Pioneers of African Cuisine, Global Village Foods Finds Community in Vermont
February 06, 2023
“If you look online, you can find Chinese food, Italian food, and so many ethnic cuisines, but not African,” said Damaris Hall, cofounder of Global Village Foods. “So we thought, ‘why not?’ We will be the pioneers of African cuisine and we’ll do it from Vermont.”
A trained chef in Kenya, Damaris Hall emigrated to the United States in 1991 with her now husband and business partner, Mel. The couple settled in Quechee, Vermont with dreams of starting their own business. “We always talked about what kind of business we would open,” said Mel. “Even before we left Kenya, we knew that’s what we wanted to do.”
As the couple explored ideas, Damaris found herself nostalgic for familiar foods, such as tagines, samosas, and curries spiced with the flavors of home, so she began to cook. “At first it was selfish,” she said. “It took me a long time to get used to American food, but we discovered that our friends and family really enjoyed the meals as well.”
Inspired, Mel and Damaris began selling African food at summer events, which led to vending contracts at larger festivals, such as the Reggae Festival and Bread and Puppet. “People had no idea what they were eating, but they loved it,” said Damaris. Eventually, they opened a restaurant in White River Junction, which they operated for four years.
“That was really our launching point,” said Mel, “and the coalescing of how our brand came together. We developed an identity around authentic African flavors that are inclusive and approachable using clean ingredients, because that’s who Damaris is, that’s how she wanted to cook.”
Initially, making the food more inclusive meant dialing back the spices to accommodate American palates, and “clean” simply meant using whole ingredients. “If you need a chemistry book to understand an ingredient, Damaris won’t use it,” joked Mel. Later, after their second child was born with allergies to dairy, nuts, eggs, and seafood, inclusive also meant producing meals free of allergens.
“It’s simple, African cuisine made with layers of flavor that everyone can enjoy,” said Damaris.
After four years of running the restaurant, while also raising a young family, Mel and Damaris made the decision to close the restaurant in 2002. But, through years of testing recipes and learning which resonated most with customers, they believed they could bring Damaris’ dishes to a much larger audience. They finally found the business idea they had dreamed of starting back in Africa.
Building community through food
It took a few years, but in 2016, Mel and Damaris launched Global Village Foods, offering prepackaged, frozen African cuisine in retail settings. From the start, Mel and Damaris understood that food can be a powerful way to bring people together. Having watched her mother work with cooperatives in Kenya to empower women through farming, Damaris was determined to build a business rooted in those same principles.
“I believe you can have any kind of business,” she said. “But if it’s not benefiting humanity, I’m not sure I want to be a part of it.”
The vision, they agree, is to be the next national Vermont specialty food brand; to be the leader in providing healthy, ethnic, African meals across the country; and to do it while supporting local farmers. “That’s the future,” said Damaris. “That’s the goal.”
As every entrepreneur knows, however, bringing the dream to reality can be a bumpy road. “Making a great product is not running a great business,” said Mel. “We had a great product, it had been validated, we were ready to scale, but how did we get to the next level?”
“Coaching allowed us to dream big”
Just before the pandemic, the couple’s daughter, Wangene, returned home. A bright young business mind, Wangene had worked in marketing positions for national brands, and brought her ideas back to the family business. “She was the third leg of the stool,” said Damaris, “it took all three of us to get where we are.”
Wangene began outreach to resources, both within and outside of Vermont, that could help Global Village Foods to grow. That led to a number of important opportunities that set the company up for the next level of growth, among them the business coaching program at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, in which Global Village Foods enrolled in March 2021.
“You get to a point where you just need a fresh set of eyes,” said Damaris, “that’s what business coaching did for us—it pointed out things we were missing, things we didn’t even think to consider, and pointed us in the right direction.”
“Businesses can only get to a certain point on blood, sweat and tears, and then they need to step back and bring in people who can help them get to the next level,” said Carolyn Cooke, Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund business coach and owner of Triple C Consulting.
“Mel and Damaris were at a point where they needed to transition from working in the business to working on the business. By thinking through their sales channels and supply chains, they were able to more clearly hone in on a growth strategy. It was really rewarding to work with them at a transformational point in their business and see them lean in, embrace the not-knowing, and ask for help where they needed it.”
Carolyn helped them create a financial plan and growth projections that gave the company a clear path forward. Beyond that, however, both Mel and Damaris acknowledge that coaching helped them develop a different mindset around the future of the company.
“A business will only grow to the degree that its leaders do,” added Mel. “We realized that we had to stay in a lifelong learning posture and that, to put our company in a position to scale, we had to be humble enough to recognize where we don’t have the bandwidth to develop the necessary expertise, and then bring that in. That’s what coaching did for us.”
“It allowed us to dream big,” said Damaris.
Part of that dream was driving sales through food service and institutions, which led to two important opportunities. The first was a contract with Sodexo, one of the largest food providers to schools and other institutions. Global Village Foods began providing meals to the University of Vermont in March 2022, which led to contracts with other schools around Vermont. Mel expects to continue expanding through Sodexo into neighboring states in the coming years. “Then we begin our march across the country,” he said.
The second big break was being accepted into FoodBuy’s Diverse Supplier Accelerator, a program that matches women- and minority-owned food businesses with a mentor from FoodBuy, a sourcing partner for Compass Group North America. The accelerator ended in September 2022 and has now moved into the contracting and sales phase.
“These two opportunities alone could set us on a path to corporate enterprise,” said Mel, “and we had contracts with Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and other retailers expanding. We were growing, but when you grow without capital, you’re limited in what you can do.”
Investing as a team sport
Working through relationships that Wangene had helped them establish, Mel and Damaris connected with Janice St. Onge, president of the Flexible Capital Fund (Flex Fund), and Joel Moyer, director of investments at the Fair Food Network.
“Mel and Damaris came to us looking for capital to help them build inventory and hire additional staff to meet projected demand from food service,” said St. Onge. “They were committed to creating quality jobs in Vermont and supporting local farms. It was a great fit for us.”
Together, the Flex Fund and Fair Food Fund provided Global Village Foods with $500,000 in financing in July 2022, split evenly between the two entities. The Fair Food Network also engaged Creators Financial, a fractional CFO consultant, to create a three-year projection across all financial statements and take on the role of trusted advisor to the CEO and the management team.
“They recognized the need to improve systems to better manage the business, make better financial decisions, and bring the organization to the next level to meet anticipated high-growth trajectory,” said Moyer.
The company also received two large grants to work with Vermont and New England farmers and refugees to create what they’re calling a “commercial CSA.” With high volume demand for vegetables that can be grown locally, such as potatoes, carrots, scallions, and spinach, the company works with both larger farms and smaller, many of them BIPOC-owned, to establish advance orders that provide steady, reliable revenue streams to the farms. “We’re going to be buying a lot of vegetables to meet demand,” said Mel. “With determined effort, we are going to bring on board local farmers not just for the occasional order, but to create a system that is sustainable for both of us.”
Business for humanity
Even as the company grew, Damaris says the vision for the company has not changed. “I have always wanted to build community through healthy, ethnic African foods made with local ingredients,” she said, “and take care of our employees.”
Mel agrees, adding that the support the company found here in Vermont gives him hope for the future.
“We didn’t have exit-seeking investors forcing the company to take shortcuts in the name of profit,” he said. “They looked at opportunity and capacity, not just numbers. You get different treatment from people who can see the humanity of what you’re trying to accomplish. That’s what Vermont brings to the table.”
For more information, globalvillagefoods.com.
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