Sunday, January 26, 2003

Meet-and-eat sessions nibble at differences

Woman takes ethnic restaurants, strangers of different races and mixes well

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

As founder of Food Chain Cincinnati, you're getting a reputation around town as a one-woman diversity machine. That's pretty good for someone only 29 years old. What exactly is Food Chain?

It's people coming together in randomly selected groups in one of nine ethnic restaurants. It happens four days a month. People

agree to go on one of the four days, then I assign them to a "dinner group," usually four to six people they've never met. They show up at 7 and have a meal they probably never would have had with people they probably never would have met.

Arrangements are always made with the restaurants in advance, so they're not surprised, and they know to split the check appropriately.

Which restaurants?

The nine are East African Restaurant, Manhattan West, Moy Moy's, Mecklenburg Gardens, Simone's, Su Casa, Kaldi's, Ambar India and China Gourmet. I'm also looking to add a few more - a Thai restaurant, and a Korean one. I'll be meeting with more owners as time allows.

Where did this idea come from and when did you launch it?

It began in June 2002, first every other month, now every month. It came out of a leadership course where I had to do a project that had nothing to do with my career (freelance photographer). I figured, I love meeting new people from different ethnic groups and I love to eat, so why not try it?

Have you ever tried anything like this before?

I haven't, but I did a great deal of diversity consulting in previous jobs. It's something I studied when I was working on my bachelor's and master's degrees.

But more than a diversity issue, I think something like Food Chain enriches lives because it allows new people to connect with each other and share themselves. That's what I'm hoping Food Chain accomplishes in the long run - an intimate connection between people of cross differences. By that I mean age, gender, race, religion, everything.

How large is the group and what is the demographic?

Right now, I have a database of 240 people. On any given four-day session, we have more than 100 people. The biggest demographic group is fortysomething white women, followed by thirty- to fortysomething African-American women, followed by fortysomething African-American men. We always have a couple people of Hispanic and Middle Eastern descent, but not as many as I'd like.

Do people come alone or as couples?

Very few come as couples. Some people come in groups of two or three at first, I guess for their comfort level, but not many as couples.

Is Cincinnati a difficult market for a Food Chain concept, considering the recent racial climate here?

Not at all. Because of the racial unrest, there seems to be a core group of people, white and black, who have looked at the situation and decided to do something about it at the grass-roots level. They've embraced Food Chain as a starting place.

Is it succeeding?

I think it is, and one of the reasons I say that is because of the bonding I see going on. Not long ago, one dinner group all went out dancing after dinner. Another group went to somebody's home for a card game. One group picked up and went to Mount Adams for drinks and jazz.

And one couple, I really like what they did after one of the meals. They had a cocktail party where they invited 25 people they knew but who didn't know each other. After cocktails, they drew random names and restaurants and went out to dinner. More strangers getting together with people they probably would never have met.

That's what I mean when I say something magical happens over food.

What are you hearing on the comment cards you pass out?

I get a lot of `Thank you for doing this.' I get a lot of people saying how magical it is meeting people they wouldn't have met. And I get a lot of "This is wonderful. Aren't you afraid it'll get so large you can't handle it anymore?"

Are you?

Not at all. In fact, my ultimate goal is to go national and even international, and have it happen every day of the year, all over the world. So if you're in Paris alone, you can ask at the desk where to eat with a Food Chain group. What I would really like is to find a corporation to sponsor me with funding so I can cut back on work and do this full time. It could easily be a 40-hour-a-week job.

And you know, corporations really are interested in it. I just met with a large one yesterday about a diversity initiative it's developing, and several of the people I spoke to will be joining us for dinner.

I can't name the corporation just yet, but it's interested in doing a kids component - a food chain so children can do what the adults are doing.

Your signup form doesn't ask for ethnic background. How do you know you're mixing ethnic groups from just the form? And what happens if you get a tableful of six middle-aged white guys from the suburbs?

I don't always know the background for certain, but I can almost always tell by the name. I probably will start asking for background on future forms, but dinner groups would still be random. The only time I would override it would be if I accidentally got those six guys you talked about.

Would you be doing this if you were a white suburbanite?

Absolutely. Food Chain has nothing to do with me being a woman of color. It has to do with me loving to see people of mixed backgrounds getting together and the synergy that results. I'd be doing this no matter what.


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