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Quechee-Based Global Village Foods Brings Authentic African Cuisine to New England Universities

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Published November 29, 2022 at 12:52 p.m.
Updated November 30, 2022 at 11:19 a.m.


Mel and Damaris Hall - KIRK KARDASHIAN
  • Kirk Kardashian
  • Mel and Damaris Hall

When Damaris and Mel Hall started selling samosas at Vermont street festivals in 1993, they made 30 at a time. Damaris, a trained chef from Kenya, was in charge of the cooking, while Mel, who grew up in Memphis, Tenn., set up the Coleman camp stove and the cash register.

Today, as the owners of Global Village Foods in Quechee, the couple have roughly the same roles they had 30 years ago, but the scale is vastly different. With a 12-person staff, the company produces 5,000 samosas and 2,000 bulk entrées and ready-to-eat meals per day — all allergy-friendly, with gluten-free and vegan options.

"Eventually, I would like to produce a million a day," Damaris said.

They might actually get there. As the recipients of a $250,000 grant from Vermont's Working Lands Enterprise Initiative and a $200,000 New England Food Vision Prize from the Henry P. Kendall Foundation, the Halls are poised to expand their business beyond grocery stores on the eastern seaboard by selling to the two largest college dining management services in the country: Sodexo and Compass Group.

As part of that expansion, Global Village is working with partners throughout New England to create a custom-built supply chain to source its produce, using local farms and giving preference to BIPOC and immigrant farmers.

"So much food flows through institutions," said Nancy LaRowe, the director of food, farm and economy at Vital Communities, a nonprofit organization that collaborated with Global Village to win the Food Vision Prize. "Those dollars, if we keep them local, are huge for our region."

The Halls met in Kenya in 1991, while Mel was there as a Dartmouth College undergraduate on an environmental studies trip. A year later, they were married, and Damaris immigrated to New Hampshire, where Mel was beginning his MBA at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

Chickpea vegetable tajine - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Chickpea vegetable tajine

Their plans changed when Damaris became pregnant. Their daughter was born prematurely, at 26 weeks, and Mel had to leave school to take care of his family and make a living.

Once their daughter was stable, the couple began selling traditional African food at street festivals: mung beans, pilau, rice, curried goat and samosas. Eventually they graduated to larger events, including the Vermont Reggae Festival, Phish concerts, and Bread and Puppet Theater shows.

The Phish shows didn't go well for them. "We got outsold by kids selling cheese toast for $2, while we had to pay $10,000 for a vendor's license," Mel recalled.

A new opportunity arose a few years later. In 1997, while living in White River Junction, the Halls launched a restaurant down the street from their house: Taste of Africa Karibu Tulé. It opened the same year as Northern Stage, marking the beginning of a new and vibrant period for the downtown area.

They spent the next few years honing their recipes and building a loyal following of locals and tourists alike. Customers visiting from other states often remarked that they wished the restaurant were in their hometown.

Their second child was born in 2001 with food allergies, and Damaris began remaking her traditional dishes without fish or nuts and bringing those dishes into the restaurant. With two children, running a restaurant was too much, so the couple closed theirs in 2002 and started a catering business.

In need of space, they ran a residential feeding program at a senior facility and used the commercial kitchen to make their food during off-hours. That arrangement allowed them to sell prepared foods, starting at the Lebanon Co-op (now Co-op Food Store) in Lebanon, N.H., and then adding farmers markets in the area.

"We tested a lot of the best menus from the restaurant at the co-ops," Damaris said, "and they were patient with us as we changed things around frequently to find the right products."

Confident of their ability to make and sell prepackaged foods, the Halls launched Global Village in 2016. Initially based in a Windsor space formerly occupied by McDonald's, the business was soon selling to co-ops across Vermont. In 2017, it added Whole Foods to its client roster, and the grocery behemoth helped finance its growth.

Just before the pandemic hit, Mel closed deals to provide bulk meals to a few colleges. Over the next few months, with the U.S. economy shut down, Global Village saw its core business drop by 77 percent.

Swahili curry chicken - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Swahili curry chicken

The Halls drew a deep breath and took advantage of the federal Paycheck Protection Program and the COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan to keep the lights on. Then the state stepped in with the Vermont Everyone Eats! program, which was funded by the CARES Act and provided a steady stream of revenue to producers who could supply community food shelves.

"That became a saving grace for us as we repositioned," Mel said. Then the couple's daughter, an MBA student at Columbia Business School, "got us in front of the large food-service groups I had been trying to sell to for years, and in one month we got into accelerator programs with Sodexo and Compass Group."

In 2021, the company moved to its current location: a 7,000-square-foot allergen-free facility in Quechee that used to be Singleton's General Store. Sodexo Vermont, which serves the University of Vermont's dining halls, currently drives much of the company's sales, with help from distributors in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions. The Halls said they expect to start distributing to 15 northeastern Compass Group schools by January.

Samosas are still one of Global Village's most popular offerings, but the options have grown over the years to include African no-nut vegan stew, Caribbean pineapple chicken, white bean chili, paprika gingered chicken with spiced eggplant sauce and many other meals.

The Halls have always sought to use local produce; they source cabbage from Moon Castle Farm in Topsham, carrots from Cedar Circle Farm and Education Center in East Thetford, spinach from Honey Field Farm in Norwich, and assorted vegetables from the Center for an Agricultural Economy in Hardwick. The Working Lands grant and the Food Vision prize will help finance the expansion of their network of producers across New England.

Ethiopian vegan lentil combo - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Ethiopian vegan lentil combo

A key partner in this effort is the Organization for Refugee and Immigrant Success, which has offices in Manchester and Concord, N.H., and in Worcester, Mass. As part of its efforts to help newcomers find success in the U.S., the organization runs Fresh Start Farms, a collective brand for immigrant and refugee farmers that sells CSA shares directly to consumers. The Halls have agreed to meet the demand from Sodexo and Compass Group by buying as much produce from Fresh Start Farms as they can.

"Fresh Start Farms is at a stage of growth where it's interested in entering the wholesale market," LaRowe said, "so this partnership with [Global Village] would be a perfect on-ramp for that expansion."

In addition to providing Fresh Start farmers with an opportunity to expand into the wholesale arena, Global Village is giving them more certainty than most farmers ever have. CSAs offered a similar promise of stable revenue when they became popular 20-plus years ago.

"Farming was tenuous at best for farmers," LaRowe said, "and that was before climate change. Now it's super hard to count on anything. So having a sales channel preset adds a whole lot of security to farming, which is such a hard venture."

Right now, while the farmers are making plans to plant more acreage in the spring, Global Village is adding labor and automated machinery to meet the growing demand for its food. Its giant freezers are stuffed full of meals ready to be shipped to stores and institutions.

The Halls said their biggest challenge is to grow at the right pace so they don't compromise their quality. New opportunities come in all the time, and sometimes they have to voice diplomatic reservations.

"We don't say no, just 'Not yet,'" Mel said.

The original print version of this article was headlined "It Takes a Village | Quechee-based Global Village Foods brings authentic African cuisine to New England universities"