Hannah Howard and Manal Kahi hadn’t spoken since 2019 when they met as a part of Hannah’s latest book, “Plenty.” A memoir, the book weaves together stories about industrious, resilient women in the food industry with Hannah’s own personal journey toward motherhood. The result is a deeply inspiring book that will also make you very hungry for delicious food (cheese in particular).
Manal is featured in the book as one of those stories: Her company, Eat Offbeat, employs refugees without professional experience but with a passion for recreating the food from their home countries. The result is a catering-turned-meal kit social enterprise (thanks to COVID) that harnesses the power of cuisines from around the world.
We spoke to them in a joint interview about what they’ve been up to since, how the restaurant industry has changed, and advice for fellow women in the food industry.
What have you both been up to since the book was published?
Hannah: As I was writing the book, COVID happened, so it has this ending of “what’s going to happen with the world?” We still haven’t answered that question. In the last chapter, my daughter, Simone, was born, and I just had a baby boy two months after the book came out in November. So, I’ve been in this rush of promoting the book and then getting ready for the new baby. I’m just starting to come back from maternity leave and think about what I’m going to write and do next.
Manal: Since we last spoke, Hannah, COVID happened, so it’s been a very shaky time. We started as a catering company. We lost 100% of our business almost overnight with COVID. We’re still trying to catch up. In 2020, we entirely pivoted our business to do direct-to-consumer. We took our bestsellers from catering, put them in a box and started delivering those boxes to our customers at home instead of at the office. That’s something we’re still doing today, but right now we’re at a point where we’re struggling to decide whether to go back to corporate catering, since that was our bread-and-butter or to keep up with the direct-to-consumer side of things.
Either way, both are very risky at this stage because we still don’t know what’s going to happen with COVID. With catering, it’s great one week; the next, there are no orders, because people are very uncertain if they are going to go back to the office or not. It makes it very hard. Plus, competition has become much harder.
I’ve been struggling with making those decisions. I went through a burnout in December and took a month off, which is why I’m in Ecuador right now. But now I’ve gotten my energy back. I’m getting ready to go back to the U.S.
In the book, Hannah points out that Manal’s kitchen has a different energy and structure to it than the rigid military environment that’s traditionally associated with the restaurant industry. This coincides with a general discussion happening right now over whether or not being a “badass” and having an aggressive attitude is required for women to be successful. What are your thoughts on that?
Hannah: My first career was in restaurants and when I came to it, I read “Kitchen Confidential,” Anthony Bourdain’s book, which celebrates that badass, machismo attitude. I think of that as old-school restaurant culture. That’s what I experienced, and I just find it so refreshing that it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s so ingrained still today in restaurant culture in my experience, from writing about food and spending time with restaurant people and food people, and there’s really no reason it has to be. I find it really heartening and inspiring and encouraging that people like Manal are envisioning a new way to run their businesses and to conceive food.
When you’re free of the constraints of that old-school culture, there are so many possibilities of what we could do and build as women or as the future of food.— hannah howard
Manal: I completely agree with what Hannah just said. Fortunately for me, or not, I’d never been in the restaurant industry. The closest time was when I was in my first year of college when I did a few weeks as a hostess and I was fired! I was in Lebanon, not New York, so it was less aggressive. When I was starting the catering company, I was free of that preconception because I hadn’t lived it. I’d never been subject to that so there was no reason for me to subject anyone else to it. Most of the other people who managed others also had the same experience.
I think one thing that’s part of solving the issue is people like Hannah and other food writers who are writing about this different way of doing things. Sometimes you just don’t know that there is a different way because that’s how you grew up. If you started in the industry when you were 20, 22, and you’ve been subjected to the same kind of macho mentality, you just think “This is the only way to go. If I want to make it to the top, that’s how I need to be.” But reading about people who did not do it that way or about other ways of making it and still being successful I think, “This is super important. Kudos to Hannah for covering such topics because I think it’s a big part of making people realize that you don’t have to go that way.
What does being a woman in the foodservice industry mean to you?
Manal: The funny thing is I never really look at myself as a “woman in the industry.” I just look at it as a very tough industry, and I’m someone who’s trying to make it. So, it’s relatively hard for me to answer that.
