Tag Archive | "Business"

[VIDEO] Hubble Bubble, Health Department Trouble

Hookah lounges in Paterson, New Jersey are going up in smoke. Health Department officials are busting the lounges for violating a 2007 ban on smoking indoors. They say the Middle Eastern water pipes, used for smoking flavored tobacco, are simply not allowed inside businesses.  Paradise Hookah Lounge on Main Street has faced crippling fines and a dramatic decrease in customers. Colleen McKown has the story.

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Senegalese Street Vendors Struggle to Make a Living

by Jay Devineni, Senegalese Beat Reporter 

El Hadji Malick Seck, a Senegalese street vendor, waits for customers in front of his merchandise at 37th Street and Sixth Avenue.

As rain clouds begin to gather over midtown Manhattan, Senegalese street vendors make a splash with tourists.  By the time the rain begins to fall, sightseers and shoppers are unlikely to miss the Senegalese merchants trying to sell them umbrellas.

“All New Yorkers have umbrellas, but tourists come, and they don’t have umbrellas,” said Doudou Faye, a Senegalese street vendor at the intersection of 53rd Street and Seventh Avenue.  “It’s an easy way to tell them apart.”

Although the rain one recent afternoon provided a temporary boost in business, umbrellas aren’t the only thing that Senegalese street vendors peddle.  They also sell many different kinds of hats, handbags, scarves, and shawls.  Like many fashion accessories sold in America, most of these items are made in various Asian countries.

El Hadji Malick Seck, a Senegalese vendor at 37th Street and Sixth Avenue, rents his own space on the side of a deli, where he hangs up all his merchandise.  He pays the owner of the deli $300 a week and pays a separate landlord $365 a week to store his goods in a nearby basement overnight.  Seck has been selling wares in New York City for 33 years.  In addition to the usual hats and scarves, he also has space to sell plenty of clothing.  But the extra space doesn’t necessarily mean extra sales.

“From when I got here at 10 to now, I did not make a single dollar,” said Seck as the sun was setting one recent fall night.

Seck said that he gets asked for directions much more often than he makes sales.  A typical hat from him costs $10, while a handbag could cost up to $30.  At those prices, he said, he would need to sell at least 10 items each day just to pay his rent and have money for food.  He also said that business has been slow for a long time, and that he currently owes money to the IRS, the New York State Department of Labor, and the landlord who stores his merchandise.

“Things were good for a while, then after 9/11, they got worse and worse,” he said.

Seck, along with many other Senegalese street vendors who have been struggling, said he thinks that economic hardship and a decrease in tourism after 9/11 are the reasons why business is slow.  Seck commutes from Harlem most days, but he occasionally sleeps in the storage basement to save time.  He said he arrives around 9 or 10 o’clock every morning to begin his workday and doesn’t leave until 10:30 at night.  Despite his long workdays, he said he doesn’t leave to go eat because he doesn’t have any employees to watch his merchandise.

“I eat once in the morning and that’s it,” he said.

Even though the work is difficult, Seck said that peddling is the only thing that most Senegalese immigrants know how do to.  In Senegal, he said, people know how to trade things, and that is the best skill they have in the American job market.  In addition, he said that it is very difficult to change jobs because of the current economic climate.

“There is nothing else to do.  No one can get jobs,” he said.

Faye, however, suggests that the current street vendors might be the lucky ones.

“There is a very long waitlist to get permits,” said Faye.  “It has been like that since something like 1994, and most people never get off it.  You can’t get a permit now unless you’re a veteran.”

In order to sell goods in a public place like many of the Senegalese people do, one must obtain a general vendor license from New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs.  General vendor licenses were once distributed liberally, but now, only honorably discharged U.S. military veterans and spouses or domestic partners of honorably discharged U.S. military veterans can apply for a general vendor license.  These applicants do not have to wait on the waiting list.  In addition, they are not required to pay the license fee.  The license fee is $100 for people who apply from Oct. 1 to March 30 and $200 for people who apply from March 31 to Sept. 1.

