To celebrate women business owners, Bank of America and Forbesbooks took time to speak with small business experts at their recent panel event. Panelist Deepti Sharma, founder of FoodtoEat, is creating opportunity and increasing the odds of success for caterers and restaurants. Tune in to this episode of “The Heartbeat of Main Street” for Deepti Sharma’s entrepreneurial journey.
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Kate Delaney: I'm Kate Delaney with Gregg Stebben. We're from “Heartbeat of Main Street” with ForbesBooks and Bank of America. We're here at the 2019 Bank of America Women Business Owner Spotlight, and we're here with Deepti Sharma. She is the founder and CEO of FoodtoEat. What is FoodtoEat?
Deepti Sharma: So, first of all, thank you for having me.
Gregg Stebben: You're welcome.
Deepti Sharma: FoodtoEat is a corporate catering concierge service where we partner with immigrant women and minority-owned restaurants in New York City. Essentially, we help them by taking over their sales and marketing for catering and help them book catering opportunities at large clients. And we're getting these corporations that we feed to do two things. One, we help them consolidate their food and beverage programs, so they don't have to go to 10 different restaurants in order to book catering opportunities, and then two, we're helping them look at diversity and inclusion through the lens of food and beverage, so thinking about how they can invest by using their purchasing power in small businesses in the community and the businesses we represent, as I said, are immigrant- woman- or minority-owned, and two, we're also allowing them to think about inclusion. So, inclusion is not just hiring women and people of color, which is how D&I is usually looked at. So, we say, "How about you do that through your food and beverage programs?"
Gregg Stebben: Culture.
Deepti Sharma: Yes, culture. Exactly. Get the people you've hired to feel as if you're actually trying to think about where they're from and the cuisines that they grew up eating. So, again, it's such a simple thing. Food is sustenance, but it's always put on the back burner. What's the least amount of money I can spend on food? But at any event, good food and good drinks, people remember that.
Gregg Stebben: It also brings the best out of people. So, you're probably going to have some really great gains in productivity and-
Deepti Sharma: Absolutely.
Gregg Stebben: ... and engagement amongst your employees-
Deepti Sharma: Absolutely.
Gregg Stebben: ... that produce results that frankly were unpredictable around a pizza.
Deepti Sharma: Absolutely. As you're talking about that, one of the things we've done to humanize the experience is we started a campaign called I Made Your Food where we photograph all the owners, chefs, and operators holding the sign called “I Made Your Food” because we want those photograph to be in front of the catering and people to look at it before they pick up that free food and say, "Oh, wow. This is the person that has literally had something to do with putting my food together." You see these people standing in line, they're like, "Oh, what is that? I'm so curious and interested." We've even had companies send out the links to the blogs of the interviews that we've done because they want to promote the D&I experience, and they want to promote that they're actually doing this for their team inside.
Kate Delaney: What a brilliant idea and with, of course, the explosion of social media, all different platforms, I would imagine that really took off like wildfire.
Deepti Sharma: Yeah. I mean, a lot of the companies that we're feeding loved it and, essentially, have literally switched over from other organizations that they used to work with to us because they loved that we actually care about the vendors that we represent, that we care about the businesses that we work with, because we don't want to be seen as a third party to them. We want to be able to be seen as an extension of their business.
Gregg Stebben: Talk to us about the kinds of restaurants and food companies you're working with. Would they be in the catering business if they had not created a relationship with FoodtoEat?
Deepti Sharma: Yeah. So, some of them are ... We're in New York City, so we work with some local chains like Dos Toros or fresh&co, which are ... they have above 10 locations in New York City alone.
Gregg Stebben: That's still local or regional companies?
Deepti Sharma: Yeah.
Gregg Stebben: Okay.
Deepti Sharma: They are still local, regional companies.
Gregg Stebben: So, not Taco Bell or-
Deepti Sharma: No. No.
Gregg Stebben: ... Chili's?
Deepti Sharma: No.
Gregg Stebben: Okay.
Deepti Sharma: We try to avoid those. But we do have clients that have requested them sometimes. Again, we don't want to be representing those businesses, but we have mom and pops, organizations like Ja Dijo Dom (Owner/Chef Charles Chipengule). He's an individual that actually used to work for another vendor of ours. He learned everything he could, left, and started his own business. He's from Botswana and wanted to bring the cuisine of not just Botswana, but the continent of Africa and he wanted to educate people because he himself wanted to educate himself about what the cuisine all over Africa is like. So, he started a catering company. So, we have vendors like him, Mamagyro, which is a mother/daughter-owned Greek restaurant and catering business.
So, those are the stories that I feel like are the fabric of our country. When people think about what's American food, I don't think it's burgers and fries. I think it is the cuisine of the world, right, because that's who we are. We're immigrants. That's why, as a first-generation woman of color, I think it's really essential for me to represent where I come from, which is ... Obviously, I'm In ... not obviously, but I am an Indian American.
Gregg Stebben: Not as obvious to a radio audience.
Deepti Sharma: Yeah. Not as obvious, but I am Indian American, and so I wanted to represent that, but I wanted to represent people from all over the world.
Gregg Stebben: What fascinates me about what you've done is you're actually creating opportunity and increased odds of success for the caterers and the restaurants that you work with and, at the same time, creating this opportunity for inclusion and understanding and opening people's minds about food and culture on the company side, and on top of that, we also have a much more diverse workplace. So, it must be very thrilling for people at a company to have their culture represented from time to time as opposed to the standard stuff you get from a company.
