Making it work
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Hamissi Mamba, a refugee from Burundi, knew little of American culture when he arrived eight years ago and learned English watching the “Peppa Pig” cartoon. But he opened his dream restaurant, and the accolades have rolled in.
“Making It Work” is a series is about small-business owners striving to endure hard times.
When Hamissi Mamba arrived in Detroit from the landlocked African nation of Burundi in 2015, it was snowing. His wife, Nadia Nijimbere, was waiting for him at the airport with their 2-year-old twin daughters. He had never met his children before.
Two years earlier, his wife, a human-rights activist, had fled to the United States seeking political asylum. Unable to get a visa at the time, Mr. Mamba had to stay behind. Neither of them knew Ms. Nijimbere was pregnant.
The family was now reunited, but the journey was just beginning. The couple had to learn the culture and the food, and raise two children. Mr. Mamba, who speaks French, Swahili and Kirundi, taught himself English by watching the TV cartoon “Peppa Pig.”
He also had a big dream: to bring the food of their home country to Detroit. He competed in a local entrepreneurship program in 2017, and the couple won the $50,000 prize to help them get their restaurant started. They finally opened the doors to their airy restaurant, Baobab Fare, in early 2021 — in the throes of the pandemic.
The accolades have rolled in. In February, the couple were named for the second time as semifinalists for best chef in the James Beard awards, and in March, Mr. Mamba won an episode of “Chopped,” a cooking competition on the Food Network, and with it, $10,000. Now they are donating that prize money to Freedom House Detroit, the nonprofit that helped Ms. Nijimbere, and other asylum seekers like her, escape persecution.
“Mamba is what you want the rest of humanity to be like,” said Elizabeth Orozco-Vasquez, the chief executive of Freedom House Detroit.
Growing up in Burundi in East Africa, Mr. Mamba, 42, learned to cook traditional regional flavors from his mother, who owned a restaurant. She taught him to cook with his senses, not just by recipes, which gave him an advantage on “Chopped” when he was confronted with proteins unfamiliar to him, like ostrich and scallops. But, he said the culinary skills that landed him on the show don’t compare to his wife’s talent.
“The best cook is not even me, it’s Nadia,” he said.
Ms. Nijimbere, 41, is not one for the limelight, though, and didn’t want to go on national television. Mr. Mamba nearly turned down the “Chopped” producers, but decided to compete himself because he felt it was important to share their food and the story of how two refugees became small-business owners.
“The American dream is still there, and people don’t believe in it anymore,” Mr. Mamba said.
But the path toward that dream wasn’t always smooth, even when they believed.
It was awkward at first, he said, to fit himself into his family, who had already learned to adjust to a new life that he was just starting. He spent long, lonely days staring out the window of their nondescript apartment in Lincoln Park, a working-class enclave just outside Detroit, while Ms. Nijimbere was at work as a hotel housekeeper and a caregiver, and the girls were at day care. Mr. Mamba was used to the bustling streets of Burundi, filled with bright colors and people, but in the bleak Detroit winter he found the streets desolate and imposing.
“Everything in this country is big,” he said. “Cars are big, roads are big, houses are big. Food are huge. Everything for me, from Burundi, was big, big, big. That was my first impression of this country.”
His only outlets to lessen his isolation were visiting Freedom House Detroit to talk with other refugees and watching animated TV shows, especially “Peppa Pig,” with his daughters as a way to improve his English. He loved that Peppa Pig’s younger brother, George, was limited in his speech, which made him feel better. “You start learning from there, like the toddler, like the kid,” he said.
It was in those early quiet months that the idea of bringing the flavors of his mother’s kitchen to Detroit started to form. Mr. Mamba, who had earned a college marketing degree in Burundi, began taking business classes through Freedom House and testing the city’s appetite for their food. He persuaded local chefs to lend him their restaurants for an evening so he could host pop-up dinners featuring his menus.
