DeliveryRank chats with Srirupa Dasgupta, the founder and owner of Upohar, a catering business with a powerful social mission to alleviate poverty. Since its inception in 2011, Upohar has been offering exciting new cuisines to the community while providing employment opportunities to those who faced barriers to traditional employment. Starting as a part-time catering company, Upohar evolved into a restaurant with catering services, a food truck, and a stand at Lancaster Central Market. Today, Upohar operates as a full-service upscale catering business and continues to support local minority-owned, immigrant-owned, and women-owned small food businesses, sourcing authentic global cuisines from these culinary experts, much to the delight of its satisfied clients.
Upohar means "gift" in my language (Bengali). When I started the business, it was during the Great Recession in the US. We had just relocated to Pennsylvania, and I was wondering about the next step in my career.
During this period, I attended a lecture by Professor Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank. In his talk, he discussed the concept of social enterprise – using business and market forces to address social issues. I come from a family with a business background. On my father's side, there are business owners, and on my mother's side, there are social activists. So the social enterprise concept resonated deeply. I knew I needed to do something with it, to create a business not just for profit, but for the greater good.
Over the next couple of years, I pondered on how to apply this idea. I considered what kind of business I could start that would address a social problem. One day, it all came together. I realized I could combine my love for food, stories, and cultural heritage to create a social enterprise. During the Great Recession I noticed that people were having difficulty finding work, especially refugees and immigrants in our area who faced greater challenges due to language and cultural barriers. This inspired me to create a business where they’d cook their family recipes, thus minimizing the language barrier and leverage their cultural heritage. The business would offer authentic global cuisine not available in our area at that time. This way, they could share their cultural heritage through food, while earning an income and building fluency in English so they could move on to their profession of choice. Thus, Upohar was born as a way to provide a gift to the community while addressing a social problem.
We started as a social enterprise, which means our business practices have always been aligned with the core requirements of B Corporations. Providing opportunities for under-estimated and underserved individuals is at the heart of our mission, and this purpose is integrated into everything we do. We are deeply mindful of our impact on the planet and the community, and this consideration is not an afterthought; it's an integral part of our approach to conducting business. Our commitment to social and environmental responsibility is woven into the fabric of our organization, guiding every decision we make.
Starting a business with the aim of providing employment led me to discover various challenges that were not familiar to me due to my background in software and engineering, rather than food and retail. One significant issue I encountered was the welfare cliff, where part-time employment for individuals might not be beneficial due to the loss of welfare benefits if their income goes above a certain threshold. This posed a dilemma as I wanted to support those in need, but the existing model was not entirely aligned with our mission.
To address this challenge, I had to adapt the business model. I decided to add a restaurant to offer full-time employment with regular hours, as part-time catering was not effective for the individuals I aimed to serve. However, due to the niche market of unusual global cuisines,, we needed to maintain catering to generate revenue. This led to incorporating various components into the business, all in an effort to resolve the social issue I set out to address.
Navigating this balance between business sustainability and the social mission proved to be complex. I realized that achieving success in one area often posed challenges in the other. Balancing the triple bottom line - social impact, financial viability, and environmental responsibility - became a continuous journey of adaptation and creativity to find the most effective solutions. It has been a learning process, where I continuously strive to align our mission with our business practices, making sure each element complements the others as much as possible.
COVID presented a significant opportunity for Upohar. When we had to shut down due to the pandemic, it allowed me to reevaluate our business model. After reopening and trying to revive the existing model, I realized that things had changed drastically: during the COVID years, job creation was no longer an urgent need.It became clear that we needed to make a meaningful and relevant shift to stay mission-aligned.
So I decided to completely change our business model. Instead of focusing on job creation, we shifted our focus to elevating minority-owned businesses and connecting them to new markets. Many food businesses and micro-businesses owned by Black and Brown people were heavily impacted during the pandemic. Our new model centers around 100% catering, but with a unique twist.
Rather than being a “stepping-stone” employer, we now source food from these micro-businesses that are recovering from COVID or starting new ventures. We look for businesses that create amazing food that reflects their cultural and culinary heritage. Our goal is to promote their food and create personalized multicultural menus that offer a unique and diverse dining experience.
At our large upscale events, guests get to experience these authentic flavors and discover all these talented micro-business owners who were previously under the radar. Through our events, we connect these businesses to new markets, giving them an opportunity to gain more visibility and patronage for their retail shops. By curating menus sourced from these micro-businesses, we not only support their growth but also provide our customers with a one-of-a-kind culinary experience.
Selecting these micro-businesses involves a combination of referrals and personal discovery. I am always on the lookout for good food, and sometimes my network of businesses will refer new places to me. If I come across a small eatery with excellent food but limited online presence, I approach the business owner and inquire if they would be interested in collaborating with us.
When approaching these businesses, I discuss how we work and the need for clear communication to ensure smooth operations. If the business owner is eager and has the capacity to handle the volume required for our events, we proceed with the partnership.
I provide coaching and guidelines to help them identify menu items that they can prepare in large volumes and can hold well for buffet-style events. It's crucial to avoid labor-intensive and fussy dishes that may not be cost-effective for them. Together, we ensure that the food they want to promote aligns with the intended audience, creating a positive image for both our businesses.
The impact of this collaboration is significant. Many of these micro-businesses, thanks to the supplemental catering revenue we generate for them, have cash flow for financial stability. This financial boost allows them to move beyond the break-even point and thrive in the competitive market. As a result, the community benefits from having a more diverse and vibrant food scene, becoming a multicultural food destination with a wide array of options beyond chain restaurants.
If you would like to find out more about Upohar, visit https://upoharethniccuisines.com/