EDGE Immigrant food incubators help minorities open restaurants; idea gains traction in Chattanooga

EDGE Immigrant food incubators help minorities open restaurants; idea gains traction in Chattanooga

May 1st, 2018 by Allison Shirk in EDGE

Abdul Wahab Alabid, right, and Jinan Alabid, center, reveal a Friday lunch offering of Kubba Mosul, a meat pie, to customer Becca Coleman inside Mad Priest Coffee Roasters on Broad Street.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

For adventurous foodies, some of the best dishes around can be found at some of the most unexpected places.

Sometimes it's not the 5,000-square-foot restaurant in the newly-developed commercial space that has the best tacos in town, but it's the neighborhood taco truck that parks along the street every weekend that is worthy of the top spot.

First Friday Iraqi lunch with Jinan’s Arabic Kitchen

Tickets are $8.50 per meal, plus a service fee, and vegetarian and non-vegetarian options are available.

Tickets should be purchased ahead of each lunch at brownpapertickets.com/event/3388217.

Dates include May 4, June 1, July 6 and Aug. 3 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

For more information, visit facebook.com/events/172286723557313.

A big, showy space doesn't always translate to five-star food, and this reality is reflected in the back of an old, modest gas station on east Main Street that is home to Jinan's Arabic Kitchen. The family-owned business has been serving up Iraqi food at the spot for about a year and is owned by refugee Abdul Wahab Alabid and his wife, Jinan.

While the space might not be the most appealing or in a high traffic area of town, the passion and great quality food is still apparent. They pay $1,000 a month to rent the space, which was already loaded with the high-priced equipment that can sometimes make starting a restaurant impossible for anyone — let alone refugees like Wahab and his family.

"You need $30,000 of equipment to sell a $5 sandwich," Wahab jokes while sitting on a fold-out chair in his kitchen one afternoon. "It was very hard to find this place – I was lucky to find it."

While their situation has proven sustainable, Wahab agrees that life, and owning a business, would be a lot easier if they could find somewhere to anchor for their more loyal customers. The idea of a large space where immigrants and minorities could gather and share their food without the overhead costs of owning a restaurant has been gaining traction with Chattanooga policymakers and developers.

An immigrant food incubator is a concept that has been tried in bigger cities such as Atlanta and New Orleans, and it has proven successful at helping to eliminate some of the barriers that immigrants and minorities face when starting their own restaurant. These roadblocks can include affordable financing options, understanding regulations and securing the space and equipment needed.

A study by Metro Ideas Project found that immigrants are nearly twice as likely to start their own business as native-born Americans. The Chattanooga-based nonprofit found that food incubators across the country that welcomed immigrant and minority business owners were successful at helping them get on their feet so they could eventually grow and move into their own space. The city has seen success with business incubators and accelerators that cater to mostly young, white males, the study suggests; so why not open it up to a more diverse group and incorporate food?

The idea looks a lot like a mall food court where immigrants can establish their businesses before moving out into a space of their own.

Sasha Hasanbegovic, a Bosnian immigrant and co-founder of Coming to America in Chattanooga, moderated a panel in February to help spark discussion of a food incubator in the city following the paper's publication. Hasanbegovic describes Coming to America as a storytelling collective and meeting place for immigrants.

In Chattanooga alone there are about 17,000 foreign-born residents, which includes an estimate of undocumented immigrants too, according to the most recent census figures.

"We have a large startup culture, but most of that is centered around people native born to America," Hasanbegovic says. "We want to take this other type of person that already has this large presence in the community and put them in those spaces, as well."

An incubator that opened in a former Sears store in Minneapolis called Midtown Global Market now includes over 45 businesses spanning 22 different cultures and is credited with creating more than 200 jobs. The Midtown Global Market was created through financing from the city, donors, lenders and tax credit investors, and figures show the surrounding neighborhood has seen a 25 percent reduction in crime since the market opened.

Julia Bursch and Peter Hagemeyer from the research startup said the Chattanooga concept would look a little different depending on where the community feels it should be located. If it opens up next to businesses downtown, then maybe it should only be open for lunch; if it's in a neighborhood like Highland Park, then maybe it's only open for dinner.

Wherever it is, they said, it would be important for the developer and operator, whether for profit or nonprofit, to remain committed to lowering barriers of entry into the restaurant business for immigrants and minorities.

"If an individual is starting this as a business, it's harder in a city the size of Chattanooga to make it only minority focused," Bursch says. "To make a profit, it can be hard to engage that community."

John Sweet, who founded and operated Niedlov's Breadworks until 2016, said he is interested in developing a food incubator or accelerator of some sort. Sweet is now a consultant interested in a small development project, he said.

"I love the food hall idea, and I love working with small businesses," he says. "There's a lot of momentum, and we know there's an appetite for more authentic international food here."

Sweet has conducted a series of interviews surveying the local food community for the Chattanooga-based Footprint Foundation. He spoke with people representing restaurants, coffee shops, local food banks, Hamilton County Schools, the health department and food and beverage manufacturers. He said all the interviews showed a common and growing theme of food entrepreneurship in the area.

"Many, many people talked about this food center, but everyone had a little bit of a different vision of what that looked like," he says.

Sweet's vision looks more like a "food and beverage campus" downtown. This would include a food incubator as well as established businesses and restaurants who can pay rent and help sustain the building. He envisions rotating, 600-square-foot spaces for minority-led and immigrant-owned restaurant owners and a for-rent, commercial kitchen to host classes and training programs. He's interested in a downtown space, so there would be a large enough lunch and dinner crowd to support it.

"We want to increase the authenticity of the local food scene and improve equity and access to opportunity to folks the system is not set up for," Sweet says. "If you aren't from here or have grown up here then you don't know what questions to be asking."

Bursch said "culturally competent training" for restaurant owners would be necessary at the incubator for this reason. Many times, foreign-born residents don't understand the information they can access or the level of service their peers in America expect when it comes to their meals. The way businesses run here and the way businesses run in other countries is totally different, Bursch explained.

"Someone who is coming from a country where all businesses close in the afternoon for three hours, well that's different from businesses here," she says.

Immigrants might not have the documents together that would be necessary to apply for a business loan or the city forms they might need aren't written in a language they can understand. Navigating the health department and knowing what is necessary to pass inspections is another hurdle some immigrants have when starting out.

"There is a code for everything," joked Wahab back in his kitchen. "I still have the mentality of the Middle East. I need to think like Americans."

Jinan's Arabic Kitchen cooks up fresh rice, soy meat, spring rolls stuffed with feta cheese, baklava and other Middle Eastern delicacies the family picked up while traveling the region for 17 years as refugees. Wahab describes the Iraqi kitchen as "very simple," with no more than four ingredients on a plate.

The family's food is about 60 percent vegetarian and 40 percent meat and dairy, and they are committed to always serving it fresh, but the health codes on how to keep and maintain the food were all new to the family. For example, certain meats need to be placed on certain shelves in the cooler and separated from one another as well as labeled.

Wahab, who was a civil engineer in Iraq before moving to America with his wife and three children, said he usually caters the food they create and also serves it at pop-up events. On the first Friday of every month, Wahab and Jinan serve a meal at Mad Priest Coffee Roasters off Broad Street.

To Wahab, a food incubator space would mean a steady stream of clients. He sees the opportunity to share his food more widely as "building a bridge" in the community.

"I'm from the Middle East," he says. "I'm a refugee. I'm your neighbor."

People don't need to be fearful of him and his family, Wahab added.

"Maybe we can build a relationship between us," he says. "Come, we are one community."