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When Nick Wiseman, co-founder of Washington, D.C. restaurant chain Little Sesame, looked out the front door of his small business at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic he knew things would have to change, but had no idea the extent of the operational pivot his business would make to survive.
“We closed awhile for safety,” Wiseman said. “Our downtown community pretty much evaporated overnight.”
But over the course of the year, Middle Eastern-inspired Little Sesame, which serves up good-for-you hummus bowls and pita sandwiches, radically altered its business model, helped its community like never before, and entered the new year thriving.
Wiseman said Little Sesame’s two locations ultimately remained in business after the company made some fast changes to the restaurant's operations and kept focused on serving its customers and community.
“We were seeing a lot of these long-term trends: the move to delivery and everything becoming digital,” said Wiseman. “A lot of these things we saw slowly happening and all of the sudden, the pandemic hit, and it was fast forward. Things we thought were years away happened in a number of days. We had to transition the whole model super-fast.”
Little Sesame pivoted to having no customers inside the restaurants, smaller crews coming to work, and moving all food pickup outside. Management trusted employees to use common sense and act safely as they went about their daily lives, while getting tested regularly for COVID-19. These operational changes continue today, despite some easing of restrictions on businesses in Washington D.C.
Feeding the Community
With the new business model worked out, Wiseman realized Little Sesame was ideally suited to supply one thing many in the city were in need of: access to nutritious, low-cost meals.
Within weeks of the start of pandemic, Little Sesame partnered with World Central Kitchen and local non-profits to raise funds and deliver free meals to neighbors in underserved communities. Additionally, Little Sesame’s own “Buy a meal, Give a meal” program, which allows customers to gift a meal to others in need with their own purchase of food, raised over $30,000 in its first week.
“We reached out into the community to find where there was need for emergency meals,” Wiseman said. “Over the course of six months, we produced over 75,000 emergency meals. We established a community of regulars there who came back daily for our food.”
Protecting the Planet
One thing that did not change in 2020 was Little Sesame’s values. The company believes it is important that the food they source is sustainable and good for the planet. One of the key ingredients of their crowd-pleasing hummus is chickpeas — and the the compnay takes extra effort to ensure they get only the best sustainably grown and harvested chickpeas.
“All of our chickpeas are sourced from a farmer in Montana named Casey Bailey,” Wiseman said. “He grows regeneratively, a method of farming that gives back to nature…The grasslands and grain that they’re growing in these rotations of grain are one of the greatest carbon sinks. So, they’re a big part of the fight against climate change.”
For Little Sesame, all the adaptation and hard work is starting to pay off. This year, the chain has opened a pop-up restaurant to test new concepts, and continues to focus on giving back to the D.C. community. On Earth Day this year, Little Sesame hosted a virtual Earth Day 5K community run and partnered with Casey Trees to plant 100 new trees across the city.
For Wiseman, great food, taking care of their people and their community, and leading with values every day has led to Little Sesame’s success.
“We built Little Sesame to put values first,” Wiseman said. “Because we are planet-forward, we are able to buy ingredients we believe in. We’re able to pay workers up and down the food chain fairly. Food that is good for people and good for the planet is what drives all of our decisions.”