Greensboro, North Carolina. Uninformed people like myself might envision a whitewashed culinary scene centered around coleslaw, cherry-flavored Cheerwine and pulled pork sandwiches. Surprisingly, this city of 275,000 residents houses an immigrant population representing more than 140 countries of origin who speak over 120 languages.
The area has historic roots in a Quaker community and has welcomed refugee resettlement for the last 30 years. My jaw dropped in surprise when I learned Greensboro hosts the largest population of mountain tribe Vietnamese outside of Vietnam as well as people from the Middle East, Bhutan, Mynamar, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Ethopia and more.
Sampler at Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant. Photo courtesy of Felicia Perry Photography.
I was ecstatic to learn an organization exists to introduce Greensboro residents and visitors to cuisine made by immigrant-owned businesses: Ethnosh. The company takes guests, lured by $5 dinners, into strip malls on the fringes of town and quiet side streets in pursuit of off-the-beaten-path, down-home global cuisine. Guests learn about the owner’s story as they munch on seaweed salad from a quiet sushi joint, greasy empanadas from a food truck parked outside a brewery or barbequed duck from the Vietnamese joint that decorates its strip mall windows with hanging carcasses.
Ethnosh Founder, Donovan McKnight poses with Slices Pizza Co.’s Owner Antonio Fortezza and his wife and daughter. Photo courtesy of Jacqui Haggerty of Paper Bridge Media & Production.
Origins Of Ethnosh
Ethnosh grew out of founder Donovan McKnight’s passion for engaging and growing community. Prior to Ethnosh, McKnight ran a non-profit that hosted a range of formal and informal events designed to get townspeople meeting their neighbors and increasing civic engagement. Through his wife who works with refugee resettlement McKnight started meeting immigrants and started to get to know a whole new sector of the Greensboro community.
Since many of these immigrants owned restaurants, McKnight and his wife started exploring eating establishments around town. They headed to spots hidden away on the fringes of town and were impressed by the high quality authentic cooking and the interesting stories behind these entrepreneurs. McKnight recalls thinking,
What if I can take this formula that has been successful getting people together, what if I do that around these food businesses? You have the social engagement of coming together and eating in these local businesses then the cultural exchange. What if I could build on my humanities background and explore these cultures a little more intentionally? And, of course, it promotes economic development tool for these businesses, these areas of town that are underserved and this population which is also underserved.
Brother, Father and Sister who own King-Queen Haitian Cuisine Food Truck. Photo courtesy of Jon Black Photography.
McKnight wanted to inspire a social exchange surrounding the diversity of Greensboro. McKnight worked together with Triad Local First to form directory of local, immigrant-owned restaurants. From the beginning, he wanted Ethnosh to have a strong online presence with social media so people who attend Ethnosh could connect with each other outside the events. He reached out to local photographers and writers to create a portrait of the family behind the local business. Before the event, Ethnosh shares articles and professional photography to educate attendees about the people behind the restaurant, their origins and the story behind the food they will eat. Greensboro News & Record found the stories inspiring enough to print before events, reaching a whole new demographic.
Noshup at Agni Indian Kitchen & Bar. Photo courtesy of Carolyn de Berry.
What do these events look like?
With Ethnosh, every event is a new experience. You may end up at a well-established space with an atmospheric interior or a parking lot of a brewery eating off a paper plate from a food truck. McKnight elaborates,
It’s a simple formula. $5. Immigrant owned business. 6-8 PM on an off-night once a month. But each time it’s different…the food is different, the family is different. Some of times it’s a nice space where everyone has room to sit, other times you are crammed together, elbow to elbow. Sometimes we have to pull tables into the parking lot to make room.
Food at Empanadas Borinquen, Puerto Rican food truck in Greensboro. Photo courtesy of Jacqui Haggerty.
Wherever the event is hosted, Ethnosh encourages guests to enjoy their predetermined sampler plate in seating designed to start conversations and build community. The writer who researched the family introduces the owners who can speak as much or as little as they wish. Since McKnight makes a conscious effort to choose authors with a connection to the culture, some times the writer has a story to share in addition to the family.
For example, the man who wrote about the Vietnamese restaurant moved to Greensboro from Queens, one of the most ethnically diverse places in the United States. Disappointed by the initial lack of the diversity in his new home, the writer followed the immigrant trail to restaurants and was relieved when he found the Vietnamese restaurant which was a nostalgic taste of home. In this way, the events celebrate not just the restaurant owners, but also the people who have reconnect with themselves or their roots because of the opportunity. McKnight provided another example of a guest at the Haitian food truck event who claimed to be the only Haitian in Greensboro. Other attendees overhead him, and before he knew it, a half-dozen people emerged out of the crowd having some connection to Haiti. Ethnosh helps remind event-goers how small the world really is.
Ethnosh events attract a cult-like following of a diverse crowd. You can find culture-hungry world travelers hungry to vicariously travel the world, ESL teachers who work with immigrants, immigrants themselves, writers and photographers in search of a story or students in search of a cheap meal.
Not only does Ethnosh expose visitors to new cuisine and cultures but it also supports the people who have propped up a layer of Greensboro’s economy that may have laid vacant.
In the 20 dinners they have hosted in the past two years, they have grown local businesses by generating over 2,000 patrons for the restaurants and created awareness by enlisting local writers and photographers. The model has spread to North Carolina’s capital city with Ethnosh Raleigh and inspired other places to start something similar.