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