The owner of a pop-up restaurant business that brings a taste of West Africa, and Liberia in particular, to Detroit has received a major boost toward her goal of opening a restaurant in the town.
Thursday night at TechTown, chef and entrepreneur Ameneh Marhaba was named the $100,000 winner in the week-long Hatch Detroit competition. In a moving and impassioned speech before a panel of judges, she told the story of the recent loss of her father, who brought his family to the United States from post-war Liberia for a chance to have a better life.
“Also, my mother taught me a lot not to forget where I come from, not to forget my culture and not to forget where my roots are,” Marhaba said. “I wanted to bring some of that Liberian spirit to Detroit, so I started the pop-up business.”
She earns not only double the money Hatch winners have earned over the past decade, but also thousands of dollars in pro bono professional support from Hatch Detroit and its partners, including Comerica Bank. Marhaba and the other four finalists have come this far by getting votes from the public. Little Liberia was chosen Thursday evening by a panel of judges including Hatch alumni and other members of the business community.
“Little Liberia is an Afro-fusion pop-up restaurant. It is the symbolism of the leadership, the will and the experience of women and immigrants and the culture that this creates for our customers,” said Marhaba, who described herself as “a biracial immigrant with a very big dream.” She says her food is healthy, affordable and exciting.
Little Liberia has popped up for one-off diners at many metro Detroit restaurants, including Brooklyn Street Local and Baobab Fare, the latter of which won the same competition in 2018. Baobab Fare co-owner Mamba Hamissi is a mentor to Marhaba and spoke at the event as a Hatch alum.
During her speech, Marhaba said she thought her restaurant would be the first Liberian restaurant in town.
“We’re bringing something very new, very exciting. We’ve been doing this since 2016 … and the people of Detroit have embraced it,” she said. “We also want to empower other minority groups like us who came from nothing and want to do something with their lives. We want to create a safe haven. Have a meal with us and have a good time.”
Marhaba accepted a large novelty check for $100,000 in tears.
“I’m glad I was able to make my dad proud,” she said.
The companies that made it to the final are all food-related and female-owned. The five entrepreneurs hugged on stage and took photos with each other.
Here are the other four finalists, who will continue to enjoy the support of Hatch Detroit as program alumni:
Colfetaire is a European pastry shop that will specialize in Romanian desserts. Owner Andrea Colfescu and her mother, Claudia, have pivoted their business to offering baking kits that kids can make at home during the pandemic. The plan is to open a brick-and-mortar location in downtown Detroit. Follow them on facebook.com/colfetarie.
Much has been written about Detroit Farm and Cider, a nearly 5-acre commercial farm on the west side of Detroit. Owner Leandra King has raised funds to build an on-site cider house that will offer programs for local children as well as making apple cider and donuts. Once her mill is up and running, she said hers will be the only cider mill owned by a black woman in the country. Visit detroitfarmandcider.com.
Jasmine-Denard Haskins’ Asian street food pop-up, Gajiza Dumplins, specializes in namesake food served a variety of ways, as well as dishes like fried rice, yakisoba noodles and “tiki tots.” Find them regularly at the Lost River tiki bar in east Detroit. Haskins’ plan is to bring his frozen meatballs to retail. Learn more or order frozen dumplings at gajizadumplins.com.
Coming soon to Avenue de la Mode, Lily’s & Elise will serve a European-style afternoon tea with pastries and small plates, as well as tea-based cocktails. Owner Kimberly Elise is one of Michigan’s three “tea sommeliers.” Follow their progress on lilysandelise.com.
For the past decade, the Hatch Detroit competition has awarded $50,000 grants to businesses seeking to open physical locations. This year, Comerica Bank doubled the price to $100,000.
Nearly 50 attendees have successfully opened storefronts over the past 10 years, according to Hatch Detroit.
Some of the recent alumni include winners 27th Letter Books near Corktown, African restaurant Baobab Fare in New Center and Meta Physica wellness center in Corktown. Recent finalists include The Kitchen by Cooking with Que in New Center and Warda Pâtisserie in Midtown, who won the prestigious James Beard Award last month.
“We look forward to supporting and spotlighting Little Liberia as the newest addition to the city’s growing small business environment,” Hatch Detroit executive director Vittoria Katanski said in a statement after the news. event. “After 10 years of the Comerica Hatch Detroit competition, it is so evident how strong and deep the entrepreneurial spirit in Detroit is, and Little Liberia is a great example of tenacity and hard work that pays off. As an organization, Hatch Detroit continues to support its alumni and winners even after the competition, and we can’t wait to see where this victory takes Little Liberia.