Customers are waiting in line at Falafel Inc. when the tiny shop opens at noon. Mostly young, they are in search of inexpensive food to fill their hunger. But they also are making a social statement.
Falafel Inc. is nestled in Georgetown, one of the poshest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. Yet at lunchtime on a weekday, the 74-square-meter shop is bustling as employees assemble falafel sandwiches and bowls for the area office workers who crowd the premises.
The food is good. And cheap — $3.00 for a falafel sandwich and only $4.00 for the most expensive thing on the menu. But the falafels, fried dough made from beans, and their price aren’t all that draw patrons.
“I think what they are doing with refugees is a very good cause and I support it,” says Nick Wright as he waits to place his order.
“The food is delicious and hearing about the owner’s story before we went in was really inspiring,” added customer Roland Spier. “And I think it makes the food all that more enjoyable.”
For every $10 that Falafel Inc. makes, owner Ahmad Ashkar donates a day’s worth of food for a refugee, about 50 cents, to the U.N. World Food Program (WFP). And that amounts to more than you might think on sales of $3.00 falafel sandwiches. Since the shop opened in mid-May, Ashkar has donated enough to feed almost 10,000 refugees, about $1,000 a week.
“There's many ways we could have decided to help refugees,” Askar told VOA. “We chose falafel for two reasons. One, because falafel stands are prevalent around refugee camps around the world; actually the main food in most refugee camps, because it's so cheap, and it's affordable, and it's highly nutritious. Second is my personal love and passion for falafel.”
Ashkar grew up on the food, cooked by his Palestinian mother; the recipes in the shop are all hers.
In addition to the falafel shop, he is CEO and founder of the Hult Prize Foundation, which awards annual prizes to student entrepreneurs to launch socially oriented startups. The prize is backed by the Bill Clinton Foundation and has awarded $1-million prizes every year since 2010.
Ashkar, who was named “Entrepreneur of the Year" by Esquire Magazine last year, knows that his business cannot do good in the world if it is not financially sustainable.
“We do anywhere from 600 to 800 guests every single day,” he said. “And so long as those guests are buying things like sides and drinks and spending more than just the money on the sandwich, we are able to sustain our business.”
Every Sunday, when Askar totals up his weekly earnings, he makes a donation to the WFP via the ShareTheMeal app, but he dreams of establishing his own foundation and targeting his donations more closely.
He wants to open falafel shops around the world, and Askar already is in talks with several franchisees in cities around the world. If he can open 100 franchises, he can feed 1 million refugees a year.
Ashkar says the simple nature of the business makes it possible. Each shop, mimicking a refugee camp stall, requires just a small space for a kitchen with a fryer and oven.
And he wants to do more for refugees than feed them. He also wants to employ them.
“Every one of our units can employ up to 12 refugees,” he said, “and we're looking at a place where the refugee can actually become, after 24 months of employment, an actual owner of the stores themselves.”
He is not worried about having enough mouths to feed or refugees to employ. “Every day we’ve seen more and more refugees,” he noted.
The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported in March that as of mid-2016, there were 16.5 million refugees globally, 5 million more than in mid-2013. More than 30 percent came from Syria.
"What we're doing here at Falafel Inc. is trying to provide a solution at the very starting point of the crisis,” Askar said, “because we do believe that it's going to get worse before it gets better."