Deepti Sharma: Absolutely. We want them to not only do it when it's Hispanic Heritage Month or Black History Month. We want them to know that every one of these restaurants or caterers that we work with should be represented throughout the year, right? It's not just these specialty moments or months to celebrate them. So, that's when ERG groups do it. So, we, again, are changing that conversation to say, "You should have cuisine from all over the world all the time."
Gregg Stebben: All the time.
Deepti Sharma: Exactly.
Kate Delaney: I mentioned at the top that, of course, we're here at the 2019 Bank of America Women Business Owner Spotlight event, and Deepti, for you, obviously, there has to be a connection. What would you advise young women who want to be entrepreneurs, who want to be business owners like yourself, what would you advise them to do?
Deepti Sharma: I was talking about this earlier with someone. I always try to tell them to be passionate, but passion isn't enough to run a business. So, what I think is really important is when you're walking into a room, be able to back up anything you do with facts. People will always ask, "Why you? Why now? Why does this business need to be started now?" and, "Why does it have to be you?" So, just make sure you have the facts of why it is you should be this right person and have those facts of what is the problem that you're trying to solve and why is it now that's most important to get it done.
Gregg Stebben: Okay. I'll take the bait. Why you? Why now? What happened in your life to make you see that this was an opportunity?
Deepti Sharma: When I started FoodtoEat, it was a very different business. I started as an online ordering platform for food trucks and carts, like a Seamless for food trucks. Why me? Because I'm a New Yorker, I absolutely love this city, community has always been a big part of whatever I've done, and I wanted to help create opportunities for underrepresented, marginalized communities. I've worked in politics before it. I had seen what it was like to bring people together for one cause. So, why me? Because I've done it in the world of politics, where I've worked on a number of campaigns. Why at that time? Food trucks were booming. It was 2011 and it was an interesting time and I wanted to help grow and scale them, but not the hippy, the hipster type of food trucks. I wanted to help the small business owners that technology was emerging, but they weren't actually using it-
Gregg Stebben: Yes.
Deepti Sharma: ... so I was sending them, through our system, text messages with orders from people that were sitting in their offices. So, why me? Because I've done things before where I've brought people together for a cause and I felt like I could do it for these people to help them grow in scale. At the time, like I said, food trucks were hot. Then, we solely pivoted for a lot of reasons, which we could spend another 30, 40 minutes-
Gregg Stebben: I'm sure we could.
Deepti Sharma: ... but the pivot was great for us because we were able to continue helping the food industry in a different capacity.
Gregg Stebben: I love the fact that in your original model, you were helping the food trucks and hungry people and now you're helping a very specific set, immigrants, women, on one hand grow their business with your help and expertise, but also, there's this whole inspirational, educational, cultural enlightenment part, which, if I had to choose one of those models to motivate me to get out of bed in the morning, I would definitely pick what you pivoted to. I really want to congratulate you for that.
Deepti Sharma: Yeah. Thank you. I mean, we always worked with immigrant women, minority, but the funny thing is it was always something I knew I was doing, but it wasn't a part of my branding.
Gregg Stebben: Yes.
Deepti Sharma: It became more a part of our story because we saw that that's what would really push our business and that's what would really get the habits of corporations to change.
Gregg Stebben: Yeah. Because you have two tribes now, and one of them is very big and powerful and well-funded.
Deepti Sharma: Exactly.
Gregg Stebben: That's very exciting.
Deepti Sharma: Corporations needs to spend their dollars in the right places.
Kate Delaney: Yeah. Yeah.
Gregg Stebben: So, let's help them.
Deepti Sharma: The challenge is always with Fortune 500 companies. There's always a lot of red tape. How do we break that? How do we get them to change the habits of conforming to what they're used to, which is working with companies like Aramark and Sedexo?
Gregg Stebben: The thing I love about, I think you said, the hashtag or that what you put in the photo is I Made This.
Deepti Sharma: I Made your Food.
Gregg Stebben: I Made your Food. What I love about that is so often, the food we eat, nobody made it.
Deepti Sharma: Yeah.
Gregg Stebben: A machine made it. A robot made it. It's not even really food.
Deepti Sharma: It's processed. Yeah.
Gregg Stebben: It's processed. You're delivering real food made by real people-
Deepti Sharma: Exactly.
Gregg Stebben: ... that provides real jobs and real opportunity. That is very exciting.
Deepti Sharma: So, for us, that's what I'm thinking about, is that how do we change the conversation, and that's why we really started investing our time in D&I because we realized that people ... It's a hot topic. Everyone wants to be a part of it and everybody wants to be doing something new and different. So, it's still tough, right? Corporations don't change with the snap of a finger, even though I wish they did.
Gregg Stebben: Not even when Deepti snaps her fingers.
Kate Delaney: That's right.
Deepti Sharma: Yes.
Kate Delaney: Thank you very much. It was lovely meeting you. I love your mission. I can't wait to see where it all ends up.
Gregg Stebben: I want lunch.
Deepti Sharma: Thank you.
Kate Delaney: Yeah, so do I.
Deepti Sharma: I'm always hungry.
Narrator: For more great small business tips check out Bank of America’s online Small Business Community at bankofamerica.com/sbc. Thanks for listening to “The Heartbeat of Main Street” with ForbesBooks at ForbesBooks.com and Bank of America at BankofAmerica.com.