New York City law also requires that the Department of Consumer Affairs issues no more than 853 general vendor licenses to non-veterans at one time.  According to a study by the Urban Justice Center, the waiting list has been closed to new non-veteran applicants since 1991, and there are currently 3,133 people on the waiting list.  Faye, who is not a veteran, got off the list in 1992 after years of waiting.

And if getting a license wasn’t hard enough, vendors need to apply for license renewal every year, which costs $200.  They also need to meet certain tax requirements.  Fortunately for the Senegalese community, the Senegalese Association in America, located in Central Harlem, provides resources for them.

“For business people, we have, once in a while, a seminar with Consumer Affairs and the Small Business Administration to help them know how to properly function with their businesses,” said Papa Sette Drame, President of the Senegalese Association in America.

Drame said that many Senegalese immigrants look to the Senegalese Association in America for help finding a job, and about 85 percent of Senegalese workers are street vendors, taxi drivers, or hairstylists.  No matter what the occupation, one thing seems to be true about Senegalese immigrants.

“My people are good people,” said Seck.  “They come here and work hard.”

Many Senegalese immigrants live by the adage, “hard work pays off.”  For street vendors, hard work pays, but evidently not that well.

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Local Caribbean Market Uses Internet to Reach 1 Million Customers

Owner and CEO, Andrew Morris, stands at the register at Sam’s Caribbean Market in West Hempstead, New York.

by Christina Thorne, Jamaican Beat Reporter —

Andrew Morris takes the name of his business very seriously – over the past 18 years his ethnic market has become much more than just a place to buy groceries.

Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace in West Hempstead, NY is a meeting place. It is a community destination where bumping into an old familiar face from back home in the Caribbean becomes inevitable. It closes the 1500-mile gap between its Caribbean American regulars to their families in the West Indies. It is a marketplace, in the literal sense.

“I know that [Sam’s] could be the community for people who are native to the Caribbean and have just arrived in the United States,” said customer Kiarra Lynn Smith, 23.

From the outside, Sam’s modest size makes the store look like a local operation – especially compared to New York City’s largest grocery chains. But some of Sam’s customers might tell you differently. Especially the man that lives in Poland or the woman that lives in Japan. According to Morris, Sam’s 1 million customers live in nearly 60 different countries around the world and in almost all 50 states.

“Even though I am far away, I still feel a sense of amity towards Sam’s,” said Smith, who is loyal to the store despite living all the way in St. Louis, Mo.

Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace is clearly not a mom and pop anymore, even though it started that way.

Morris, owner and CEO of Sam’s, moved to Long Island, NY from Jamaica when he was 18 years old to attend college, and later graduate school. He decided to open the market in 1994 to cater to the Caribbean-American population in his community after witnessing the success of a local Jamaican-Chinese restaurant called Nakisaki.

Morris obtained his start-up capital primarily through a susu fund, an old Jamaican tradition that works somewhat like an interest free loan. A group of 20 tight-knit friends and family (read: trusted; the susu agreement holds no legal bindings) agree to contribute a weekly “hand” – meaning they throw in a sum of roughly $100 every week for an indefinite amount of time. Each person in the group has a turn to take all of the money in the pot. Many Caribbean immigrants use the susu fund to finance homes, cars and education. Morris used his turn to help build Sam’s nearly 20 years ago.

Inside Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace there are rows and rows of Barbadian spices, Jamaican jerk sauces, Guyanese herbal remedies, and Trinidadian teas. The exotic produce is probably unrecognizable to most, including ackee, yams and plantains. On an aisle endcap sit an assortment of Dutch pots and coal stoves, making up the housewares section.

The aisles of Sam’s Caribbean Market are filled with Barbadian spices, Jamaican jerk sauces, Guyanese herbal remedies, and Trinidadian teas.

