‘Surprise meal’ program reveals the diverse Rochester food scene

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For one self-described “food nerd,” his favorite meal in 2021 came from a lesser-known restaurant with food that was not only delicious, but also remarkably connected to the origins of other cuisines in the area.

“The peanut butter soup from Kamara’s West African Kitchen—that was one of the best meals I ate the entire year,” says Chris Lindstrom, cofounder of CurAte, a surprise meal program. “And it’s remarkable (that) the roots of that food is found in so many other restaurants we’ve done this year. Jamaican food, the French Quarter cafe, Dominican, even barbeque. It can bring you closer to understanding the food world and how we got to the place we are today.”

The dish from the family-run restaurant was a part of CurAte, which was created by Lindstrom last year, with the goal of expanding Rochester’s restaurant scene for food lovers everywhere. After customers buy a CurAte event ticket, they are treated to a meal for two from a surprise local eatery, which can be delivered or picked up at the Historic German House in the South Wedge.

Participating restaurants choose their own menu, typically two entree items and sometimes a dessert as well. Meals also come with a description of the cuisine and a suggested cider, beer, and wine pairing list.

Meals have come from the Red Fern, Peppa Pot, Levantine’s Cafe & Bakery, Sodam, Nani’s Kitchen, and many more. Lindstrom says the CurAte team works to highlight a diverse variety of cuisines through one-of-a-kind minority-owned restaurants.

“We try to choose the food that cities are really built on,” Lindstrom says. “Places that are serving people and their community right. Typically, people outside these neighborhoods won’t travel to these restaurants and it’s very disappointing because the food is amazing and entirely unique.”

Kamara’s West African Kitchen, for example, is the one of the few eateries in the city that serves West African cuisine, an uncommon cuisine in Western New York, according to Lindstrom. Similarly, El Divino, which was also featured by CurAte, is the only Cuban restaurant in Rochester.

Additionally, Lindstrom tries to focus on smaller establishments. He remembers the struggles of a family-owned Palestinian restaurant when a family member became sick.

“They were forced to close because of it. When it’s family run, if one person gets sick, they’re probably down to just enough to get by,” Lindstrom says. “You have to think, how many of these small restaurants are one bad thing away from closing?”

CurAte team members, from left to right, Chris Lindstrom, Brandon Vulaj, Alex Vulaj, Raphael Mabasa and Nate Wagar. (Photo courtesy of Chris Lindstrom)

For many small establishments, that “one bad thing” has been COVID-19. The pandemic closed indoor seating and increased delivery orders from people staying at home.

Popular delivery apps such as Grubhub or Doordash can charge from 10 to 35 percent in service fees to restaurants, severely cutting into their earnings. A 2021 report from McKinsey showed that, since the pandemic, delivery sales have doubled the restaurant industry’s pace and that added costs for restaurants make the current delivery model unsustainable for them.

While Monroe County passed the Food Delivery Fairness Act, preventing apps from listing restaurant products without permission, and Doordash gave grants to 32 restaurants in the area last year, many local eateries were hard hit all the same. Organizers also ensure that restaurants get their fair share of each ticket: $25 from every ticket sold goes directly to the restaurant and there are no additional fees.

One CurAte event purchase with pickup from the German House is $35 before taxes. Delivery for one event is $40. Currently, events are slated for every other Wednesday at 6 p.m.

“We want to build with the community, not on the backs of anyone,” Lindstrom says. “Our drivers are paid well, (and) we’re able to guarantee $600 or $700 in (restaurants’) pockets when Wednesday nights are usually quiet, and customers get a great meal. It’s a win-win-win scenario.”

Currently, Lindstrom says, CurAte—which started with just friends and family—averages 30 orders per restaurant event. He hopes it can continue to grow by increasing orders, highlighting even more restaurants, and returning to some favorite locations as well.

An event scheduled for tomorrow is based on a suggestion by City Council member Mitch Gruber, who was a recent guest on Lindstrom’s podcast, Food About Town. While Lindstrom declines to reveal the identity of the restaurant, he is excited about the choice—a female minority-owned restaurant. 

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.

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