RiceVan started in the early days of the pandemic when restaurateur Dan Tsao, owner of EMei in Chinatown, and General Tsao’s House in Rittenhouse, needed to create a new business model when the lockdown threatened to destroy everything he had built. In May 2020, he founded RiceVan, an E-commerce food marketplace with suburban delivery up to 60 miles away in the tri-state region. The business originally focused on providing specialty Asian groceries and meals from Chinatown to members of the Asian community in the Philadelphia suburbs.
Last year, Eric Rosenfeld partnered with Tsao to expand RiceVan to new markets and serve other immigrant and refugee communities in Greater Philadelphia. Rosenfeld, who had previously worked for a non-profit supporting immigrant and refugee development, recognized that many other ethnic communities are geographically disconnected from locations providing cultural comfort food. When hundreds of Afghan refugees began arriving last October, Tsao and Rosenfeld reached out to the refugee resettlement agencies to help source and deliver halal meals and specialty Afghan groceries. RiceVan now provides thousands of meals each week, most of which are cooked in-house at the restaurants owned by Tsao.
Over the past three months, RiceVan has been providing daily lunch and dinner, and weekly grocery service to several hundred refugees in temporary housing in Center City. RiceVan started its Afghan Food Program by sourcing meals from outside halal vendors. However, it soon encountered capacity and efficiency obstacles. Tsao and Rosenfeld decided to move most of the operations in-house and now RiceVan prepares the majority of weekly meals at General Tsao’s House, Tsao’s newest restaurant. Rosenfeld identified an Afghan chef among the refugees in temporary residence, who agreed to join the effort. He and a small team are currently preparing 1,600 meals per week. RiceVan also sources and delivers hundreds of halal grocery orders each week. The company has hired five Afghan refugees to date.
Tsao can relate to the experience of being a newcomer in the U.S. “I was an immigrant myself, and I went through the journey of coming here,” he said. “I understand how difficult things are for these people, and we’re doing everything we can to not only feed the Afghan refugees, but also provide employment to as many of them as possible.”
Rosenfeld added, “When someone is violently displaced from their home, having familiar food can help reduce stress and provide a sense of continuity. Eating cultural comfort food is one of the most evocative and emotional experiences a person can have. Something as simple as enjoying the grain of rice you’re used to eating back at home can boost your spirits.”
Because Afghans generally eat only halal cuisine, RiceVan made sure General Tsao’s House set up a separate prep station. The restaurant sources halal meats that adhere to zabiha slaughter guidelines. Tsao and Rosenfeld also identified a New York-based importer that carries long-grained “super sella” basmati rice — the preferred grain in Afghan cuisine. RiceVan is working directly with the two major refugee resettlement agencies in Philadelphia: Nationalities Service Center (NSC); and HIAS Pennsylvania. Funds from resettlement grants help pay for the food.
RiceVan has established a Refugee Relief Fund. According to UN and aid organization projections, hunger will kill more people in Afghanistan than war this winter. Meanwhile, Afghan refugees in the U.S. need access to culturally appropriate food and jobs. A portion of donations will provide emergency food to Afghans suffering from famine in Afghanistan. Another portion will be used to provide free food to Afghans in their new American communities.
Marilyn Johnson is a freelance food and travel writer covering the food and drink scene of Philadelphia, South Jersey, and beyond. Food news: email@example.com. Travel tips: firstname.lastname@example.org.