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Takes a Village: New Haven Food Startup Accelerators Provide Haven for Refugees

“What was New Haven missing?” Eduardo de Lara, a recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic, was living 25 minutes outside of the city center, in Orange, CT, when the question occurred to him in 2017. He had come to New Haven to visit friends and, walking down the street, realized what had been bugging him.

“Empanadas!” he answered emphatically.  

De Lara moved to Connecticut three years ago, first to the town of Orange for a year, and after that into the heart of the city itself. At first, Connecticut didn’t feel quite like home. When he grew up in the Dominican Republic, doughy empanadas were a constant, familiar presence—from his high school cafeteria to street corners to supermarkets. Once he came to the United States, however, he could find them only as appetizers in restaurants, and even then, they were served with unimaginative fillings that paled in comparison to the ones he was used to.

“They were only cheese or meat or chicken,” he lamented, longing for more innovative creations. Moreover, most empanadas found in New Haven are Venezuelan style, distinct from Caribbean empanadas in filling and in type of dough, yielding a flakier final product. 

De Lara had no firsthand knowledge of making empanadas. He had never needed to: In his home country, they were ubiquitous and cheap. He remembers calling his grandmother for her empanada dough recipe, which did not prove to be helpful. 

“Grandmas don’t tend to have a measure of anything,” he said wryly. “I tried looking for a recipe online, trying to make my own recipe myself.” 

He started to make empanadas in the traditional Dominican style, tailoring the recipe on weekends with his wife, who served as taste-tester and sous chef. De Lara added that even though his wife—originally from the United States—had never had an empanada before, she “fell in love” with the food, and now “eat[s] more empanadas than I do.” 

After mastering the technique, De Lara ventured into foreign territory, fusing traditional Dominican elements with flavors from other cultures. The results were as varied as they were delicious: Lasagna, strawberry, and chili-cheese empanadas soon brought De Lara’s new company, Republic of Empanadas, to life. They were an instant hit at the Wooster Square Farmers’ Market and in catering orders. 

De Lara launched his business with the help of the Food Business Accelerator. A partnership between Collab New Haven and CitySeed, nonprofits that respectively support startups and food equity, the Accelerator provides resources for businesses run by women, immigrants, and people of color.

De Lara went through the Accelerator’s 12-week, multi-stage program—one two-and-a-half hour seminar weekly, on topics ranging from “Investigating your Customer: Customer Discovery” to “Sourcing Food Locally, Wholesale Purchasing, and Farmer’s Markets” to “Marketing 101 and Food Photography.” Participants in the program are provided with a commercial kitchen, mentorship from an experienced New Haven food business owner, trainings for certification and food safety regulations, and the chance to sell their products at the CitySeed Farmers’ Market. After the program concludes, the entrepreneurs compete in a culminating pitch day to win seed funding. 

Caroline Tanbee-Smith, co-director of Collab New Haven, emphasized that the diversity of the entrepreneurs’ lived experiences is a great strength to Collab’s mission as an organization. She and her partner, Margaret Lee, always ask themselves: “How are we co-creating this vision with the entrepreneurs and their guidance and expertise?”

To bring diverse entrepreneurs to Collab, the program provides several services, including interpreters, childcare, and application materials in different languages. 

Building a strong community within Collab and creating ties with the larger community of New Haven have both been driving forces within the program.“It takes a village and a community to make this kind of thing possible,” she said. To support its work, Collab has paired with other local institutions, including the City of New Haven, the Yale Law School, and the Connecticut Food Hub. The Elm City is a good fit for such an initiative, Tanbee-Smith explained. “New Haven has already invested so much in food and food culture.”

Sumiya Khan, a co-founder and Kitchen Program Manager of Sanctuary Kitchen, echoed Tanbee-Smith’s sentiment. Sanctuary Kitchen provides culinary training and employment opportunities for refugees in the Greater New Haven area with the ultimate aim of fostering meaningful, lasting connections between long-time New Haven residents and new community members.