Basically, “if Sam’s doesn’t have it – you don’t need it,” one customer famously said.

Playing on the radio in the store is Ska music, a marriage of Caribbean Calypso and American Jazz that originated in Jamaica during the 1960s.

“We stream it live from a radio station in Kingston,” said Morris. “We’ve been streaming it since back in the day – before most people even knew what the Internet was and you had to dial up and wait for the connection.”

Because most of Sam’s customers weren’t always “plugged in,” they used to meet at the store years ago to listen to the music and dance. Morris said that people would also gather at Sam’s to tune in to the not-so-local five-o-clock news, which was broadcasted live from Jamaica’s capital city.

Streaming music and news from the Caribbean all the way to his store in Long Island was one early initiative that led Morris to recognize the potential and power of the Internet. He started to think about how else he could leverage the digital space to grow his business.

“We try to look at the technology that’s out there – even things we’ve never seen in a Caribbean store,” he said. “Any way we can use technology to help us.”

In 2003, Morris took advantage of that untapped technology after realizing that a large number of his customers were gradually moving away.

“Every week someone would come in and say that they were moving. I was thinking that pretty soon we would have no customers,” he said.

And so Morris took on the most difficult business expansion he had ever attempted, the development of the website Sams247.com, an e-commerce extension of Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace. Although Morris was armed with an M.B.A. from Columbia University, he worried that he wasn’t tech-savvy enough to start his own website.

“I spent countless, sleepless nights thinking about it. How do I even get a picture up? And once it’s up, how do I get it to stay in the same place?” Morris chuckled.

The website, now seven years old, is not just a promotional brand site; it allows customers to actually purchase Sam’s products from hundreds of miles away. The site allows shoppers to live-chat with a store representative and even has live weather updates for Caribbean travellers. Although it was originally developed to reach the customers that were moving across the United States, it has since proven to be much more and has hugely impacted Morris’s business.

“[The website] was down for a while a few weeks ago,” he said. “We definitely felt it. It now contributes to about one third of our profits.”

The site also sets Sam’s apart from its competitors, few of which have any digital presence at all. In fact, of the nine Caribbean or West Indian markets that turned up in a local New York City business search, not a single one had a branded company website.

Vincent Huggins, the president of the Caribbean American Business Association, sees the opposite among members of the organization.

“Most of the businesses we work with do use the internet as a tool,” said Huggins. “But they’re not all small businesses.”

Huggins admitted that he primarily only sees larger “national” companies utilizing online marketing techniques and that there are not any local Caribbean grocers affiliated with the Caribbean American Business Association at this time.

About three years after the website launched, Morris began developing Sam’s social media presence, at the suggestion of an employee. Sam’s now has digital bragging rights, with over seven thousand Facebook fans and a blog. You can even tweet Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace to ask questions or check to see if products are in stock. Morris uses these outlets to drive interaction with his cross-country, and cross-continental for that matter, customers by using contests, sharing coupons and pushing out valuable content like recipes and music.

Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace moved to a much larger space in a new town this past February. The move to West Hempstead was due largely in part to the success and increased revenue from the website.

Stephanie Moise, 31, says that her go-to grub from Sam’s is the coconut bread. Moise has been a devoted customer for ten years.

“Since they moved I have to drive further but I don’t care,” she said. “I do it anyways because it’s worth it!”

The community of West Hempstead welcomed the arrival of Sam’s with open arms. Manny Martinez is a Sam’s regular, making weekly visits to the store to pick up his favorite beef patties. He is also a member of the West Hempstead Chamber of Commerce. The organization recognizes the importance of local businesses like Sam’s to the people in the city and supports these businesses through education, networking events and community outreach.

“When we heard that Sam’s Caribbean was going to open up we held a ribbon cutting ceremony,” said Martinez. “The idea is to create a buzz about the new business. We bring in local politicians and invite the community to check out the business.”

