We’re lucky to have friends across the food industry who have supported us since the start of SIMPLi. RASA was one of the first brands who we supplied our white quinoa to. They use it in their supergrains which combines lentils, mung beans, and SIMPLi White Quinoa, providing a protein-packed base for their bright and flavorful bowls, but also for their exclusive meal for Territory Foods: Sweet Potato with Supergrains and Tamarind Ginger Chutney.
To celebrate the fact that our three businesses—Territory, RASA, and SIMPLi—all have roots in the DMV, are led by minority business leaders, focus on high quality, sustainable, ethically sourced ingredients, and are aligned in our missions to expand access to better-for-you food, we wanted to put a spotlight on each leader.
Ellis McCue, CEO, Territory Foods
Ellis McCue is the CEO of Territory Foods, a venture-backed, fresh food platform that connects thousands of consumers with delicious, artisanally crafted healthy food from local chefs and restaurants, delivered directly to their home. Recently featured in the Andreessen Horowitz Marketplace 100, Territory is a fresh take on the food preparation and distribution industry, providing chef-prepared meals with nutritionist-approved menus to support dietary preferences, powered by a proprietary personalization algorithm. Territory utilizes 90k points of data each week to identify key trends in wellness, culinary, and protein vectors and leverages its unique model to drive an industry-leading 4 week innovation cycle from data to plate. Territory marries Ellis’ belief that consumer led design yields disruptive growth to traditional industries with her personal belief that delicious food should be healthy.
Ellis has been featured as Real Leader™, a top 25 Consumer Health Tech Executive for her foundational work in the Food as Medicine space in both 2020 and 2021, and top 15 CEOs for start-ups and small / midsize businesses, with Territory being featured as one of the top places for women to work in the US. Before joining Territory Foods, Ellis led successful, forward-looking business strategies for major global companies such as Deloitte, Gap Inc., and ZX Ventures (AbInBev). Ellis received a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Studies and East Asian studies from The Johns Hopkins University.
Sahil Rahman, Co-Founder, RASA
Sahil Rahman is the co-founder of RASA, a growing fast casual Indian brand based in Washington, DC that is making Indian cuisine and culture accessible to all. The son of a restaurateur, Sahil was immersed in the hospitality industry from a young age, and is passionate about using food as a vehicle for cultural connection and understanding. Sahil comes alive when spreading ideas, connecting individuals, and cultivating community. He was named an Eater Young Gun in 2018, and is a recipient of the 2021 WBJ Diversity in Business Awards and the 2021 Rising Terp Award from his alma mater, the University of Maryland. He was also named a Thrillist Local Hero, and a Local Changemaker by the Washington City Paper for his role in supporting the community during the pandemic with RASA. In past lives, Sahil worked in the experiential education space, and before that, as a management consultant with Deloitte Consulting in their strategy & operations practice. Sahil is an avid traveler and promoter of play, and currently sits on the boards of the Restaurant Association of Metro Washington and the National Landing Business Improvement District, where he co-chairs the equity committee, and his work has been featured in Thrillist, Food & Wine, the Washington Post, Eater, Forbes, and more. If you don’t see him in the restaurants, you can likely find him talking to strangers, wandering the world, or enjoying a big bowl of pho.
Rahul Vinod, Co-Founder, RASA
Rahul Vinod is the co-founder of Washington, D.C.'s emerging fast-casual Indian restaurant brand, RASA. A former Wall Street Investment Banker at BNP Paribas turned restaurateur, Rahul grew up in the industry as the son of one of the nation’s prominent Indian chefs. As a child, Rahul continuously saw a number of barriers to trying Indian food for most Americans. This unique upbringing led him to partner with childhood best friend to fulfill a lifelong dream of sharing the Indian flavors he grew up loving in a more approachable way.
RASA has received critical acclaim including being recognized as the Best Concept Mid-Atlantic by Starchefs in 2022 and was named Best New Restaurant and Best Fast Casual by Washington City Paper in 2018, among others. He was named an Eater Young Gun in 2018 and was the recipient of the 2021 Rising Terp Award from his alma mater, the University of Maryland. Rahul’s support of the community throughout the COVID-19 pandemic led him to be recognized as a Thrillist Local Hero and a Local Changemaker by the Washington City Paper. Rahul received his Bachelor of Science from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business with a Bachelor of Science in Finance and Operations Management. Rahul enjoys traveling and eating his way around the world. When not in the restaurant, he can often be found on a squash court.
