Doing Good in the Community: Q&A with Sonny Kakar, Founder/Executive Director SevaTruck Foundation

Born in India and raised in suburban Maryland, Sonny Kakar is the founder of three Fairfax County businesses and organizations: Founder/CEO of SevaSpaces co-working spaces; Founder and former CEO of Sevatec, a national security technology company; as well as the Founder/Executive Director of the SevaTruck Foundation.

Formed in 2015, SevaTruck Foundation, a registered 501(c)3 non-profit organization, focuses on helping eliminate food insecurity in the Washington, D.C. metro area. SevaTruck, a fully licensed commercial food truck, and the only fully dedicated mobile free meal service in our region, aims to serve free meals where and when needed, mainly at Title 1 schools.

To date, SevaTruck has served about a half a million warm meals over the past 7.5 years.

“We serve over 100,000 meals a year, and that’s through just one local DMV truck,” Kakar said. “I think certainly the impacts of COVID, inflation, and a dramatic rise in food costs have caused a further rise in food insecurity. As a community, we must tackle this growing issue together.”

“The word ‘Seva’ has a very a special meaning for Sikhs across the world. It means serving others with a greater purpose – a purpose beyond yourself and beyond your family, with generosity and love for the broader community,” Kakar explained.

Kakar sat down with Fairfax County Economic Development at SevaSpaces in Merrifield to tell us about why he launched that coworking space company, as well as Sevatec, and why he started SevaTruck.

FCEDA: Please tell us about your background.

Sonny Kakar: I am the founder and executive director of SevaTruck. By way of background, I immigrated to this country from India in 1975 with my parents and my sister. We had a modest upbringing. I grew up nearby in Wheaton, Maryland.

My parents emphasized three very important things: hard work, education and service. And so, at a young age, I started helping them with expenses by getting odd jobs. I went to the University of Maryland, earned an engineering degree there, and then for the last 25 years was in the national security sector supporting federal government missions.

FCEDA: Tell us about Sevatec, the full-service technology and management consulting firm that you founded to serve the U.S. federal government.

Sonny Kakar: In 2003, I started Sevatec, a technology company focused on mission critical software development and systems for some of the most critical missions across the federal government. We sold the company in 2020 to a private equity firm. During those 17 years I was able to build something special with a great bunch of folks that were part of our executive team and in various roles across the company.

Photo of a SevaSpaces boardroom (FCEDA photo)

FCEDA: Tell us about SevaSpaces, the shared office space concepts with locations in Tysons and Merrifield.

Sonny Kakar: After selling Sevatec, I converted the office buildings occupied by Sevatec to a shared, co-working office concept called SevaSpaces. The idea of SevaSpaces is to bring together the ecosystem of companies focused on the government contracting sector, which is where I spent the majority of my career. As I’ve reflected back on the journey of Sevatec, I’ve thought about I what I could have done better, and it was clear to me that most of the setbacks were due to lack of experience handling a certain situation or lack of access to experts who could guide me.

Especially today with a highly distributed workforce and remote working environments, it is more critical than ever to be exposed to learning environments tailored to the highly complex and everchanging government contracting (govcon) industry. So, SevaSpaces is an ecosystem of govcon companies that support federal missions, and an array of shared services providers dedicated to the nuances of the govcon sector, including fractional CFO and accounting services, outsourced business development and training, HR and benefits, recruiting, IT infrastructure, proposal and pricing outsourcing, marketing, and other shared services.

As a govcon company, imagine working in a storefront at SevaSpaces and being able to walk down the hall to your contracted expert’s storefront for advice and guidance when you need it – and only pay for what you need. Also, with regular topics impacting this sector, small business can accelerate critical learning as they network across SevaSpaces membership.

FCEDA: What makes Fairfax County, Northern Virginia, a great place for business?

Sonny Kakar: I have built my businesses in Northern Virginia. It’s the ideal place for entrepreneurs, with a tremendous amount of resources and support, and a flourishing and high-energy govcon and technology sector.

Fairfax County is the hotbed for the tech sector. It’s an area where entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs flourish because they have access to resources. Mission focused innovators here are thinking about how we can successfully advance the mission of our federal government.

(Photo courtesy of SevaTruck Foundation)

FCEDA: Tell us about SevaTruck, your commercial Food Truck.

Sonny Kakar: SevaTruck is a concept that formulated in my mind back in 2015. Seva, as I described earlier, is a fundamental belief in the Sikh faith. A belief that recognizes all as equals, all as a part of the Divine light and service to anyone in need of help is service to the Divine. And so SevaTruck Foundation originated with this concept of serving the broader community through a mobile food truck, where and when needed. And throughout India, you’ll see Sikh temples open to anyone, at any time, where anyone who is hungry may find a free hot meal. The challenge we have in Western countries is unfamiliarity with U.S.-based Sikh temples and our free kitchen, called Langar. So, the approach with SevaTruck aims to change the model somewhat, by continuing to serve meals where they are needed most.

FCEDA: When did you start the initiative?

Sonny Kakar: SevaTruck served its first meal in April 2016. I had never worked in or operated a restaurant before. Nevertheless, we purchased a FedEx truck, and we retrofitted it with a fully compliant, certified kitchen, knowing that once we had that, we would figure it out afterward. To execute this ambitious plan, I decided to hire a CEO to run my company so that I could figure out how to operate this food truck. For about a year, I engaged several people who were more knowledgeable about operating restaurants to help us figure out our operating model. Through various partnerships with food banks, schools, veteran’s facilities, and other community centers, we were able to build this incredible network of like-minded people who were engaged in serving the community on a variety of critical needs, including food insecurity, affordable housing, and education, among other needs. We found our place in this amazing network throughout our DMV.