The new location at 225 Hempstead Turnpike includes new features like a quick-service restaurant, a café and an ice cream stand. Additional services to connect local shoppers with their far away friends and family include an international money wire service, international calling cards and cell phone minutes and a “Pack & Ship” station that allows customers to pick out products and merchandise from the shelves and have them shipped anywhere in the world, right there in the store. No need to drive over to FedEx.

Morris prides himself on always looking for new and innovative ways to expand his business. He is planning to roll out new services from Sam’s in as little as two months. One of Morris’s short-term goals is to launch a local delivery service, using a platform comparable to pizza delivery companies. Customers will be able to place orders both online and over the phone.

“If you’re in your office and you need something, we’ll bring it to you,” Morris said. “If you’re having a party and you need something, we’ll bring it to you.”

And the long term?

“I always said that when we get to be 20-years-old, we’ll look at franchising the store,” said Morris.

Sam’s Caribbean Marketplace will celebrate its 19th birthday this December.


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The Last Italian Market on 18th Avenue

A typical afternoon at Frank and Sal’s in Bensonhurst

by Yvonne Bang, Italian Beat Reporter — 

“It’s not for this store!” Francesco “Frankie” Casamento repeated, a little more emphatically this time. Casamento, a 35-year-old co-owner of the Frank and Sal Gourmet Market in Bensonhurst, was standing in front of the dairy display case arguing with one of the vendors who serviced the store. The young, dark-haired vendor was trying his best to push another order of three-pack mini muffins. But he’d sold the store a bunch the week before, and many of them had come in expired.

Casamento later said of the product, “It’s a cheap, inexpensive item. This store—we have good quality.”

In Bensonhurst, where 99-Cent Stores have proliferated in recent years, a store that refuses to compromise on quality has become a rarity. Frank and Sal’s is one of the last remaining businesses in the area to stubbornly refuse to substitute quality for lower prices. Cathy Casale, who has lived in Bensonhurst for 49 years, grumbles that she can’t buy well-made items on 18th Avenue anymore.

“A lot of these [99-cent] stores put other stores out-of-business,” she said.

Eighteenth Avenue, the main thoroughfare of Bensonhurst, still has a butcher shop, a pastaria, a couple of fish markets, and plenty of fruit stands that cater to the area’s historic Italian population. Even ten years ago, there were still many Italian-owned businesses. But with that population shrinking, the number of places where you can buy authentic ingredients for traditional Italian dishes like the Sunday sauce—a meat marinara gravy—has shrunk down to one: the Frank and Sal Gourmet Market. Frank and Sal’s is the last Italian market on the street.

The market has been in Bensonhurst for over 22 years, since Casamento’s father, Franco, opened the store with two butchers, Frank Gassoso and Salvatore Civiletti. Hanging from low-slung rafters are baskets and Italian flags, bags of pasta, and over the deli, strings of sweet, dry sausages and rounds of cheese. The store specializes in Italian products and produce, like fresh green olives the size of kumquats, ample bouquets of dried, imported Oregano, and Sicilian eggplants, which are bulbous and as large as cantaloupes. Products like salted, dried capers will be difficult to find in most markets, and containers of sundried tomatoes won’t come as cheaply elsewhere. Some shoppers say they have the best Mozzarella in the area—fresh, hand-stretched, and made from cow’s milk, the way it’s supposed to be. But for all its success so far, the future is uncertain, as Bensonhurst has been changing over the last 10 years.

A large demographic shift and a general unwillingness to spend have weakened the competitive capacity of specialty stores that once catered to a solely Italian population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there has been a 57 percent increase in the number of Asian-Americans in Bensonhurst. Chinese-Americans make up almost 32 percent of the neighborhood’s entire population. Nancy Sottile, who runs the Federation of Italian-American Organizations main office six blocks north of Frank and Sal’s, agrees that many Italian-owned small businesses have closed. But she believes it’s because other ethnic groups do not shop at Italian markets.

