Masem Enyong and Chizi Uwaga are part of a team of four (the others are Sharon Anaba and Guetty Antiste) who ran AFReats, a successful video podcast with a live studio audience featuring chefs, foodpreneurs, and food makers. The audience had grown from 25 to 250, when the pandemic hit. The team still runs AFReats as a platform that highlights foodpreneurs in the global Black diaspora.

With a better understanding of the market need, they’re now working on launching NearPlate, which is designed to help foodpreneurs sell their food products by providing them market access through an Etsy-like e-storefront then pairing them with certified local commercial kitchens or restaurant kitchens. MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Masem and Chizi to learn more about their startup.

NAN PRICE: How and why did you develop the concept for NearPlate?

MASEM ENYONG: We recognized that there was a need for small foodpreneurs to not only sell their food, but to do it in a way that made sense and was legal. So, we came up with the concept of creating a platform where foodpreneurs could have access to a list of available ghost kitchens, commercial kitchens, and restaurants.

The idea is to enable the food makers to go onto the platform, be matched up with a local kitchen, and then be able to sell their food on the platform at a pace that made sense for them. By connecting local foodpreneurs with certified kitchens and providing an affordable platform to connect eaters with makers, we hope to create a more accessible and equitable local food system.

We want to help foodpreneurs scale their businesses by knowing how much product they need to have in their kitchen and what their orders are going to be that week or month, whatever the case may be—whether they want to sell food three days a week or they want to do a meal prep subscription. Foodpreneurs can also add their semi-perishable products (sometimes known as individual consumer packaged goods brands) to the platform so consumers can buy directly from them.

CHIZI UWAGA: A lot of foodpreneurs and food makers are hurting, business-wise. That’s one thing we learned through the recorded lives on the ARFeats Instagram page, which helped us conduct a lot of customer discovery. People shared about their relationship with different ethnicities of food and the difficulties of selling their homemade food products.

Once you listen and note more than 20 of these challenges, you start to see a pattern. We took a look at these patterns and the trends in the wider economic sector as it concerns the food sector, which helped with the concept of creating the NearPlate platform.

With the pandemic, the food industry took a huge hit. And, of course, the demand is going to be higher because more people are staying remote. Also, with potential minimum wage issues and growing workforce issues, how will that affect the food sector?

This industry could break down because demand doesn’t meet supply. How do you solve that? You have to have more vectors of food creation, essentially decentralizing food production. If you enable more vectors of food creation, you can meet demand.

By using NearPlate, these “origins” of food creation have less risky ventures because they don’t have to worry about the physical infrastructure of fulfillment. They don’t have to worry because we’ve designed a platform that’s easy to manage and execute.

Many people who would have been foodpreneurs don’t move forward because of the lack of access to a place to make food or the burden of maintaining the operational overhead if they’ve secured a location. Often, their websites aren’t built specifically to fit the needs of food and they’re challenged with how perishable food, semi-perishable food, or consumer packaged goods might work. NearPlate brings everyone together and makes operating a digital storefront much easier.

NearPlate enables the “ghost kitchenization” of restaurants. We know that the ghost kitchen (otherwise known as a “dark kitchen”) model is what works; especially throughout COVID-19. But there’s a more de-risked process of adopting this model because of our existence. Restaurants don’t have to hire people to come in and cook various food types, which is the prevalent ghost kitchen model; they can just worry about becoming a food fulfillment center. It’s a really virtuous cycle.

NAN: Who is your clientele?

MASEM: Our clientele is all three—the kitchens, the foodpreneurs, and the end consumers. We’re catering to the commercial kitchens and ghost kitchens because we want them to put themselves on our platform so they can get business; the actual food makers who come to the platform to not just find a kitchen, but also sell their food; and then consumers who use the platform to access a variety of food—whether it’s more unique diverse selections (Haitian, Sicilian, or Portuguese)—made by local food makers. A lot of cultural foods that people don’t necessarily know exist near them, so we give the food makers a place to showcase their food.

NAN: How have you been finding the right connections in the Hartford Region?

CHIZI: We’ve been connecting with local resources, including reSET Food Catalyst Stefanie Robles, who ran the recent Retail Incubator. We also met with Wildaliz Bermudez, the Hartford City Council Minority Leader for the Working Families Party. Her office made a couple of connections and recommended we take our mission to the mayor’s office. She suggested we first see if we could get endorsements from the Hartford Chamber of Commerce, the Connecticut Restaurant Association, and the Spanish American Merchants Association (SAMA), because it could help enable funding to develop this fully via an immediate economic development campaign.

MASEM: For me, it’s all about relationships. Things like funding and looking for investors are new to me because I’ve always been on the food maker or the event planner side of the food industry. It’s been interesting making these connections, meeting all these people, and learning who they are and what they do. And just realizing how rich Hartford is when it comes to this community.

NAN: What’s next?

CHIZI: Currently, we’re raising money to code the NearPlate platform. We have a development team identified. We believe that will enable a whole lot of efficiency in our growth. We’ve conducted a full design of the system and we’ve already gotten good customer feedback based on some of the high-fidelity mockup tests results.

MASEM: At the end of the day, NearPlate is centered in wanting the community to do better, wanting people to thrive, and wanting everybody to be proud. I wholeheartedly believe that if people are invested in what they’re doing, there’s a sense of pride. If you have roots in something—whether you’re a business owner or a consumer—as long as you feel like the community around you is flourishing, you’re not going to want to just up and leave. You’re going to want to stay.

I believe so much in NearPlate because I see it as a way to give people a sense of pride, a sense of community, a sense of belonging, and a sense of security. Because when your business is thriving, you feel a lot more secure. And I feel like once people have that security, we’re helping to create a more accepting world around us.

Learn more about NearPlate