Local App Festi Connects Chefs with Residents Hungry for Takeout
Order family meals from award-winning chefs and culinary up-and-comers alike.
The early days of the pandemic were particularly tough for Arlington resident and restaurateur Vi Nguyen. As owner of the currently closed Kovi Asian Street Food Kitchen on Glebe Road, he had just opened a Leesburg outpost six months before Covid-19 shut everything down.
Nguyen found himself in a funk he couldn’t quite shake, until he heard a neighborhood mom lamenting, “I’m not a good cook. My kids don’t really like my food one time a day, and now I have to make them three meals a day.”
Then it hit him—he could prepare family meals for neighbors while simultaneously helping his community, keeping himself occupied and paying a couple of staff to help prepare the meals.
He was selling about 20 meals a week through word of mouth when he met Clarendon resident Rita Ting-Hopper. She’s the founder and CEO of Festi, a free app that connects locals offering services with folks in search of said services—which can range from restaurant-quality meals to virtual yoga instruction to online Spanish tutoring.
He gladly signed on. “As a chef, you always want to stay busy.”
Nguyen says the feedback he now gets during meal hand-offs, plus the emails and text messages from appreciative customers, have kept him going through tough times: “I love the families at pickup saying, ‘We absolutely love what you’re doing. Thursdays are our favorite day of the week.’”
Ting-Hopper created Festi in 2018 as a tool that could be used to coordinate all kinds of events, from happy hours to hikes, as well as transactions ranging from online classes to homecooked meals. The platform allows organizers and service providers to collect payment or donations upfront—without the awkwardness of having to ask for money in person.
The Arlington-centric site currently boasts more than 2,300 users and facilitates some 700 bookings per month, many of which are food-related. During the pandemic, local residents have hungrily embraced the opportunity to buy meals from trained chefs and entrepreneurs with culinary talent, like the Filipino mom making and selling lumpia, or the college student selling artistically composed cheese and charcuterie platters. Ting-Hopper says she plans to expand Festi into Charlottesville this spring.
“We’re a two-sided marketplace,” she explains. “We help people discover local chefs, instructors and friends doing extraordinary things. So that’s one side of the market. The other side of the market is anybody that has a talent or trade they want to share and make some money. We just really want to make it easy for them to share what they do and collect payment with a few clicks.”
When Ting-Hopper heard through the grapevine that celebrated chef Roberto Donna (formerly of the famed downtown D.C. restaurant Galileo) was offering take-out meals, she courted him to sell those meals through Festi. “All of the chefs deliver to Arlington in person, so you get to meet them at pickup,” she adds. ” Many of us think pickup time is the most exciting part of our Covid life.”
“You don’t have to be a celebrity,” she qualifies. “We have rising stars like Chef Wing, who nobody knows about but is amazing.” Chef Wing is the nickname of Erwin Villarias, who has cooked at well-known D.C. restaurants such as Maketto and Coconut Club.
A high-profile name like Roberto Donna might bring a customer like Melanie Ferrara to the ordering platform, but the experience inevitably leads to curiosity about the other cooks in the mix. Ferrara, a longtime fan of Donna’s, was drawn to join Festi after hearing about the chef’s offerings through another site, Nextdoor.
“I ordered from [Donna] a number of times and just ordered from somebody new this past week—a very different kind of a meal but also fantastic,” she says of her recent dinner prepared by Syrian refugee Majed Abdulraheem, who offers dishes ranging from Syrian meatballs to desserts like basbousa, a traditional a Middle Eastern cake.
Ferrara, a jewelry maker and retired Fairfax County teacher, says she and and her husband, Doryan Winkelman, have been eating quite well for the past few months, thanks to Festi. She says ordering is “a snap,” and it helps break up the monotony of cooking now that going to restaurants is a rarity. Plus, she likes being able to support local talent.
She and Winkelman are in a pandemic bubble with another couple; they recently leaned on Donna when they hosted those friends for a small dinner party.
“Normally, it’s hours of prep,” Ferrara says. “Even if you do a simple dinner, it just takes a long time. I ordered his meal and served it, and it was an easy-breezy way to have a Sunday dinner with friends with very, very little work.”
They also ordered Donna’s Feast of the Seven Fishes for Christmas Eve—a time when she would normally have gathered for that feast with her Italian family, who were off limits because of Covid.
While it doesn’t replace the experience of dining out, some Festi customers do report gathering for impromptu outdoor, socially distanced drinks while waiting for a Festi delivery to their neighborhood. Ferrara says she is grateful for the eight-block walk to pick up her weekly meals—if only for the chance to get some much-needed fresh air.
“Just to get out and work off the 12 calories in prep for the 800 calories I’m about to eat,” she laughs.