NEW YORK—Since June, Hiyaw Gebreyohannes has hired four new part-time workers for his company that makes packaged Ethiopian foods. Interest from two large grocery stores and a corporate office cafeteria meant chopping a lot more cabbage and stewing many more lentils to meet the spike in demand.
Food manufacturing businesses in New York City are one of the few glowing beacons in the shaky economy, according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. They have grown 14 percent in the last three years, Bloomberg said at Monday’s food business expo at Baruch College.
Gebreyohannes makes traditional Ethiopian foods like kik and tekele gomen — yellow split peas and a cabbage and carrot dish — for Taste of Ethiopia, the New York-based arm of the restaurant his mother started in Detroit.
By expanding his business and hiring new workers, Gebreyohannes is an example of what the first City-sponsored food manufacturing business expo is trying to achieve. And, as Mayor Bloomberg pointed out, “70 percent of New Yorkers who hold jobs in food manufacturing are immigrants.”
The expo dovetailed with the Mayor’s immigrant entrepreneurship programs and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s FoodWorks initiative, which highlights the importance of food manufacturing in creating jobs and economic growth.
Quinn said a disproportionately large number of new New York City businesses are immigrant-owned, but immigrant businesses also fail at a higher rate. A recent study from the Fiscal Policy Institute showed that immigrants own 48 percent of small businesses in the five boroughs, though the foreign born are only about 36 percent of the total population.
The expo’s goal was to harness this entrepreneurial energy and help immigrant businesses thrive beyond the local level by providing networking opportunities for food producers, buyers, distributors, suppliers and industry experts. It also marked the beginning of a competition for immigrant entrepreneurs to participate in a big international trade show in 2012.
By connecting small immigrant entrepreneurs with sources of capital, technical assistance, or marketing advice, the initiative aims to project New York City’s food manufacturing industry into the national market, envisioning a future where New York is exporting more prepared foods to the rest of the country, while creating jobs locally.
Judging from the spread at the food expo, New York would be exporting an eclectic mix. Besides Gebreyohannes’ spicy vegan stews (“Ethiopian food was vegan before the word vegan was invented,” he noted), Jamaican patties were displayed side-by-side with kombucha tea, almond cakes and kimchi, a spicy Korean condiment.
According to the city, over 100 New York City-based food manufacturers attended the expo, but on the floor there were few immigrant entrepreneurs. While the streets of New York are teeming with shops and food trucks selling Moroccan tagines, Ecuadorian huaraches and Indian sweets, they were not well represented at the expo—perhaps because they were too busy working.
Kheedim Oh, who makes Mama O’s Premium Kimchi, took the time to participate in the expo and hawk his wares. He stood behind a pyramid of jars with sleek labels. Born and raised in the U.S., he started making his mother’s Korean kimchi recipe when he got tired of the commercially available varieties, describing the choices as “sweet, gross, or full of MSG.”
Within three years he went from being a DJ moonlighting as a kimchi-maker to a kimchi-maker moonlighting as a DJ. Oh’s business is still small; he describes himself as the company’s CEO and intern. Like a true entrepreneur, his goals are practical, but he dreams big. He attended the expo to learn how to grow Mama O’s. His ultimate goal? “To be the Chef Boyardee of kimchi!” he said with at laugh.
Aurora Almendral is a Feet in Two Worlds food journalism fellow. Her work, and the work of other Fi2W fellows is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation and the Sirus Fund.