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MarketShare Is Helping Local Immigrants Launch Mobile Food Businesses

Step One: Food Carts. Step Two: An Indoor International Street Food Market.


MarketShare works with members of Seattle's refugee and immigrant communities to create mobile food businesses. That's the gist of the nonprofit's on-paper mission statement. But the last year spent working towards the launch of two new mobile food stalls has been a fluid process that's included figuring out how to be a 501(c)3, finding applicants, and choosing two inaugural and talented fellows. It's been a learn-on-the-fly experience for the new organization.

"MarketShare is trying to bring people together through food," Chief Marketing Officer Leigh Momii says. "It's a universal language; once you taste something good you may want to know more about that person and country."

The idea for MarketShare's model of funding mobile food stalls for immigrant and refugee fellows was hatched by Phil Deng, who registered the nonprofit in January of 2014 and spent the next few months gathering together an all-volunteer staff. MarketShare's COO is Hsiao Chi, who owns Caribbean sandwich truck Papa Bois. Chi brings operational knowledge to the table, including permitting, sourcing ingredients, and creating a brand and mobile menu.

The team spent the spring creating bylaws and crafting marketing and messaging, then switched into recruitment mode in June, searching for candidates for the pair of mobile food fellowships. Momii says the summer was "really challenging" since the team had "no presence or connections." They found other nonprofits serving area immigrant communities and began to spread the word about the program.

marketshare team

The MarketShare Team

Momii says that instead of online or print news sites, many refugees, "trust leaders, whether it's their church pastor or community organizer from their hometown or village. We were finding that the normal ways of doing outreach weren't working." Staff needed to come up with a reasonable goal of the number of applicants for the first fellowship.The goal was 20, and MarketShare ended up with 37 perspective fellows from more than 18 countries.

Up next: a vetting period to get from 37 to 2. The nonprofit offered a two-part workshop on small business training. "They got a preview of what it actually takes to start a business," Momii says. After considering time and family obligations, some applicants withdrew, which simplified the vetting process. After the trainings, the pool of applicants was whittled down to 10.

Those finalists were interviewed and brought food samples to the team for a tasting. "All the food we had was amazing," Momii says. Many of the 10 had worked in kitchens in their home countries, but found the idea of opening a restaurant in the U.S. a lot more complicated. That's because in some other countries, Momii explains, "you get a stall and start cooking, there's no licences."

The vetting process was very complex," she says. "There were a lot of intangibles that we were measuring, as well as making sure they had the commitment, because we really only have two shots at this fellowship. If someone decides to drop off in the middle it would leave us in a difficult situation."

...instead of online or print news sites, many refugees trust leaders, whether it's their church pastor or community organizer from their hometown or village.

10 were narrowed down to three after a Saturday cook-off judged by professional chefs last October. "We wanted to see them in the kitchen, which is different from at home factors. A couple of folks had worked in an industrial kitchen before," Momii says, while others were practiced home cooks. After hours of debate, the final two candidates were named. Two women, Jackie Nkirote from Kenya and Rosario "Chato" Carver from the Philippines are MarketShare's first fellows.

The initial round of fellowships were privately funded by Deng, with plans to explore grants and fundraising after a little more buzz has been created for the projects. Menus and business names are being finalized now, with kitchen assets and physical food stalls (similar to what you find at farmers markets) provided by MarketShare.

Both businesses should be serving food, starting with tastings and catering events, in March or April of 2015. "Were not just sending them out there, we're going to be on the line cooking, helping them set up," Momii says. The team will also initially arrange Nkirote and Carver's scheduling. A second round of fellowships is planned for later in 2015.

What does success look like for MarketShare, at least in the short term? "Making these two businesses profitable such that our two fellows can make this a sustainable full-time job for themselves and can live a comfortable lifestyle," Momii says. Both businesses are work-to-own, with profit first paying off equipment. They can then emerge as independent businesses, "with the training wheels off." That could also mean the transition to a brick-and-mortar after the women find their footing.

When Momii talks about MarketShare's big picture, years-down-the-road organizational goals, she keeps coming back to the mantra #BuildTheMarket. She says that through engaging with stakeholders—be it the city, neighbors, and more nonprofits—the group can pursue their main idea, to create a permanent, year-round indoor international street food market. "That's the ultimate dream. It's about food, but it's also about community," Momii says.