“Chinese-Americans do not go to [Italian] markets,” she said. “I guess we did the same thing when we first came to America.”

And people don’t spend like they once did. A store called Exclusive V.I.P. Fashion, has been on the avenue for 26 years. The business—selling and designing elaborate wedding dresses for brides and events—has been affected as much by a changing culture—more people nowadays rent dresses or prefer to purchase them online—as by a relocating clientele base. Seated behind a jewelry display case in her store, the owner, who identified herself as Sally, was surrounded only by dresses. She acknowledges that many of her clients, of mostly Italian descent have moved either to Staten Island or New Jersey.

“This in itself is a dying business,” she said. “It’s an item that people just don’t have the money for—a luxury, not a necessity.”

But stores on 18th Avenue have also closed for other reasons. Second generation Italian-Americans opt out of taking over the family business when their parents reach the retiring age. A longtime favorite, Trunzo Brothers Meat Market and Salumeria, which remained rooted on the street for over 30 years, shut its doors in 2009; a Grocery and 99 Cents store took over the location. In an online rumination, Brian Trunzo, the son who pursued law instead of a life behind the meat counter like his father wrote, “I never wanted to be a butcher in the first place; it’s just not my vibe.”

On a recent Tuesday, Frank and Sal’s was busy well before the traditional afternoon rush most grocers expect. Shoppers with carts greeted Casamento on their way in; some shook his hand and patted him on the back. He picked up a jar of Nutella for a customer in line who’d dropped it on the floor.

Despite the fate of other shops along the street, Frank and Sal’s does well these days. Casamento remarked, “We still do good. There has been a drop off. People have moved out of the area. There is competition in the neighborhood. But we have our own niche.”

Later that afternoon, up the street at the Avenue Fruit Market where the owner Tony sells only produce, a sharply-dressed elderly gentleman with bronze-tinted Hunter Thompson glasses and white hair sleekly combed back inspected and pinched red peppers displayed in boxes on the street. The products were displayed on a corner, where auto and foot traffic easily kicked up dust and where flies were free to roam and land. The man, who declined to state his name, described Frank and Sal’s products as first class. When asked why he was browsing at the Avenue Market instead, he replied, “Convenienza di prezzo”—the low price, and nothing more.

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Dominican Businesses Hurt by Rising Rent

Cesar Gonzalez, former owner of Caliope bookstore, sells books on Dyckman Street where his store once was.

by Mea Ashley, Dominican Beat Reporter —

A bookstore that was once an intellectual hub of the Dominican community in upper Manhattan is now nothing but a table full of books sitting in front of the shuttered store.

But the closing hasn’t stopped the owner, Cesar Gonzalez, 62, from continuing to serve the community. On a recent day, he arrived with his arms so full of books that had just arrived in the mail that he could not stop to shake a customer’s hand. He can no longer afford to rent the space for his store, he said, so he sets up every day around noon in front of 170 Dyckman Street in the neighborhood of Inwood. He stays until dark.  The only time Gonzalez is not there, he said, is when the weather is bad. Other than that, he sells books year-round.

Gonzalez opened his bookstore, Caliope, at another location across Dyckman Street in 1997. Then in 2004 he moved to the bigger location at 170 Dyckman. As the rent continued to rise, it got harder to pay, he said. “It was always a hassle to get the money together for rent. It was a struggle, as it is for so many small businesses,” Gonzalez said. He said the rent would go up one hundred dollars per month every year. The main reason why he lost his space was because he waited to long to go to court, he said. He might have been able to work something out with the landlord, if he, had gone to court earlier, he said.