His signature dish, the one that most evokes Burundian food, is nyumbani, a cut of beef simmered in tomato sauce and served with fried plantains and peanut-stewed spinach. When Mr. Mamba heard about an annual competition hosted by the nonprofit Hatch Detroit for small businesses to win start-up money, he knew it was his shot.
At first Ms. Nijimbere was hesitant to help him, because she thought they had no chance of winning.
“I’m crazy risk taker,” Mr. Mamba said. “I can jump from nothing, but she’s more like, ‘Whoa, wait, let’s see.’ I have to convince her.”
She finally agreed to help by cooking a batch of pilau, a rice dish with spiced beef and vegetables, and a chicken stew with onions and plantains for Mr. Mamba to submit to the Hatch judges, along with a business plan that he developed in his classes at Freedom House. The food wowed the judges, as it later did on “Chopped.”
“It was just incredible; like nothing I’d ever tasted before,” said Vittoria Katanski, who then was the executive director of Hatch Detroit. “Their personality and passion just came out in the food.”
Winning the contest, and the $50,000 prize, in 2017 — beating out nearly 160 other competitors — changed everything. It was the couple’s big moment that changed the trajectory of their business dreams.
“That was, for us, a sign that Detroit is home,” Mr. Mamba said. “These people, they never see this food before. The whole concept is new for them. But they choose us. That is powerful.”
Starting a small business is rarely easy, though, and landlords weren’t convinced that it was a smart risk to lease restaurant space to two refugees with few resources and no credit score. The couple didn’t give up hope, however, and the Hatch organization helped connect them with professionals who could offer legal and architectural services, and access to additional funding.
“Everything that has happened, I would call it a miracle,” Mr. Mamba said. “People have made this for us.”
One of those miracle workers was Sue Mosey. Her nonprofit economic development organization, Midtown Inc., agreed to lease Mr. Mamba and Ms. Nijimbere a prime spot in an emerging culinary district, just north of downtown Detroit, at a price they could afford.
Ms. Mosey said Midtown Inc. could offer below-market rates to the couple because the nonprofit had purchased a number of empty buildings in the area with the hope of filling them with tenants reflecting a variety of cultures and ethnicities.
The couple set May 2020 for the opening of Baobab Fare, named after a broad-trunked tree common to Burundi that is also known as the “tree of life.”
But before they could open, Covid-19 restrictions shut down construction.
Mr. Mamba had no income, but the bills were still coming. When Ms. Mosey called to check in, he started crying in his car, afraid she was going to evict them from their restaurant space.
Instead, she offered help. Midtown Inc. had received funds to provide free rent for a year to the small businesses in the nonprofit’s buildings, including Baobab Fare. “There are some very generous people in Detroit that stepped up to help our local independent businesses,” Ms. Mosey said.
In February 2021, Baobab Fare finally welcomed its first customers into the restaurant, a bright space with a gray-and-yellow décor. Mr. Mamba wasn’t sure anyone would come. After all, mask mandates were still in place in Michigan, coronavirus case counts were high, and the Delta variant was just beginning to sweep the country.
But another miracle happened: The place was packed. By November 2021, the popular food website Eater named Baobab Fare one of the 11 best new restaurants in the country. In February 2022, they earned their first semifinalist nomination from the James Beard Foundation for best chef in the Great Lakes region.
Now the couple is trying to manage their growth. They see Baobab Fare as more than a business, but as a place for the entire community. They have 38 employees, mostly fellow refugees they’ve met through Freedom House Detroit. They are working on a second location and have expanded into wholesale packaged foods, such as hot sauce and a passion-fruit juice that was so in demand during the pandemic that they were selling 300 bottles a week. And they just introduced a food truck specializing in East African street foods that will make the rounds of festivals and other community events.
“We are working hard not only for us but for others,” Mr. Mamba said. “I feel like I’m not the owner now. Now this is for our staff. For our clients. For our community.”
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