lap­ping cook­ing demos along with food sam­ples cre­ated a unique blend of aro­mas.

An es­ti­mated 25,000 in­dus­try in­sid­ers de­scended on the show over its three days. Po­ten­tial buy­ers and bro­kers work­ing for re­tail­ers like Whole Foods, Ama­zon Fresh, re­gional su­per­mar­kets and in­de­pen­dently owned stores or dis­trib­u­tors, pe­rused the booths look­ing for new prod­ucts, pro­duc­ers and trends.

Once again im­mi­grant en­trepreneurs liv­ing in the U.S. have cre­ated some of this year’s most in­no­va­tive prod­ucts and busi­ness mod­els, in­cor­po­rat­ing as­pects of their coun­try with U.S. busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties. Sim­i­lar to pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions of im­mi­grant en­trepreneurs who have made hum­mus, sushi or what’s called Greek yogurt main­stream, these en­trepreneurs could po­ten­tially change what the av­er­age U.S. con­sumer eats and drinks.

El­e­ments Truf­fles. Across the Hud­son River from Man­hat­tan is the home of El­e­ments Truf­fles in Jersey City, New Jersey. Alak Vasa, a for­mer al­go­rith­mic trader at Gold­man Sachs founded this Ayurveda in­spired choco­late startup in 2016. The six-per­son team med­i­tates prior to each choco­late mak­ing ses­sion and chants are played dur­ing the process.

Vasa’s raw, dairy-free choco­lates are sweet­ened with honey and fla­vored with pure es­sen­tial oils. Fla­vors range from or­ange pis­ta­chio in­fused with turmeric, to rasp­berry with beet­root in­fu­sion. El­e­ments Truf­fles are sold on­line and in ap­prox­i­mately 100 re­tail out­lets across the coun­try.

“My pas­sion has al­ways been with good food,” ex­plains Vasa in­side her in­ti­mate burlap cov­ered booth as her hus­band, who ear­lier joked, re­fer­ring to him­self as the “free la­bor,” tends to cu­ri­ous show go­ers who sam­ple the choco­lates. “I have a sweet tooth,” con­tin­ues Vasa, “I love my desserts.”

Af­ter Vasa quit her job in March 2015, she launched the nascent ver­sion of El­e­ments Truf­fles. “I re­al­ized,” re­calls Vasa when

she started ex­per­i­ment­ing with fla­vors, “it’s the mem­ory palate from grow­ing up!” Vasa was born in the U.K. and raised in In­dia. She ar­rived in the U.S. to earn a Mas­ters in com­puter science at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

“Ayurveda was such a huge part of grow­ing up,” says Vasa, “which I never ap­pre­ci­ated!” she laughs. Vasa de­scribes Ayurveda as a sis­ter science to yoga. “Ay­erveda fo­cuses on bring­ing bal­ance to your sys­tem through food,” ex­plains Vasa.

Vasa notes that cus­tomers of­ten think she’s an “Ayurveda Ex­pert,” just be­cause she’s from In­dia. “I wouldn’t call my­self an ex­pert,” says Vasa, “but I do bring some wealth of ex­pe­ri­ence grow­ing up in that en­vi­ron­ment.”

En­trepreneur­ship isn’t easy, con­cedes Vasa, but she at­tributes her per­se­ver­ance to grow­ing up in In­dia. “Com­ing from a de­vel­op­ing coun­try like In­dia, there are cer­tain val­ues that get in­grained in you,” says Vasa, “There are so many peo­ple, every­thing is so com­pet­i­tive; your brain is wired to work re­ally hard.”

Per­haps it’s Vasa’s ro­bust med­i­ta­tion prac­tice or Ayurveda bal­ance or eat­ing lots of choco­late, but she over­flows with pos­i­tiv­ity about her re­cep­tion as an im­mi­grant en­tre­pre­neur in the U.S. “This coun­try has ac­tu­ally given me the chance to ful­fill my dreams,” says Vasa, “I can’t think be­ing an im­mi­grant as some­thing that ever stopped me.”

Hip­peas is a healthy puffed or­ganic snack made of baked chick­peas that ac­tu­ally tastes good. This snack is the cre­ation of se­rial en­tre­pre­neur Livio Bis­terzo, orig­i­nally from Italy by way of Lon­don, now based in Los An­ge­les, Cal­i­for­nia.