Since establishing his store, there have been many changes in the book industry. Numerous studies show that digital media might soon take over print and television industries.  According to the Pew Research Center, in 2010 there were 7-to-1 print losses to digital gains. Gonzalez said that these types of trends are a reality but are having only a minimal impact on his business. His clientele are not as technologically savvy, he said.  A long-time customer, Gabriel Diaz, 56, said, “A lot of people in their 50’s and 60’s, they rather read something on paper.”  Gonzalez described his clientele as book lovers from Latin American countries that feel a kinship and loyalty to him. “Some people have Kindles and Nooks or whatever but what percentage?” Gonzalez said. He alluded to his clientele having a small number of people that actually own e-readers. Then he added, “and those that do have them, there’s nothing like holding and caressing a book in your own hands.”

The book industry isn’t the only business that’s changed by online content. Rafael Batista, the owner of Quisqueya Records at 52 Sherman Avenue also says that digital media affects him but paying high rent is a common problem among small businesses in the neighborhood. When asked about the impact of online music on his business he said, “That’s one thing, but it’s all kinds of businesses, music, grocery, boutique, everybody is dying.” Batista, 59, has owned his store since 1981. The rent was $380 when he started and now he pays $3400 a month. Instead of selling just CD’s Batista also added things like luggage, candles, lottery tickets and radios to his products to help pay for the constantly rising rent.

A couple of stores down from Quisqueya Records is 5 Star Cleaners on the corner of Sherman Avenue and Thayer St. where the owner Vicky Kim, said that she pays $4,500 a month. She wouldn’t say who her landlord is. Kim, 50, can relate to Batista’s business being hurt financially. “Every year we have less profit and everything is going up– water, electricity, supplies,” she said.  “The price is getting higher but the price I charge is still the same.”  She said that she feared that if she raises the prices then the people would not want to use her services.

While those two businesses struggle to survive, Gonzalez is still hoping to re-open. According to customers, Caliope was more than a bookstore. It was a place where Dominicans could come and share their culture and debate on political issues both in New York and Dominican Republic. One long-time customer, Juan Mireno, reminisced with Gonzalez about how the bookstore was a hangout for him. “You can let out your complaints about all the things that happened in the community, around us, and back home too,” he said. Mireno moved from the Dominican Republic to New York when he was 11 years old. He is 30 now and said the bookstore was where he developed intellectually.

The cultural development was definitely a reason why Caliope was more than just a business. Gonzalez said that he tried to have a space open to the community and to their ideas. When the bookstore was open, he rented the space from Fireside Pentecostal Assembly Inc., a church that owned a block of stores on Dyckman St. The doors of the church were locked with clearly no one there to comment on the story the other day. Gonzalez continues to sells books on the street with hopes of moving back into a store next year. “I can’t fathom spending another winter beyond this one out here,” he said. His customer, Mireno added that Gonzalez was a trooper for not quitting. That title might be one many of the small business owners can embrace.


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The Reality of Remittances for the Senegalese Community

Association of the Senegalese in America, on 116th street.

by Eleonore Hamelin

With two ID pictures and his Senegalese passport Ibrahima Sall recently opened a bank account in Senegal from a desk in Harlem.

The desk was setup by the financial branch of the Senegalese Post in Dakar at the Association of the Senegalese in America, a meeting space in New York for the community. Postes Finances provides checking or saving accounts and money transfers.

Every month, Sylla sends more than half of the money he earns as a New York City cab driver to Senegal where his wife and his 2-year-old daughter live.

“Two or three times a month I send about $1,000,” Sylla said. On a good week, he said, he could make up to $700. Back in Dakar, at least 20 people depend on his money.

“I don’t have a choice,” he said. “I am responsible for them and I am the only one to bear the burden.”

Sylla is one of many Senegalese immigrants who send money back home. In 2009, remittances to Senegal amounted to $1,2 million according to the World Bank. It is nine percent of the country’s GDP, almost twice including the informal cash flows.

The Senegalese migrants in the United States contribute almost eight percent of total Senegalese remittances.

For Sylla and many others there is a sense of security in using a familiar bank. The Senegalese Postes Finances launched its campaign in New York on Sept. 9. Aida Diagne – whose laptop is plugged with an American adaptor – came especially from Dakar to promote the service.

