How One Upstate New York Food Court Is Changing Hundreds of Lives

May 20, 2022
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Before opening her own Ethiopian restaurant in America, Zelalem Gemmeda was a refugee in Yemen. In Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a, she learned how to run a restaurant in spite of extensive limitations. As a refugee on Yemeni soil, Gemmeda had almost no rights; male relatives needed to speak on her behalf. So Gemmeda did what she had to do to survive. She learned Arabic; she earned income by selling her injera within the refugee camp; she worked at an Ethiopian community restaurant; and when the timing was right, she came to open her own restaurant—a Yemeni man would be listed as its in-name-only proprietor while she ran the show. Then, after 12 years in Yemen, with the help of her refugee resettlement caseworker, Gemmeda moved to Buffalo, New York.

“I got my freedom here,” Gemmeda says about her arrival in the upstate New York city. The reason Gemmeda now owns her current restaurant, Abyssinia Ethiopian Cuisine, can be traced to the choice to make her life on Buffalo’s West Side, where one food hall is empowering hundreds of cooks and business owners.

If you venture northwest from Buffalo’s lakeside downtown and its stately Victorian houses rivaling San Francisco’s Painted Ladies, past the dive bars and Buffalo Bills flags and looming grain elevators, you’ll find a neighborhood home to a vibrant working-class community. Follow the awnings advertising international markets and murals on brick facades and you’ll come upon an old Blockbuster on Grant Street. In place of a sign advertising movie rentals, there’s now a green and black one welcoming you to the West Side Bazaar. Inside you will find Gemmeda, as well as other immigrants, refugees, and longtime locals eating, shopping, and cooking from restaurant stalls.

Unlike the grain silos and Buffalo’s eponymous hot sauce-slicked wings, the West Side Bazaar was born of 21st-century Buffalo. Inside, instead of videos and DVDs, you’ll find floor-to-ceiling racks of imports: patterned silks, beaded necklaces, and jewel-tone tops embroidered with gold thread that shimmers under fluorescent light. Restaurants flank the opposite side of the bazaar, and the scent of Sudanese sambusas and Chinese shrimp-pork shumai fills the large market.

Having no credit as a second-time refugee, Gemmeda’s dreams were dashed when she first looked into opening a restaurant stateside. Buffalo’s turn-of-the-century infrastructure is crumbling, and is often inhospitable to new businesses. Gemmeda would have needed to cough up nearly $70,000 for renovations to a dilapidated restaurant space.

That’s where the Westminster Economic Development Initiative, or WEDI, came into play. WEDI is the nonprofit that operates the bazaar, a business incubator. With a waitlist of more than 120 entrepreneurs hoping to secure a space inside, the bazaar is WEDI’s most public-facing project. From the long list of hopeful business owners who apply for a stall in the bazaar, WEDI selects cooks and other entrepreneurs who represent a variety of cuisines, cooking techniques, and cultures. Once business owners have secured a stall in the bazaar, they can remain until they have the resources, the confidence, and the customer base to graduate into their own brick-and-mortar location or transition to an online shop.

The initiative assists new business owners and bazaar tenants in securing microloans, establishing credit, and business education. Its public programs are helpful to those on the bazaar’s waitlist because they can begin learning skills they’ll need to operate a business before their applications for stalls are approved—a process contingent on another stall’s graduation. In terms of economic development, WEDI distributes grants and is also certified to arrange microloans that help first-time business owners and those with no credit or bad credit. With every microloan comes a business relationship manager to support new business owners on their entrepreneurial journey. “One of the things [WEDI is] after is helping people avoid predatory lenders,” says Erin St. John Kelly, WEDI’s Director of External Relations. “The goal is to move people into real banking situations. So we give these microloans in order to get people to real banks so they can build credit.”

WEDI’s microloans and business-oriented public education programs are a game-changer for businesses on Buffalo’s West Side, where immigrants and refugees have settled for decades. “Before, [refugees] were scared to open a business. After WEDI started business here, all of the Grant [Street] area became occupied by refugee business owners,” Gemmeda says.