FCEDA: Where are the locations that you serve?

Sonny Kakar: The areas that we serve are across the DMV, primarily at Title 1 designated elementary and middle schools. Our primary mission focuses on improving educational outcomes and we do so by serving food to students as part of after school programs. Students have access to breakfast and lunch at schools, yet many students may struggle with proper nourishment after school. This is where SevaTruck steps in. We set up our food truck at designated school where students line up for a warm meal after school. And once their stomachs are full and minds fresh, in partnership with teachers and other organizations, we provide tutoring and homework assistance to them. This consistent effort to feed and improve educational outcomes forms the underlying goal of breaking the cycle and impacts of poverty over time.

FCEDA: Do you partner with other nonprofit organizations in Fairfax County or the region?

Sonny Kakar: We partner with multiple organizations that are complementary to the mission of SevaTruck Foundation, including schools and community centers. We are headquartered out of the Lewinsville Senior Center in McLean, where our commissary is located. We also partner with the Capital Area Food Bank and many other organizations to serve our local community. The partnerships are tremendously valuable in terms of finding additional resources and complementary services that bring like-minded people together.

FCEDA: How many trucks do you send out?

Sonny Kakar: In the D.C. region we operate one truck and we are acquiring another truck, in early 2024. We have trucks in other regions of the country, including Fremont, California; Detroit, Michigan; and Richmond, Virginia. They are independently operated through our organization here locally.

We deliver one meal service a day, Monday through Friday, and that is typically at an elementary, middle or high school. And then during the day at lunchtime, we will either deliver food or organizations will come by and pick up pre-packaged warm meals for lunch. 

FCEDA: Do you have expansion plans in addition to those that you mentioned?

Sonny Kakar: Our plans to expand are primarily regional. As we acquire additional trucks, and expand our partnerships, we will be able to address the growing food insecurity concerns across the DMV.

FCEDA: What type of food do you serve?

Sonny Kakar: SevaTruck serves vegetarian meals, and they are delicious! We try to really tailor our cuisine to the ethnicity of those who we are serving. And so, we’ll serve cuisine like burritos, quesadillas, pasta, rice, and lentils. And in a wintertime, panini sandwiches and hearty soups. We always complement all of our mains with either a salad or a side. We’ll have some fruit, and we’ll have a dessert, and of course, a water or some sort of a drink that goes along with that. So, it’s a really balanced, healthy, fresh meal. And the reason we only serve vegetarian food is so that everyone can partake in a SevaTruck meal.

FCEDA How do you determine which kids to give the meals?

Sonny Kakar: We partner with local Title 1 elementary, middle and high schools, and we work with the principal and teachers as they identify those students with the greatest need. Nevertheless, everyone is welcome to join us and share a meal including teachers and parents.

FCEDA: Do the kids eat in the cafeteria or they eat outside?

Sonny Kakar: We pull up to schools in the parking lot and the students line up. We will have some music playing and the students will be enjoying themselves. They generally will eat in the parking lot or take the meal back inside the school where they will begin their afterschool homework tutoring.

FCEDA: How can people get involved? What are you looking for?

Sonny Kakar: There are very few organizations where you can actually feel the impact that you’re making. Many of us end up writing checks to support organizations that we care about. Yet very infrequently do we have an opportunity to actually engage in service. And that’s where SevaTruck offers a unique experience. I invite families and organizations to do team building, come out with your children, and volunteer on the truck. There’s nothing like putting a smile on a child’s face. There’s nothing like providing a warm meal to somebody who really needs it and sitting with them and learning about their story.

We invite you to come out and be on the truck, help us cook, help us serve the community together, and I think we can make an impact together.

Click here to learn about how to volunteer with the SevaTruck Foundation.

FCEDAIs there anything else you’d like to share about the SevaTruck Foundation?

Sonny Kakar: I’m often asked: what’s the impact? And everyone wants to see metrics. But I think that we get so caught up in the numbers. When we think about improving educational outcomes, those are not things that can be measured very quickly.

In the last two or three years, we have seen an uptick in attendance, a 30 percent increase in attendance in a couple of schools that we support, because the kids know that we’re going to be there for that evening meal. We’ve seen an increase in standardized testing scores from the lowest one-third to the top one-third in Fairfax County for a couple of schools that we support.

Those are great metrics, but many other things important things cannot be measured. How does somebody feel when they see that the community has come to their doors and offered them a warm meal? Offered them nourishment. Offered them love with a smile. Those are difficult things to measure, but that’s the most important part of what SevaTruck does. It’s about letting a child, or another human being, know that there’s a community that cares. That we haven’t put our blinders on, and that with all the other chaos going on in the world, some of the most fundamental things that we do as human beings and as a society is care for one another. And that’s something that can’t be measured in a graph or in some sort of a chart. But it can be experienced. So, I invite people to come out and experience that they’re serving somebody else in our community.

Interested in learning more? Click here to access a SevaTruck case study: “Evaluation of the SevaTruck Foundation’s After-School Healthy Meals Program” by the University of Delaware, Education & Human Development, Center for Research in Education and Social Policy.