“The idea is that, even while you’re abroad, you can control your life back in Senegal,” Diagne explained.

Postes Finances allows the Senegalese to directly pay their water, electricity and telephone bills from the United States. They can also keep money in Senegalese saving accounts; the interest is 3.5 percent.

Sylla subscribed to this last option to be sure he has money on the side when he goes back to Senegal for vacation. Sylla is in his early thirties. Unlike the other Senegalese in the rooms chatting about the upcoming Senegalese elections, Sylla does not wear the traditional “boubou” – a long colorful robe, but blue jeans and a tight with T-shirt.

“ It is very easy to spend money freely here. I’d rather save up in my country,” said Sylla.

Diagne emphasized the importance of visibility for the undocumented migrants, as they hardly ever return to their hometowns.

“We responded to the community’s need for transparency about their money,” she said.

“I have heard the most amazing stories,” Diagne added. “I met a women who had sent money to her relatives in order to have a house built. She regularly received pictures of a house under construction. When she came back to Senegal, she discovered the house in the photos was not hers. And all her money had been spent.”

Among the Senegalese community, Postes Finances is seen as a public service. It is well known, and above all, has the largest presence of any bank in the country.

An American company, Choice Money Transfer, manages the affairs of Postes Finances. Located in the Empire State building, the firm is in charge of transferring the money, just like their main competitor, Western Union.

Bara Fall, who asked that his real name not be used, is originally from Senegal. As the vice president at Choice, he created this partnership.

“Working with Poste Finances is an opportunity for us to develop the loyalty of our

Senegalese customers,” Fall said.

Last month, around 10,000 Senegalese people sent a total of $6.4 million to their country via Choice. Fall said the majority of Senegalese transmit money regardless of the state of the economy.

“People thought that during the financial crisis immigrants would send less money,” observed Fall. “But from what I see on my computer, they didn’t.”

He said the Senegalese would rather sacrifice their own comfort then deprive their relatives of basic services.

To Fall, they are key contributors to the Senegalese economy.

“The money goes to people that wouldn’t survive without it,” he said.

One out of two Senegalese households rely on the diaspora’s money, according to the International Organization for Migration. And it is mainly assigned to daily consumption.

Fall has lived in the United States for 12 years and is now an American citizen. He is married and has two young children born here. In his office, African paintings hang on the wall next to American Baseball calendars. Also an accomplished businessman, he embodies the American dream.

But even if his family is here now, and his parents have died, he sends at the very least $625 a month to his relatives and friends in Senegal.

“We have to do this. As immigrants, it is our duty,” Fall said.

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Immigrant-Owned Businesses Flourish in the City, Despite the Recession

If you go to eat at a small restaurant in New York City, chances are it will be run by an immigrant. Neha Tara Mehta reports on how immigrants are overcoming the odds to open new businesses in a recession. Produced by Jake Heller.

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In the Staten Island Projects, an Informal Economy Brings Liberian Immigrants a Taste of Home

by Jake Heller
Photo by Olivia Smith

In the shade of a low-lying oak tree in the heart of Staten Island’s Park Hill projects, Bangura Kromah sat selling palm oil.

Kromah is one of about 15 elder Liberian women who sell the greasy, deep-red cooking oil—as well as other traditional Liberian provisions—whenever the weather is nice; it’s a way for her to earn a little money and get away from the television set, she said.

“I don’t want to be inside,” the 64-year-old Kromah explained. She lives alone, has never gone to school, and has trouble walking.

Selling food in the makeshift market is also a way for Kromah to connect to her home in Liberia. Before coming to New York City 10 years ago as a refugee from that country’s civil war, she sold fresh produce in one of capital Monrovia’s many markets.

