Unveiling the new West Side Bazaar - PHOTOS
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • April 20, 2013 @ 7:18am
Diverse communities and start-up companies are two terms frequently highlighted in Buffalo’s vernacular, and two clear reasons why America is beginning to pay attention to the Nickel City.
Local residents are quick to point out how waves of immigrants have woven various cultures into the melting pot of the West Side, an area of Buffalo where it wouldn’t be too strange to see a second-generation Puerto Rican, a Sudanese refugee and a proud Burmese immigrant sitting down to a meal at an Ethiopian restaurant.
Ambitious yet unfamiliar with the area and U.S. business practices, these predominantly Asian and African natives crave the opportunity to earn a living while introducing the pride of their native countries, whether it’s through craftsmanship or cuisine, but there haven’t been many outlets for them to start and sustain their own businesses.
From 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday, the West Side Bazaar will hold the second day of its grand opening at 25 Grant St., the new location of the Westminster Economic Development Initiative (WEDI) project. India, Burma, Rwanda, Sudan, Peru, Morocco and Nepal are just a few of the countries vending goods that range from jewelry to clothing, food and drink.
When the bazaar was born in 2009 as a mentoring program for small-business-minded immigrants, WEDI and president Bonnie Smith envisioned the project’s eventual goal: a small-business incubator that would provide a comfortable, safe atmosphere for newcomers already equipped with basic small-business training.
While the first step was a six-vendor spot at 242 Grant St. for two years beginning in March 2011, the West Side Bazaar would quickly outgrow its first physical location.
To afford a move that would accommodate more immigrant artisans and chefs, WEDI applied for and received the 21st Century Grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo, which netted the organization $100,000 to pursue renovations just south of West Ferry in a building that had sat vacant for over 20 years.
“This is what we envisioned from the beginning,” said Smith, referring to the new location which dwarfs the 700 square-foot former space, in a phone call Friday. “[The West Side Bazaar] is a place for ambitious business people to get a foothold. We mentor them and give them a comfortable place to work, and then they’re welcome to stay or leave to start a business on their own.”
There’s precedent for success, too, as Smith fondly recalls the trio of “graduates” who started with the bazaar and become self-sufficient, moving into locations around the West Side, downtown Buffalo and Black Rock.
*Rwandan Louise Sano started in the bazaar, then moved out a year ago to open Global Villages at 216 Grant St., and now she’s set to open a second store at the old West Side Bazaar location (242 Grant St.)
*Novi Paluch began her business in the bazaar, then established her Sasmita Batik inside the Market Arcade in downtown Buffalo.
*Martha Sosa, who still operates Pure Peru out of the bazaar’s new kitchen, also owns a Peruvian boutique in Black Rock.
“[Their graduations] shows that the whole project works,” Smith explained, and she hopes that the 20 vendors now in 25 Grant St. can experience similar success.
Smith, who leads the 14-member WEDI board, noted that roughly 140 others artisans have expressed interest in setting up shop in the bazaar, but she indicated that the process for doing business inside the bazaar is more than decorating a booth.
“We help them put together business plans and manage their cash flow so they’re ready to do well off the bat,” Smith said. “Our vendors are nurtured yet prepared.”
“The setup is great because the street is so close to the storefront,” consultant-manager hybrid Chris DelPrince said from his small office in a corner of the bazaar on Thursday. “There’s built-in traffic [for the vendors], and we handle the marketing for them. They only pay $150 per month to have a booth.”
Part of the bazaar’s growth can also be attributed to the guidance of DelPrince, who was born on the West Side of Buffalo before moving to New York City to embark on his own business: selling lifestyle street gear out of the trunk of his car.
In the years before he sold in 2006, DelPrince grappled with the difficulties of operating a small urban business without the cozy confines of a storefront. Determined to make his business more efficient, he embraced the concept of the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market, which invites a number of different vendors into one lot—creating a marketplace rather than a singular destination.
“I have a sensitive place in my heart for those people because I was once one of them,” DelPrince said, harkening back to his time as an NYC street vendor.
Through Smith’s ideas and perseverance, DelPrince’s business wisdom and organization, and the generous grant from the Community Foundation, the new West Side Bazaar could transform the notoriously dodgy neighborhood that surrounds the intersections of Grant and West Ferry.
