Mel and Damaris Hall, the owners of the Quechee-based Global Village Foods, are a friendly, humorous, and hard-working husband-wife team with a passion for connecting with the community and affecting social change through their business. Recently partnering with Vital Communities on the New England Food Vision Prize, they are currently seeking to share their delicious variety of Pan-African foods with an even wider community while continuing to source many ingredients locally and offering great wages and working environment for employees.
Damaris began to learn about food production and hard work growing up on her family’s large farm in Kenya (which featured vegetables, tea, coffee, and more). She says that, like most children, she was not a huge fan of farming as a child; however, food has been a passion of hers for a long time. Food was also central to Mel’s experience as a child. Family, friends, and church members would gather at a large table to share an abundance of food at Sunday dinners and celebrations in his hometown of Memphis, TN.
Mel says, “Food was always what brought the family together.”
The food Mel grew up with is spicy and meat-based, whereas Kenyan food features less salt, spice, or meat, and more vegetables and beans. When he met Damaris, Mel had trouble wrapping his head around a meal without meat at its center, but he soon learned that vegetarian dishes could be tasty too. Mel’s grandmother, upon meeting Damaris, even pointed out that some Memphis and Kenyan dishes were very similar.
Damaris and Mel met in Kenya, where Mel was studying abroad in an Environmental Studies program and Damaris was studying cooking and institutional management. Mel’s homestay sister invited Damaris to help put on a farewell dinner party for students (including Mel) and their homestay families. Mel’s homestay sister happened to also have a brother Melvin (studying in the U.S.), and after she introduced Mel Hall as her “brother” and walked away, for a little while, Damaris thought Mel was the Kenyan brother and attempted to speak with an American accent.
After they were married, Damaris and Mel started an African art business, later adding food to their offerings when their first child, Wangene, was born. They found that the food was more popular and helpful in earning income to support a family. Over the years they have tried many types of food businesses – food carts at music festivals, catering, restaurants, and now, frozen prepared foods and food for institutions.
For Damaris, the business is about empowering people and building community. Through her mother’s example of building organizations such as banks, cooperatives, and housing organizations, Damaris saw how institutions could serve the community.
From the time she and Mel moved to Quechee and started Global Village Foods, she has asked the question “How can we make food a way to connect with the community?”
She and Mel have done this by working with local farmers (such as at farmer’s markets) to source local ingredients (such as potatoes and carrots), hiring people for sustainable jobs at a great wage, and having a hard-working and friendly workplace environment. Damaris also enjoys the chance to provide for the next generation through supplying their products to local colleges, which form a large proportion of their current market.
For his part, Mel says that his sensibilities have “always been around organizations and how you build organizations, or businesses, or other things that can actually have an impact.” He believes that business has the power to efficiently solve social problems such as inequalities through economic motivation: “Say there’s an issue I want to affect. I don’t have time to wait for politicians or academics or anyone else. How do you do it? Businesses solve problems. Why? Because when you have financials on the line and you’ve invested blood, sweat, and tears, and investors, money, and family, friends, capital, you find a way to solve the problem.”
Mel and Damaris feature a diversity of Pan-African cuisines and flavors in their menu, including Kenyan and southern U.S., as well as Ethiopian, Moroccan, West African, Caribbean, and more. They serve a West African no-nut stew (an allergy-friendly variation on a peanut stew), Ethiopian injera flatbreads, chicken and veggie samosas, and southern chicken and peaches, to name a few.
The couple caters to a niche market, including those interested in ethnic food who may also be vegan/vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free, and/or nut-free. Mel and Damaris attribute their success in part to the devoted following of their supporters.
Along the way they’ve taken on challenges, some inherent to food businesses. Mel points out the fluctuating marketplace, accounting and marketing, small margins, and the changeable nature of customers. Ultimately, these challenges bring satisfaction though, too.
“Every day is a challenge,” says Damaris. “One minute you are either doing operations, or you are doing financing, or you are doing equipment-breaking, or you are doing people, so you are kind of constantly in this juggle. There’s always something going on, and it is challenging. But at the same time, it’s also rewarding, which is really strange.”
Mel and Damaris have created a niche for themselves which helps them compete against large companies. “You are all competing for the same space on the shelf. That gets to be quite a challenge,” says Damaris. “So you have to create a product that is unique enough.” She adds, though, that the uniqueness is not enough: “You also have to learn how to market it.”
Another challenge came up when Damaris and Mel had a child with multiple allergies. At that time, they modified some of their dishes, such as creating a version of a West African stew with sunflower seeds instead of peanuts.
Catering to people with various dietary preferences has been eased somewhat by the fact that Damaris grew up eating a lot of food that was already vegetarian and diet-friendly in other ways.
As they have gone through transitions, being able to try out their products in the local community has been helpful. Mel says, “As we started trying to move into prepared foods, our relationship with our local co-ops was key as a place to test.”
Those who test out their products also include people with origins in the area a dish comes from and who are able to speak to the authenticity of the flavors.
Global Village Foods has grown rapidly. Currently based in the heart of Quechee, just a bit up the road from the covered bridge, Mel and Damaris’s big project now is to increase their automation to keep up with rising demand. Workers have in the past assembled certain foods such as samosas by hand, folding the dough one day – as their kitchen manager described – and letting the dough sit overnight so that the samosas will stick together when filled the next day. Now a machine will be speeding that and other processes up.
The couple has to address many questions as they continue to expand their business, making sure that they have the necessary capacity at each stage in the production process. Mel and Damaris must think about many details, such as how they will store the product, cook it, process it, and package it.
As they go through the transition to automation, employees will be helping to troubleshoot problems with the machines and other parts of the process. Everyone on the staff is expected to be a leader in this way. “We’ve got a great leadership culture, everybody is expected to be a leader,” Mel says. “Because there are enough problems to be solved on a day-to-day basis. We try to create systems that work really well, but at the same time, you still need to get people who come in and say, ‘Oh wait a minute, is this being done to standard?’”
Mel says that they’re trying to create a working environment with “collaboration and team spirit” which helps people to solve problems together.
Ultimately one of their goals is to be able to sell to larger natural food chains, offering their quality food to even more people while continuing to nurture their community relationships.
By the time you read this article, Global Village Foods will likely already have expanded its production. Check out their tasty offerings at a local coop and stay updated for more news of this thriving business via their website at globalvillagefoods.com.