But I will tell you this. Probably because of me being a woman, that’s something that I’ve always had, even with my husband, with the way I act sometimes with a team or the way I make certain decisions; it is very different. Perhaps with him being a man and me being a woman, I don’t know if that’s the only thing, but I do feel like there is a softer way of leading that I often have and that I often get accused of. At some point, especially in the early days, I was very susceptible to those thoughts, “Should I be harder on this or harsher there?” It’s only now that I’m coming to terms that no, actually, I don’t need to listen to that advice, and I can still be successful and get to where I want. I don’t know if you call it a soft way of leading, but I do find it very successful because, in the end, I do get to where we need to get as a team. People want to do that because they’re involved and because they actually enjoy the process. We do get the same results without having to be tough or have the more — I don’t want to be gendering things — but the more traditional way a man would be leading.
In an ideal world, we could all just show up as ourselves, but we don’t live in an ideal world, so I think that’s part of the reason that I … want to focus on women’s or nonbinary people’s stories whenever I get the chance.— hannah howard
Hannah: I feel similar to you, Manal, in that I don’t want to be a “women writer.” I just want to be a writer. However, we live in a world with all these entrenched gender expectations and traditions and it’s like the air we breathe, so I don’t think anyone gets to avoid that. In an ideal world, we could all just show up as ourselves, but we don’t live in an ideal world, so I think that’s part of the reason that I do, as a writer, want to focus on women’s or nonbinary people’s stories whenever I get the chance, or stories that aren’t told as often and just use the power — I don’t think of myself as someone with tons of power — but telling a story is certainly a certain power, so I want to use that for good and change the narrative and center it on people who don’t usually get that centering whenever I can.
Manal: There is one place where I definitely feel like I am a woman and I am not necessarily an “insider” person. My partner is a man. Every single time. I’ve gotten used to it by now, but every single time, I’m the one pitching. After I do my pitch, for the questions part, they go to my co-founder — they actually look at him. Even though I’m the one who pitched! That has happened to me numerous times, over and over and over. It’s as if they’re looking at the man for confidence, for the questions or for the harder parts, for the quantitative parts. I’m the one who actually knows the numbers even better, so we still live in that imperfect society. But I think part of that is because those investors have not yet seen enough women who have actually succeeded, or there aren’t enough women who come in front of them who have enough confidence to defend those numbers, or maybe they haven’t really seen enough of those success stories. So, covering those stories is super important, for women who aim to become successful or prove themselves, and even for investors and others who don’t understand that you can still trust me. Even if I’m a woman, I am going to be successful and get the results you’re looking for.
What advice do you have for women in the foodservice industry?
Hannah: I would advise anyone to just surround themselves with people that you respect and admire, and get close to those people. In the first part of my career when I was working in restaurants and thinking I wanted to have my own restaurant, I sought out the places I loved and asked them if they were hiring, and I think that’s a great place to start because I got to work with people who were doing things I found to be cool, inspiring and impressive, and learn from them. I think the best way to learn is always by jumping in, and I got to learn a ton about food, cheese and hospitality. I really value those relationships and I think this book that I wrote is clearly about relationships. And a lot of the mentors I had were men, but that’s OK. People were so generous with their time and their wisdom, and I think having mentors like that really helped me and still helps me today, so I think just getting close to wonderful, impressive people can never be a bad move.
If someone successful tells you to do something one way, that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do it. … Don’t be afraid of doing it differently. Sometimes you end up being even more successful that way.— manal kahi
Manal: I completely agree with that. On my end, maybe the one thing I would add is to trust your gut. Very often, there are so many decisions you need to make, and if you always look at how someone else solved the problem, sometimes you’re going to end up solving it in a way other than how you really would have. This is where listening to your gut and really doing it the way you want, because only you really know your business. No one else knows everything about it. No one else has put blood, sweat and tears and everything into that business; really you only know the way to go. Even though I fully agree with Hannah — it’s super important to have people around you and to get advice and mentors, my advice would be, don’t always listen to them because sometimes those who have made it 10 or 20 years ago, the rules of the game were different, and they had a different way of approaching things, and sometimes it is even better to try something different. I’m not saying to not listen to them, obviously, hear them out, but it’s fine if you disagree and if you decide to do things differently because, again, that’s what your gut tells you. If someone successful tells you to do something one way, that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do it. Acknowledge them, hear them out, know what the usual way of doing things is, but don’t be afraid of doing it differently. Sometimes you end up being even more successful that way.