“Guests that attend [our events] say that they are grateful for having the opportunity to meet someone who is a refugee or immigrant and hear their stories firsthand,” Khan explained. She has witnessed New Haveners “opening their eyes to the reality of the conflicts that are going on and putting a face to the headlines.” 

Among the programs Sanctuary Kitchen provides, Khan highlighted the success of their  cooking classes and supper clubs as ways to bridge cultural divides.

“At our annual fundraising event, ‘Local Market, Global Table,’ there was an instance where the chefs were preparing the food, and they were all laughing and joking,” Khan recalled. “A guest overheard the joy and laughter and said to me, ‘This is what Sanctuary Kitchen brings to the community: a sense of belonging and family.’”  

Khan emphasized the key principles of Sanctuary Kitchen: “We believe that food is a tool for social change. When you share a meal and share stories, you can create a welcoming, accepting, intimate space where genuine cultural exchange can occur.”  

The chefs at Sanctuary Kitchen hail from 11 different countries, including Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Iraq. Khan recalled an instance when, as one of the chefs worked on a large catering order for grape leaves, all of the other chefs jumped in to help. “It was just a beautiful sight. They were sitting at the table, talking, chatting, rolling the grape leaves.” 

Carol Byer-Alcorace, the Sanctuary Kitchen culinary coordinator, highlights the way the program has helped refugees participate in everyday American life. “I’ve just seen their growth, in every way…speaking more English, reading, talking, and taking ESL classes with joy.”

On the other hand, De Lara testified to the garnish of Dominican culture he has brought to his new home country, and in particular was honored by the expansive base of Instagram followers he has attracted in the city. He shared several stories of families trying dessert empanadas for the first time: after walking off with their purchase, children immediately convince their parents to return for more. 

He expressed his elation at sharing his favorite food with New Haveners, creating a “culture of empanadas” within the city.  

In the past few weeks, the company’s dishes at the weekly Wooster Square Farmers’ Market have included seasonally-inspired empanadas, offering flavors like Pumpkin Spice Pie, Nutella and Banana, and Thanksgiving Turkey. 

These successes in part come from Collab’s unique model. Instead of measuring outcomes like most traditional accelerators—focusing primarily on metrics such as jobs created and revenue generated—Tanbee-Smith says their program has different considerations. Prioritizing the confidence of the entrepreneurs and the social connectedness between program participants has made the Food Business Accelerator both an effective program for new businesses, as well as a welcoming community.

Graduates of the program often occupy key roles on the Accelerator’s board or serve as advisors. “A lot of these entrepreneurs, they’re our friends, and we see them all the time,” Tanbee-Smith said proudly. On one non-mandatory pitch workshop day, nearly all of the members of the cohort stayed after the end of the workshop to critique and assist each other. This experience, Tanbee-Smith realized, illustrated the “level of support, care, and earnestness” that participants show for each other. 

“The goal of sharing is the why,” Tanbee-Smith explained. “The best, most successful businesses know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.” She noted that this was especially important for women and people of color, who need to have “control over their own narrative…[instead of] the narrative having control over [them].”

Byer-Alcorace, who works directly with the chefs on a day-to-day basis, emphasizes that one of the most rewarding parts of her job is helping them tell the story of how their upbringings and experiences shape the food they create. 

At a recent “Tea and Tradition” event hosted by Sanctuary Kitchen at the Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven, a squat white building with large windows and ample gallery space on Audubon Street, refugee women from various countries told stories of the role of tea and snacks in their lives. At the conclusion of the two-hour-long presentation, a man from the audience stood up, and said: “I’m sorry that you had to leave your homes, but I’m so glad you’re here, sharing your experiences.” 

De Lara, too, reflected on the joy of this community. His peers at the Food Business Accelerator are “incredible people; every time we see each other, we hug. You end there with new friends and family.” 

One day, with the help of his newfound family, he hopes to open a brick-and-mortar storefront⁠—a permanent location in his new home.

“You never know what you can become.”