“It seems important to me, and good for the community, for employers to take chances on risky hires once in a while.”
In the floury fog of the Niedlov's bakery on Chattanooga's Southside, hipster-styled bakers bob and weave in sync with their Mariah Carey playlist.
Nearby, young Ruby Hussein, a Libyan refugee, lines trays with Brother John rolls. Working alongside her is Nancy Dalla, a Sudanese refugee with head scarved in crimson cloth. Dalla only recently started working at Niedlov's as a dishwasher but, just a month later, is already in the bakery's training program.
This ethereal haze of flour-coated harmony — 20--something-year-old hipsters and refugees dancing and baking together — might seem surreal. But, the utopian diversity is real and was one of the goals of small business owner John Sweet when he opened Niedlov's Bakery in 2002.
"Part of our mission statement is building community as a successful bakery," Sweet said.
This weekend celebrates local community through Small Business Saturday, a day set aside to encourage shopping local. Launched in 2010, Small Business Saturday follows Thanksgiving and the Black Friday rush.
For small business owners like Sweet, shopping local does more than invest in Niedlov's. Shopping local allows Niedlov's to invest in the community.
"It seems important to me, and good for the community, for employers to take chances on risky hires once in a while," he said.
Those risky hires include an ex-convict who worked through addictions at CADAS and then rose to position of management at Niedlov's. Now, with Erik Zilen as manager at Niedlov's, refugees have been added to the diverse employee mix.
Zilen worked as a caseworker at Chattanooga's Bridge Agency, the local refugee agency. His commitment to refugees remained when he shifted to his management position at Niedlov's.
Ask any of the refugee employees about Zilen and their faces light up.
"Without Eric [Zilen], I don't know what I would do," said Hussein. "I couldn't get a job anywhere because of my last name, and I have a great resume. Before the war, I was in college and I worked as a [United Nations] caseworker in the refugee camp in Egypt, but no one would hire me in Chattanooga."
Niedlov's hired Hussein, and it currently employs four refugees and plans to hire more.
Zilen sees himself in the refugees he hires and manages.
"We have all been strangers at some point in our lives. We have all felt alone or untethered," Zilen said.
The Niedlov's staff also sees some of themselves in the refugees.
"I grew up in a small town in Middle Tennessee," said Ella Sanders, a 21-year-old UTC student who works the counter at Niedlov's. "And then, to work with Ruby and to have so many things in common with someone, we talk about our boyfriends and school. I've tried to help her get into school. And, to have so much in common with someone like Ruby who is from a war torn country has just been a really great experience."
Hussein was forced to abandon university and her pursuit of her degree in psychology and flee Sudan.
Her journey took her from Khartoum to Egypt where her family already had fled to the Salloum refugee camp. Sick with malaria and under the constant cover of the hijab she wore as a disguise, she made it to the border by hiding in trunks of cars with unknown smugglers. The trip wasn't cheap. Her brother paid the smugglers more than $5,000 to get his sister to safety.
Barely able to stand because of the malaria, Hussein walked the last miles of the trip to the camp where her father was waiting.
Despite the cover of the hijab, her father recognized her.
"He saw me walking. He says I have a funny walk and he said 'This is my daughter,' because he knew me from the way I walked. He said 'This is my daughter,' and he kept smelling me and hugging and kissing me above the cover [of the hijab]. He was kissing me and crying and saying 'This is my daughter."'
Once Hussein found herself in Chattanooga and was finally able to get a job, she began to dream of college again. She earned her GED and is working to return to college.
Hussein's success is the kind of dream Sweet imagined when he opened his small business.
"I started Niedlov's to live out a dream I had for many years," Sweet said. "I love breadmaking and wanted to share it with my community in Chattanooga, and use my business to make this city a better place."
As Niedlov's welcomes Small Business Saturday, Sweet also sees the economic importance of his venture.
"We supply many local restaurants with their table breads, sandwich loaves, hamburger buns and dinner rolls," Sweet said. "This allows businesses — in addition to all the families that keep their kitchens stocked with our products — to keep their corporate dollars here in Chattanooga."
"Buying locally keeps our spending dollars circulating around our local economy," said Amanda Ellis of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.
Shopping locally allows businesses such as Niedlov's to keep their dream of community and diversity alive.
"Niedlov's is made up of two components," said Zilen, "Great bread and relationships. Without one you cannot have the other."