Do you think that the burgeoning intersection of the social enterprise and food industry will continue to be an area of opportunity?
Manal: I think we are going in a direction and a trend in which people are much more careful about what they put on their plate, and we’ve seen that ourselves. One example going back a few years is if you remember when President Trump had the Muslim ban, our sales doubled over the next few days because people wanted to do something about it, and food was one of the ways they wanted to voice out their concern and commitment and activism. I think it’s the same elsewhere.
Hannah: I completely agree. I think people are slowly but surely more involved, more educated, more invested. I don’t know if you know Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter that’s about food and social issues, but I see that blowing up. People are asking more questions about where their food comes from, who was involved in making it, and they don’t want to be ignorant — they want to make good decisions, so I feel like making it easy for them to make good decisions is a really big opportunity for entrepreneurs.
I think we are going in a direction and a trend in which people are much more careful about what they put on their plate, and we’ve seen that ourselves.— manal kahi
What are you excited about for the future in the industry or in your career? How do you think we can evolve to an industry where being a “woman” in the industry isn’t a thing anymore?
Hannah: I feel like everyone, even though now it’s been a while and it’s still been rough, so I don’t want to sugarcoat the COVID times, but I feel like all of these expectations and norms of the past are getting turned over, and there’s so much room for creativity and innovation and new possibilities going forward. I can’t pretend to know what those are going to be, but I feel like people aren’t as committed to the old ways of doing things and that part of this old-school restaurant world doesn’t exist anymore, and that’s for the best. It’s time for the new, so I’m just so excited about what that might be. But I don’t know what that might be.
Manal: I’m excited about all the changes that are coming. I do admit that it is personally very challenging for us as a business right now because things are shifting so quickly, it’s really hard to catch up and it’s becoming more and more challenging.
What I am excited about though is the next six months or hopefully even shorter than that, once we are on the other side of this huge fight we’ve been having with COVID, just getting back to some level of uncertainty. It’s been so uncertain on our plate. I know other businesses have dealt with things very differently depending on the industry. In our industry, especially if you are a caterer or direct-to-consumer, it’s been very challenging to decide on one direction. I am excited about getting to a point where I get to decide that we’re only doing B2B or we’re only doing direct-to-consumer, or we’re doing both — really deciding which way to go so we know that direction and really pushing hard for that. I know the team is ready, the audience is ready, and the market is ready. It’s just getting through the next few months and going back to some level of, I won’t call it normalcy, we don’t want to go back to what was considered normal before, but, if anything, some level of certainty in terms of how things are moving and how to adapt to that.
People aren’t as committed to the old ways of doing things and that part of this old school restaurant world doesn’t exist anymore, and that’s for the best. It’s time for the new, so I’m just so excited about what that might be.hannah howard
Now purely for fun, what would be your desert island food?
Hannah: It would be cheese for me. I’m a cheese lover. If I had to choose one cheese, it’d be a stinky, washed-rind cheese.
Manal: It would be tomatoes for me. If I have tomatoes every day, I’m happy. If it’s with cheese, like a mozzarella cheese or burrata, that’s even better, but I can stick to tomatoes.
What is the last meal you ate in a restaurant or from a restaurant that you were still thinking about the next day?
Hannah: We’ve been spending time in New Jersey in the middle of nowhere, but there’s this beautiful restaurant called The Canal House, and my husband and I had a meal there that was the first nice sit-down meal I’ve had in quite a while. We had some deviled eggs with caviar and some duck, and it was simple food, but it was really beautiful, and it just felt so special to be in a restaurant.
Manal: I’m in Quito, Ecuador, and just last week we went to a restaurant called Pezbela and I had a ceviche there that I think I’ll still be thinking about for the next few months. The sauce was just incredible. It was a little foamy, it had the perfect balance of citrus. I think it had some bitter oranges, so that gave it a very different taste, and the fish was all super fresh from the coast of Ecuador, so it was incredible.