Sarela Herrada, Co-Founder, SIMPLi
Sarela Herrada is the co-founder of SIMPLi, along with her husband and co-founder, Matt Cohen. A longtime proponent of season-driven, organic agricultural practices, she has also long understood the injustices faced by small farmers who are hampered by, among many challenges, a lack of access to broader markets. Sarela was born and raised in Lima, Peru, where her family owned and operated an organic chicken farm and her father worked with farming communities in the Amazon, growing superfoods like camu camu. She moved to the U.S. with her family in her early teens. After earning an industrial engineering degree from Penn State University, she embarked on a supply chain and food management career with an eye toward creating a fairer and more just food system.
Building on key roles at Mayorga Organics and Nike, Sarela developed and led the food and beverage supply chain team at CAVA – the largest Mediterranean restaurant group in the U.S. – before launching SIMPLi in 2020, with her then-fiancé, Matt Cohen. Through SIMPLi, Sarela brought to market the first Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) ingredients from Peru to the U.S. Her broad range of talent in domestic and international operations, supply chain management, and sales, along with her passion for fighting food fraud while helping developing communities around the world, is reflected in SIMPLi’s array of ethically-sourced, nutrient-rich, award-winning pantry products.
Read on to learn how they’ve navigated the last few years, what they love about the DMV community, and how minority leaders can support one another.
Can you tell us about your company’s mission and purpose?
Ellis: Territory Foods exists to change the way people eat, driving better health outcomes and happier lives. Each week we connect thousands of health-seeking customers with delicious, healthy, fresh-prepared meals made locally in their community by our network of over 55 chefs and restaurants (including RASA!). By working through a network of small businesses, we have the unique opportunity to impact the local food economy, while driving demand for healthier choices. We originally focused on the fitness community - bringing options to healthy paleo, keto, and Whole30 food tribes - but we have transformed our technology and business to create many healthy choices across all different types of eaters, but the best part is that everything tastes absolutely delicious!
RASA: RASA’s mission is really simple: We want to make Indian food accessible to all. Oftentimes, people’s perception of Indian food is that it’s unhealthy, expensive, spicy, or too unique for their taste, but that’s not how we [Sahil and Rahul] experienced Indian cuisine in our lives, especially growing up in our dads’ restaurants. We want to help people connect to their own cultural roots through exploration of the flavors and dishes that we grew up with.
Sarela: SIMPLi is a mission-driven ingredients brand that partners with farming communities around the world to ethically source authentic, single origin, nutrient-dense ingredients and bring them directly to consumers while improving the livelihoods of farmers and their communities. Co-founded by my husband Matt Cohen and I, we specialize in climate-friendly Regenerative Organic Certified ® products. Our pioneering approach to simplifying complicated supply chains and leadership in climate-friendly sourcing practices is central to our mission to transform our flawed food system into one that is good for people, planet, and farmers.
Why is it so important to expand access to better food?
Ellis: Food is intimate; it’s incredibly personal. I really believe the future of food needs to be tied to expanding access to better, fresher options. When we look at the current food system as a whole, direct-to-consumer meals are currently a small part of the entire system, but there is a huge opportunity for expansion and growth of this sector. So many people in the US have limited access to fresh food, and there are so many data points that link the access to fresh food to healthier long-term outcomes. Territory is passionate about using our unique business model to bring healthier, fresh options to all consumers. We firmly believe we can work together - with like-minded brands like SIMPLi, RASA, and more - to catalyze impact and drive access.
RASA: Food is literally the fuel that empowers us as individuals to engage with our communities and build a better world together. To us, “better food” is holistic – better for the environment, for food producers and workers, and for the health of food consumers. By expanding access to better food, we have the chance to power our communities with responsibly-made food that positively impacts the world.
Sarela: At SIMPLi, we believe in taking care of the farmer, the planet, and the body. With access to better food that comes from a single source and is nutrient-dense, we are able to support sustainable farming communities that are building richer soil through their regeneratively farmed crops to sequester carbon and ultimately fight climate change. Our farmers are growing more nutritional foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that support our health.
What has changed the most for you and your business in the last few years, and what have you learned?
Ellis: The pandemic has changed so much for so many people, and Territory is no exception. On the bright side, we are seeing a one-time shift in consumer understanding that their food can drive positive results in their health. What used to be labeled as fads are now fundamental ways to impact your long-term health. Territory has always been an organization that believes deeply in food as health, and now we are leading the direct-to-consumer food landscape with more healthy options for all consumer tastes and preferences.