Bis­terzo sits amid car­tons stacked high of Hip­peas snacks, hand­ing out the lit­tle yel­low snack bags to any­one pass­ing by. In an Ital­ian-Bri­tish hy­brid ac­cent, Bis­terzo ex­plains that he looked at ma­jor trends back in 2015, “And the legume story was so rel­e­vant.”

He be­gan con­coct­ing this healthy snack that he wanted to res­onate with main­stream con­sumers. Hip­peas are gluten-free, ve­gan, kosher and comes in five fla­vors in­clud­ing “Sriracha Sun­shine.”

Bis­terzo un­der­scores the com­pet­i­tive na­ture of the snack in­dus­try and its high fail­ure rate, re­gard­less if an en­tre­pre­neur is for­eign- or Amer­i­can-born. “You come to a show like this and 70 to 80% of ex­hibitors don’t come back.”

“We are in the sec­ond year of busi­ness,” says Bis­terzo, “we should close the year with $11 mil­lion. Next year, we’re push­ing for dou­ble that.” Hip­peas are sold across the coun­try in Whole Foods, Star­bucks and Safe­way, among oth­ers.

Bis­terzo moved to the U.S. with his wife and three chil­dren, no easy feat, specif­i­cally to launch Hip­peas in 2015. He chose Los An­ge­les as his home, where Hip­peas now em­ploys 34 peo­ple. He’s found a sup­port­ive com­mu­nity of en­trepreneurs and ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists who are fo­cused on the in­ter­sec­tion of food and tech.

Un­like many im­mi­grant en­trepreneurs, ob­tain­ing a visa was not ter­ri­bly chal­leng­ing. Bis­terzo’s E-2 In­vestor Visa took eight months. “I had a lit­tle bit of a track record,” notes Bis­terzo who was pre­vi­ously in the or­ganic tea busi­ness, “I was for­tu­nate that I could in­vest in this com­pany.”

Le Bon Magot is a high-end, nat­u­ral line of chut­neys, mar­malatas and caponatas cre­ated by Naomi Mobed, the founder and CEO. El­e­gantly de­signed glass jars that show off the rich reds, greens and dark pur­ples of Le Bon Magot’s prod­ucts, are stacked in the rear of the white booth. A crowd of buy­ers stand at the front counter to try sam­ples, some peo­ple look dazed as they try and place the ex­quis­ite and unusual fla­vors.

Mobed was born in Pak­istan, raised in Iran and moved the U.S. at 11 years old af­ter a few stops in Asia Pa­cific and Europe. She spent most of her adult life work­ing in fi­nance and bank­ing abroad. When she re­turned to the U.S. two years ago, Mobed de­cided it was fi­nally the time to launch the food busi­ness she’d en­vi­sioned, based on fam­ily recipes.

“I knew these fla­vors need to come alive,” says Mobed, “be­cause there’s noth­ing else like it out there.” She only uses top qual­ity in­gre­di­ents and wants con­sumers to feel like they are eat­ing a condi­ment they’d find in her fam­ily home. “And we’re not a jaror­i­ented fam­ily,” as­sures Mobed, “we cook every­thing.”

Le Bon Magot, which means “The Hid­den Trea­sure” in French, is based in Lawrenceville, New Jersey and the prod­ucts are made in Long Is­land’s North Fork.

“We’re tiny,” con­cedes Mobed, who aims to scale-up her busi­ness while re­tain­ing the high qual­ity of in­gre­di­ents. “I refuse to be­lieve we live in a so­ci­ety where we can­not man­age a sup­ply chain of fresh in­gre­di­ents,” ex­claims Mobed.

Mobed works with a six-per­son team, in­clud­ing con­sul­tants and part time work­ers. Le Bon Magot prod­ucts sell in spe­cialty shops across the coun­try like New York City ‘s Épicerie Boulud and Kalustyan’s among oth­ers, and For­mag­gio’s in Bos­ton.

While Mobed be­lieves there is an en­er­gized en­vi­ron­ment around the main­stream em­brace of spices and culi­nary di­ver­sity, she notes that some con­sumers don’t un­der­stand her prod­ucts. “What is a chut­ney? Why do you need it?” she’s been asked. “But once peo­ple taste it,” says Mobed, “they are much more open to it.”

Alak Vasa is the founder of El­e­ments Truf­fles.

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