BROOKLYN, NY—Checking inventory, doing payroll and clearing invoices; this is a day in the life of Ali Ahmed, restaurateur and owner of Brain Food BK.
Brain Food BK, which currently has locations in Brooklyn — Downtown and Bedford Stuyvesant — specializes in healthy, affordable foods, juices and smoothies. The four dishes for $20 meal preps, or ready-made packaged meals, which can include rice, vegetables, potatoes, and a choice of protein, is a customer favorite, the idea stemming from what Ahmed described as a lack of low-cost, vegan food in the area.
“It was always said that you can get a $5 fried chicken meal but you couldn't get, like, a $5 salad anywhere,” Ahmed explained. As a child, living in a poor neighborhood and struggling with his own weight, the restaurateur never saw clean eating as a feasible option.
Ahmed, who grew up in the Bronx only operates in Brooklyn, where his first business is also located. After graduating college, he saved up and opened a delicatessen with three friends. But that proved to be just a starting point, and in March of 2019 – after five years of contemplation—Brain Food was born.
“It was scary to...go into something like that because delis are a pretty forgiving business when you can sell a million and one things to make money. This was just going to rely on healthy food,” said Ahmed.
A small business survey taken as part of the 2021 Census showed that over 33%of small businesses in New York State reported being negatively impacted by the pandemic. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, many businesses were forced to close or alter their business models, and Brain Food was no exception. In-store customizable meals replaced the popular grab-and-go meal preps.
“I definitely want to just focus on getting more Brain Foods opened up in, like, underprivileged neighborhoods, and focusing on giving people... healthier alternatives than just fried chicken, Popeyes and Wendy's,” said Ahmed, adding that food deserts are a major issue in the city.
The pandemic not only affected restaurants but also homeless shelters in the area. With a substantial decrease in shelters’ staff, Ahmed and his team stepped up to provide food for those in need. During the nearly three month shutdown of NYC bars and restaurants, they still supplied over 30,000 meals locally through pick-up, deliveries and takeout.
Ahmed attributes this success to adaptability, stating that if he was not willing to adapt, the opportunity to partner with organizations like ReThinkNYC, a nonprofit kitchen that was forced to close due to safety regulations, and make meals for local communities would not have arisen.
A third location for Brain Food BK is in the works, as Ahmed expects to finalize plans by the end of 2022, and eventually move toward franchising the name.