Kirel Shaw and Myke Worthem have been friends since middle school, and now they are having the time of their lives operating a food business together that focuses on giving back.
The Grand Rapids natives co-own Street Chef Shaw, a mobile food business started in May 2020 that serves Swahili-Mexican-inspired cuisine.
Shaw has been a cook in the restaurant industry for about 14 years, working at local mom-and-pops such as Amore Trattoria Italiana, as well as franchises including Mongolian BBQ, Applebee’s, Outback and Logan’s.
He said most of his family is from eastern Africa, where Swahili is spoken, and his fiancée is Mexican, so those cultures are what inspired the theme for Street Chef Shaw, and he hopes the fusion approach is a legacy he can pass down to his children someday.
Shaw had the initial idea to start Street Chef Shaw when the pandemic was starting to take a toll on his colleagues in the food industry and his neighbors, who were so worn out they didn’t have much energy to cook for their families anymore. He decided to start giving back by hosting cookouts in his front yard that offered free meals by the plate for curbside pickup.
The first event was a barbecue, and by word of mouth and Facebook posts, it was a hit. Momentum built, with Worthem joining Shaw to establish it into a business over the summer, bringing to the table his 10 years of experience in marketing, banking and business development.
Throughout the year, Street Chef Shaw participated in a plethora of farmers markets, food truck events and fundraisers, serving seafood boils, tacos, quesadillas, nachos and more, with Swahili spices flavoring goat meat, pork, chicken and beef, and Mexican chilis and other peppers bringing the heat.
As gathering limits and indoor dining restrictions increased, Shaw and Worthem have found success by offering online ordering for delivery, which is more practical in the cold-weather season than doing outdoor events.
Since July, Street Chef Shaw has been based out of the Downtown Market’s incubator kitchen, a program that provides “customized business counseling to budding and existing food entrepreneurs in a supportive and flexible environment that fosters production and creativity in a licensed commercial kitchen,” according to the market. Since its beginnings in 2013, 1,000-plus startup food entrepreneurs have received individualized business counseling services through the program, and 14 have graduated from it. In 2020, 170 local entrepreneurs were mentored, with 11 launching a new food startup and six graduating to their own facilities.
Ryan Bolhuis, culinary operations manager at the Downtown Market, said he is “encouraged by the way the West Michigan community has supported our local businesses this year.”
“I am excited to see how the entrepreneurs in the incubator kitchen program continue to develop and prosper,” he said.
Worthem said it has been “wonderful” operating at the Downtown Market kitchen during the past six months.
“Ryan is great to work with; he’s got a lot of knowledge and insight, so he has helped us a lot as we’ve grown there … and it’s also been nice to talk to other businesses that are in that kitchen, to throw some ideas out there and hear their perspectives,” he said.
In 2021, the co-owners plan to continue building on their success and sharing their Swahili-Mexican dishes with Grand Rapids, while maintaining a focus on giving back to the community by continuing to offer free food at many events.
Shaw and Worthem said they are working toward getting a food truck for the 2021 season, and their dream is to eventually own and operate several food trucks.
The pair said they are fully self-funded at this point, because businesses that opened in 2020 were not eligible for many of the grants that provided COVID-19 relief. Although that has been a challenge, they said the mobile model has allowed them to be nimble and go straight to the customer instead of having building overhead and a staff to pay.
“We’ve got to the point where this business model works very well without having an actual brick and mortar establishment,” Worthem said.
Shaw added: “It shows how creative we can actually get.”
The duo said they want to thank their friends and family for supporting them and volunteering in the business, as well as the community for the enthusiastic response they’ve gotten about their food.
“Being able to know that we get mentioned by a lot of people in the community and recognized as having good food means a lot to us. The feedback and the love we get from the community is really appreciated,” Worthem said.