RASA: The first RASA location opened in 2017. At the time, we had a very specific plan of how we’d scale the restaurant to grow in our mission to make Indian food accessible to everyone, but COVID changed so much. At the top of the pandemic, we found ourselves in partnership with organizations like World Central Kitchen and Off Their Plate to provide meals to frontline workers and neighbors in need –totaling over 50,000 meals to date. What we took away from 2020 is that a sense of community and accessibility to healthy food is critical, and we want to do what it takes to keep our communities nourished through building strong relationships with other restaurateurs, brands, organizations, and businesses committed to the same mission.
Sarela: Growing from a regional presence to a national one and building our brand awareness on an international level. We wouldn’t have been able to scale without the right purpose-driven team and the right tools in place to help us bring our vision to life. Born at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, SIMPLi proved nimble and adaptable by quickly and strategically pivoting its business model to adjust for the dramatic changes in the food industry and focused its efforts on retail (brick and mortar partners like Whole Foods Market), direct-to-consumer e-commerce, and meal kits (e.g. Blue Apron) to drive critical revenue to the company. SIMPLi is the first food company to offer Regenerative Organic Certified ® certified products from South America, is first to market for a number of our products, and has the largest portfolio of Regenerative Organic Certified ® ingredients of any company in the US.
What are some of the key ways minority business leaders can support one another?
Ellis: Give your time. The counsel of someone who has been there before - who can help you get the leg up you wouldn’t have had otherwise - is so valuable, especially in today’s environment. You have to be open to feedback, to support and to approaching business challenges with a high EQ and low ego.
RASA: We’re extremely grateful that over the years of building and operating RASA, we’ve been able to lean on other minority restaurant owners and operators for advice, support, and mentorship. Navigating the infinite number of decisions and challenges that face us as second-generation local business owners is made easier by the people in our corner who keep an open door to collaboration and conversation. Building and maintaining friendships with other operators is a strong way to support each other, in our experience.
Sarela: Creating community! Reach out to peers or mentors, welcome random emails, respond to Linkedin messages, and meet up for coffee. We are stronger collectively than individually and need to lift up and celebrate each other through our successes! When one of us wins, we all win.
What do you love about having your business’s roots in the DMV?
Ellis: The DMV is an amazing melting pot of cultures, history and flavors! Because so many people come in and out of DC, there is always an ebb and flow of different consumer trends and we love to adapt fast and meet this changing demand. It’s also been amazing to build a business during this transformational time in the DMV’s food history, and adapt how Territory serves our customers to meet their changing palette and nutritional needs. We are seeing such amazing creativity from local DMV restaurants, including RASA - stay tuned to see more making a debut on the Territory menu!
RASA: By far the best thing about getting started in the DMV is that our fathers, K.N. Vinod and Surfy Rahman, also opened their first restaurant in the D.C. area, just 30ish years ago. It’s an indescribable honor to follow in their footsteps, especially as we work as a partnership operating to make Indian cuisine – the food we grew up with – accessible to even more people. (Not to mention our dads’ continuous enthusiastic support from the sidelines!)
Sarela: The immense support of the DMV community while building a company, the diverse backgrounds of our local customers that cook our products in different recipes and cuisines, and the high expectations for quality and customer service that pushes us to continuously improve.
BONUS: What’s your favorite food memory?
Ellis: Food is family - too many memories to have just one! Making Baklava with my mother for the holidays, the perfect bite of a New York lox bagel with my grandparents, the salty/sweet taste of $0.10 ramen with peanut butter and soy sauce when I was a broke college student - when you remember a moment through food, it stays with you forever in 3 dimensions. What’s better than that?
Sahil: Growing up, most Saturday mornings, my mom would make Aloo Paratha, which is an absolutely delicious Indian bread that is stuffed with spiced potatoes. Served alongside Dahi (Indian yogurt) and Spicy Mango Pickle (Achaar), we would eat it with our hands, and just the thought of it brings me back to my childhood.
Rahul: My favorite food memory is on some occasional Sunday mornings during my childhood when my grandmother would make fresh paper-thin Dosas (South Indian rice and lentil crepes) with Sambar (lentil vegetable stew) and coconut chutney
Sarela: I grew up in Lima, Peru with a single mom. As the youngest of 3 kids, one of my favorite memories is spending quality time with my mom over the weekend, eating pounds of fresh fruit in bed until we fell asleep together.