Owning a business can be empowering and life-changing, especially for immigrants such as Htay Naing, who saved money for years with hopes of achieving restaurant ownership someday. “It was my dream to one day open a restaurant—it didn’t matter if it was big or small,” says Naing, owner of the bazaar’s Nine & Night Thai Cuisine. Naing originally hails from the Arakan state of Burma (now Myanmar) but emigrated to the U.S. from Malaysia in 2013, where he worked in a nearby town as a dishwasher and a busboy. He applied for a bazaar stall after learning about WEDI from Maung Maung, a friend he’d worked with at a Chinese restaurant in Malaysia who runs 007 Chinese Food at the bazaar, specializing in dim sum. Naing was waitlisted for three years before starting Nine & Night, which became a smash hit at the bazaar and remained popular throughout the pandemic as Naing expanded his take-out operation with WEDI’s help.

Naing’s thriving business enabled him to bring his wife, May, to the States. Together they own a house in the Kenmore suburb just north of Buffalo and have a one-year-old daughter. When Naing held a second wedding celebration stateside to introduce his wife to Buffalo’s Burmese community, the bazaar’s operations manager Mike Moretti attended, speaking to the close relationships forged at the bazaar.

Often families become closer at the bazaar as parents and children work side by side. Gemmeda’s daughter, Feben Tesfaye, takes on shifts at Abyssinia Ethiopian Cuisine on college breaks. Akec Aguer co-owns Nile River Restaurant with his son Garang Doar.

After spending five years on the bazaar’s waitlist, Aguer couldn’t wait any longer and decided to bring his dream of owning a family business elsewhere. He was apartment shopping in Wisconsin, which boasts a strong Sudanese community, when he got the call from WEDI: The bazaar was ready for his unique brand of Sudanese-East African-Egyptian cuisine.

“After the overwhelming joy, we kind of just sat there and started thinking [about] the work that has to go into it,” Doar remembers. “But we wanted to take that risk.”

It’s a risk that has paid off—Doar says the community has welcomed him and his family with open arms. Nile River Restaurant has brought his own family closer too. “It’s a good way to expose our community to what Sudanese food is, what the culture is,” he says.

“[Aguer’s] food is incredible. It’s South Sudanese—there’s no other South Sudanese restaurant over here,” says Moretti. Moretti and Aguer are already talking about establishing a bakery presence, with Nile River’s phyllo dough and cinnamon sugar basta pastries—reminiscent of baklava—a focal point.

WEDI’s business model offering bazaar stalls, public education initiatives, and microloans has proven successful, with program graduates now peppering the West Side and reinvesting in the community where many of them live. While Gemmeda is thrilled to see bazaar alums thriving, it’s also a little bittersweet. “We are like a family. We help each other a lot,” says Gemmeda, whose restaurant was one of the bazaar’s first. “We don’t want each other to graduate because we don’t want to lose that connection. We don’t want to miss each other.” Doar, who was born in Khartoum, Sudan, but has lived in the United States since 2003, when he was five, used to hang out at the bazaar after school. He describes it as “a home away from home.”

Soon the bazaar will be able to welcome more tenants from the waitlist of more than 120 hopeful entrepreneurs. Next year the West Side Bazaar will move into the Illinois Alcohol Company factory—once a Prohibition-era bootlegging warehouse—a mile away on Niagara Street, situated a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. A cavernous space, the future bazaar will nearly quintuple the area of the current one. That means more opportunities for early-stage business owners.

Today Gemmeda serves on WEDI’s Board of Directors. She hopes to soon graduate from her stall at the bazaar and create a traditional Ethiopian mainstay in Buffalo. As a board member, Gemmeda is proud of the role she played in selecting the bazaar’s larger location. Because she understands the needs of hopeful business owners, she cast her vote for a space that would be conducive to housing fledgling businesses of various kinds. Whether restaurants, shops, tax prep services, or even hair salons, she knows WEDI will be there to set up new business owners for success. “You can’t get this help from anybody,” Gemmeda says. “We have a lot of support.” Doar, of Nile River Restaurant, agrees. “We’re very blessed to be in the position we are in.”

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