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Not much inside Falafel Inc., opening this Saturday in Georgetown, seems particularly remarkable. Like most falafel shops, you can hear the snap and crackle of falafel balls crisping in the fryer, and the smell of warm pita makes you hungrier than before you walked in. An array of creamy sauces in plastic bottles are tempting toppers, and the price is right. Falafel sandwiches overflowing with toppings are a slim $3.
Entrepreneur Ahmad Ashkar is backing the pocket-sized store. He’s the CEO and founder of the Hult Prize Foundation—a nonprofit backed by former President Bill Clinton and dedicated to launching the world’s next wave of social entrepreneurs through annual startup competitions. Ashkar and others ultimately determine which team deserves the grand prize of $1 million. Huffington Post has called it “The Nobel Prize for Students.”
Ashkar also sits on the advisory board of the United Nations Development Program and has been named Esquire magazine’s “Entrepreneur of the Year” for his work launching socially conscious, for-profit companies in more than 100 countries.
So why is this philanthropic hot shot dabbling in falafel? It’s not because it gives him a chance to show off his Palestinian mother’s recipes or because he calls himself a “fat boy at heart that loves to eat.”
“We had a refugee challenge where we asked entrepreneurs to create companies that could help with the refugee crisis,” Ashkar explains. “I had this refugee thing on my mind and started to look through pictures. When you type ‘falafel’ [into Google], refugee pictures come up. I want to use falafel to help solve the refugee crisis.”
After all, falafel stands are often the main food source inside Middle East refugee camps.
The Falafel Inc. concept was born in Summer 2015 and started to develop when Ashkar secured the former Quick Pita location (1210 Potomac St. NW). “Since we’re taking over an existing restaurant, we just had to put lipstick on it—make it look like a falafel stand inside a refugee camp,” he says. It helps that it’s only about 800 square feet.
While the space is small, Ashkar’s dreaming big with a manifold plan to support refugees, whose images will line the walls to raise awareness. “You’re eating falafel for fun,” he says. “They eat it because it’s the only thing they can afford to eat.”
For every $10 customers spend, Falafel Inc. plans to donate the cost of feeding a refugee one day’s worth of food, which amounts to about fifty cents. Ashkar’s goal is to launch a Falafel Inc. Foundation once he grows the concept to scale, which will enable him to target donations directly to the Middle East refugees he wants to help.
Until then, the restaurant will rely on existing technology. “We will literally take total sales on a weekly basis—every Sunday—and make the donation via the ShareTheMeal app,” he says.
The World Food Programme (WFP) app enables people around the world to make donations to eliminate global hunger with a few swipes on a smartphone. WFP provides about 80 million people with food assistance in around 80 countries, and nearly 13 million meals have been shared to date via the app.
“We set specific goals in countries with the most need, and once we complete this goal we move to the next,” explains ShareTheMeal rep Camaley Jennings. “For example, we completed a goal of reaching one million meals in just over a month (March) to help those affected by famine in South Sudan.”
Finally, Ashkar wants to hire a refugee workforce, training them to move up through the industry ranks so that they can perhaps open their own falafel franchises or other restaurants. The simple nature of the business makes the task less daunting than it otherwise might be because all the operation needs, Ashkar says, is 700 to 800 square feet, a fryer, and a small oven.
He hopes to be able to deliver turnkey businesses to refugees looking to go from employee to franchise owner. His goal is to deliver the real estate, vendors, and equipment for $100,000. “And if they need financing, we’ll finance it ourselves,” he says.
After watching the film Founder about the man who launched McDonald’s, Ashkar is convinced franchises are “for the little guy,” adding “They’re the best way to create and grow jobs and take a hard working ‘average Joe’ and turn them into a thriving entrepreneur.”
With Falafel Inc., he says, “We really hope this brand will raise awareness, create jobs, and restore dignity to refugees who work for us and around the world.”
And there couldn’t be a more critical time for it. According to the UN Refugee Agency, almost five million people have fled Syria since 2011 seeking safety in nearby countries like Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. February 2017 statistics show 13.5 million people in need of support in Syria, including 6.3 million people displaced internally.
“The problem is getting worse, not better,” Ashkar says. In addition to war-torn conditions, countries in the Middle East and North Africa have the highest rates of youth unemployment in the world.
He encourages businesses to hire those who make it to the U.S. “If you’re a hiring manager, you have a choice,” he says. “You’re choosing between someone who just swam across the ocean to save their life or a kid who got his parents to pay for his college education.”
He’s aware that “people associate refugees with bad things in the West like terrorism and bringing conflict and crime to communities,” but says it’s critical to demonstrate that refugees add value. “We need to be proactive, not reactive, in generating opportunities for them before the problem gets too big.”
Ultimately, Ashkar wants to open 100 Falafel Inc. franchises, which would enable it to donate enough to feed a million refugees a year. He has already secured partners in Boston, Los Angeles, and Dubai. And he’s not stopping at falafel. “I created the falafel concept, and then I’ll reverse engineer it for five to 10 other brands that fall under a ‘food for good’ category.”
It helps that Falafel Inc. isn’t Ashkar’s first restaurant rodeo. He’s an investor in The Halal Guys opening May 12 in the District and also co-owns Oklahoma Joe’s BBQ in Vienna, Virginia, with his brother. They’re currently working on rebranding the barbecue restaurant as District BBQ and plan to add a charitable arm much like Falafel Inc.
In the meantime, Falafel Inc.’s grand opening in Georgetown is Saturday, May 13. It will be open daily from 10 a.m. to midnight serving a small menu with falafel or hummus sandwiches ($3 each), a falafel salad bowl ($4), and an array of sides like tabouli salad and za’atar fries ($3 each). It will also carry hard-to-find Middle Eastern soft drinks like Vimto and strawberry Barbican ($3 each). Both the hummus and falafel are Ashkar’s mother’s recipes.
“As a Palestinian who went to Catholic school, I can say food is the ultimate equalizer,” Ashkar says. “Everyone can agree on a delicious, satisfying meal.”