“We really feel and hope our presence changes that end of Grant Street into a comfortable neighborhood,” WEDI’s president added. “We’ve had the cooperation of the police, and we just sent 20 volunteers—mostly AmeriCorps members—to clean up not only the block in front of 25 Grant, but also the Rite Aid parking lot [across the street]. We want to send a message to the community that this is an okay place to be.”
The vendors were brimming with excitement when I dropped by on Thursday, as I spoke with Moroccan artisan Nabil Boussag from Morocco Shop, Rwandan clothes-accessories vendor Julienne Nyiranjishi from Julienne Boutique, Buffalo-born hot sauce vendor William Cooper of Koop’s Kitchen, Peruvian chef Martha Sosa from Pure Peru and Burmese sushi chef Khaing Thein, who offered me a sample of “Pablo” sushi (I couldn’t make out exactly what was in it other than cucumbers, but the rice was quite fresh!).
If and when you visit, take the time to chat with the vendors, as they all have fascinating background stories, and many of them speak English very well.
For instance, Boussag acclimated to Western New York as an employee at Tyson Foods but still dreamed of his own business, explaining his move as “wanting something that’s mine.” His booth at the bazaar presents him the opportunity to vend his own products and grow his own brand, and the crafts that he sells look pretty cool (see right).
Koop’s Kitchen owner Cooper (right)—who worked for a company that sold residential doors in Western New York—is a wealth of sauce and pepper information, and he’s more than willing to offer samples via the small bowl of tortilla chips at his booth. From blackberry barbecue sauce to spicy mustard to hot grape relish, Cooper runs the gamut on creative condiments—all of which have a pleasant (to formidable) zing. (The hot grape relish was my personal favorite.)
Sosa’s English is still improving, but she continues to work feverishly to open her own restaurant in Buffalo—what would be the city’s first Peruvian restaurant.
She’s held a pop-up dinner, served at the International Institute’s Buffalo Without Borders and operated a booth at last year’s Taste of Diversity, but she’s still trying to make her cuisine—which includes hot dishes with meat, red onions, olives, nuts, raisins and mild sauces—attractive to Buffalonians.
If her exposure at the new location continues to rise, then Sosa (pictured in her booth, left) could very well take her restaurant to its own store as well as her Amherst Street craft shop.
Since I was hungry from all this walking around and chatting, I obviously chose to eat as much as I could:
The first photo is a pork tamale from Pure Peru, which includes several of the ingredients I mentioned in the description above.
The tamale sits on top of a large leaf—which, I learned that you’re expected to remove before eating—and the steamed hominy mixture that encases the fillings is moist and crumbly.
The second photo captures Sosa’s rice pudding, which is available in two different sizes and—unlike many rice puddings available in WNY—isn’t soggy, and the flavor is tame and not overly sweet.
The strong complementary flavors—the bite of the onions, bitterness of the olives, sweetness and texture of the raisins and crunch of the peanuts—make each bite a slightly different experience.
Check out the menu in the image to the right, and see the indigenous dried purple corn at the bottom, which is crushed to create her chicha morada, a pleasantly sweet purple drink that would confuse Lil Wayne.
Above are photos from Kyel Sein Hein, the small Burmese booth operating out of the bazaar’s new kitchen. I lamely forgot to take a photo of the menu, but the first photo is two Burmese meat spring rolls, which were fresh, laden with crunchy bean sprouts and served with a peanut sauce or a sweet chili sauce.
The second image is a Burmese soup called “mohinga,” the country’s national dish, which essentially is a sweet and sour fish broth with rice noodles, slivers of egg whites, onions, red pepper flakes and crushed, fried tortilla slivers to add a crunch. It’s not for the faint of heart, for sure, as it’s quite spicy even before you add the pepper flakes, and the subtle fish flavor takes some acclimation.
The breakfast dish is a hit with street vendors in Burma, however, and you can probably draw the parallel that Burma is to mohinga and Buffalo is to a Lloyd taco.
Below are a smattering of photos, which include the Ethiopian food offerings from Abyssinia Ethiopian Cuisine, the taro-flavored bubble tea I bought from A & A Cookie, Boussag’s Moroccan cushion and the West Side Bazaar bustling on Grant Street.