Sankara survived the pandemic by pivoting from catering and in-person events to delivering meal boxes of pre-cooked ethnic food to homes. Now the online multicultural marketplace is expanding into Halifax and seeking new partners.

Saint John-based Sankara is a social enterprise that allows immigrant and refugee chefs, grocers and artisans to sell their products free of charge. Customers pay a commission fee which is included in the cost of the goods.

Many of the vendors, who come from more than 20 countries, have been in Canada less than five years, and Sankara helps them start a business or support themselves while they resume their original careers.

“We used to do catering and in-person events and a lunch program we delivered to offices. It was all cancelled,” Co-Founder Lily Lynch said in an interview.  “We reached out to vendors at the end of March and asked them what they were comfortable doing.”

The chefs’ solution was the meal box program that delivers five precooked dishes in microwavable containers along with a biography of the chef. The boxes are delivered to clients’ doorsteps on Sunday afternoons and cost between $60 and $69 per week, depending on whether they are vegan, vegetarian or meat. All meals are prepared in a licensed kitchen.  

The food is currently delivered in the cities of Saint John, Fredericton, and Moncton. Moncton was onboarded in May when a samosa wholesaler who’d lost his markets began making Indian curries and stews. Soon, Moncton will onboard a Filipina chef. Saint John and Fredericton are also bringing in new chefs.

Lynch said the company is being assisted by the pandemic-induced growth in people buying online, and the boxes provide clients with food diversity, which is welcome as the pandemic has forced people into their kitchens. About 95 percent of customers are native Canadians.

“New vendors always ask what Canadians want to eat,” she said. “We tell them to create an authentic experience of their cuisine.”

The move into Halifax will begin this fall and the company is looking for vendors in the city.   Lynch said Sankara has already partnered with a jewellery maker at NSCAD University.

She said part of the value of the venture lies in helping users express and explore new cultures and create connections. Her own heritage is mixed Black, White and Mi’kmaq. She co-founded Sankara in 2017 with Chinweotito Atansi, a native Nigerian, who taught himself to code in order to build the platform.

So far, they have bootstrapped the venture themselves and still work other day jobs -- she is a paralegal and Atansi is an electrical engineer. Government support has enabled them to employ a team of students that includes two software developers who are building an app as well as business development and marketing students.

They are looking for mentorship --- they’d love to find a mentor who has scaled a virtual marketplace – and investment. They have prepared a pitch deck for prospective investors and may tap into the federal government’s new funding program for black entrepreneurs.

Lynch points to the success of other online marketplaces, such as Etsy, a U.S.-based e-commerce site that allows independent artisans to sell their goods.

“In the food space, there is no one doing what we are doing right now, so we are a good opportunity for investors,” she said. “We have our data and figures to back it up.” 

Lynch said company revenues are stable, but marketing the meal boxes through social media is proving expensive.  Email marketing is allowing them to create excitement around new menus. They are thinking about putting more interviews with vendor chefs online and may develop podcasts linked to individual boxes and cuisines.

“Having meal boxes and hearing from the chef is an exciting part of the routine,” Lynch said.

“We used to run pop-up restaurants, where people could hear music, see the chef, and gain a multi-sensory experience -- that’s something you can’t recreate.”

After Halifax, their next expansion is planned for Ontario, ideally early next year.

There are other platforms that allow clients to order pre-cooked meals. Lynch said Sankara differs because it is a marketplace for diverse cultural items, and because its food boxes are “hyperlocal”, allowing clients to support chefs in their area and experience another part of the world through food.

“Essentially, we're driven by the mission of building more culturally empathetic communities,” she said.