There, she was part of a movement. Market women make up a significant part of Liberia’s economy—an economy where only 15 percent of the population is employed in the formal sector. The women are often a family’s only income-earner. And they are a significant political force. As portrayed in the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, the market women’s peaceful protests brought an end to Liberia’s civil war, led to dictator Charles Taylor’s resignation, and culminated in the election of Africa’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Both Sirleaf and the leader of the women’s peace movement, Leymah Gbowee, won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

But here in Staten Island, Kromah is struggling to get by.

“If you make $10 per day, you say God, thank you,” she sighed.

Kromah is a sturdy woman—the type of person who could actually be described as big boned—but sat half-slumped next to her table of produce. Her bright red and black dress was covered up by a weary gray fleece, and she kept a red Yankees toque snug on her head.

Like her fellow vendors, she imports palm oil in bulk from Africa and repackages it into Snapple bottles. They charge $5 a bottle. A bag of dried fish costs the same amount.

For Juah, a 60-year-old woman dressed in a bright orange and yellow robe called a lappa, that income was not enough. Last year, she could no longer afford to buy the palm oil. She now sells popsicles of frozen red Kool-Aid mixed with sugar for 25 cents each.

She said that she makes “sometimes $2, sometimes $3” per day.

Juah, who like other women refused to give her full name, also works part-time as a home caretaker. She accordingly makes just enough money to pay for essentials.

“In the mornings, I pay my rent,” she said, referring to the first two weeks of every month. “Over the following two weeks, I buy my rice.”

And she’s budgeting for another purchase: “Now that it gets cold, I have to buy sweaters,” she laughed.

Juah admitted that she does not have a permit to sell her popsicles, but was steadfast in her defense of the other vendors. They all have permits, she said, even though the permits are hidden from the casual shoppers.

Still, legality may not matter: the New York City Health Department, who administers the permits, has not received any complaints about the market. The children who were eagerly waiting for Juah to pull the popsicles out of her small blue cooler certainly had no qualms with her being there.

Older Liberians, meanwhile, enjoy the ambiance of the area they call “under the tree.” They gather there to talk politics and weather, and to trade local gossip.

“It is the tradition back home,” said Bamah Massalay, Kromah’s aunt who sells at the table next to her.

They also come to Sobel Crescent because it is the only place in New York to buy Liberian food.

Selling everything from sweet African beans—black and brown—to hot peppers—ground and whole—to banana chips, onions, dried fish and, of course, palm oil, the market is the center of a little Liberia hidden within a suburban Staten Island.

“We come and buy because it’s our traditional food,” said a woman named Hawah, who was chatting with a vendor dicing up green potato leaves. “We love to eat it.”

Other African markets do exist across New York, notably at the corner of 116th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, where the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market proudly displays signs that thank former Mayor Rudy Giuliani for orchestrating the market’s construction. The market was set up after Giuliani shut down the informal African market that used to be located on 125th Street. A sign outside the 25-vendor market reads: “Building a better community is our job.”

Outdoor markets in general are also experiencing a surge of popularity, as New Yorkers develop an appetite for local food. Diane Eggert, Executive Director of the Farmers’ Market Federation of New York, estimates that there are more than 120 farmers’ markets in New York City, and says that the number of markets has increased steadily since the first market opened in 1976.

But Kromah and her fellow Liberians prefer to stay under the tree. There, they get a taste of home.

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Tea Shops Open Throughout Manhattan

When many businesses are closing down due to the recession, the luxury high-end tea business is on the rise. Salim Essaid reports from one tea shop that opened on 97th Street and Broadway.

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Best Choice Foods Grocery Market Struggles to Maintain Business in Chinatown

By Linda Ong

When shoppers inside Best Choice Foods in Chinatown look down, they see hundreds of old orange price tags scattered and stuck to the floor. The discarded price tags represent the owners’ commitment to adjusting their prices daily. Since 2008, U. Win Myint and Yu Yu Khin have struggled to compete with the influx of new Asian grocers opening in Chinatown.

“These stores took away many of my customers,” said Myint, who matched his wife in a washed-out collar blue shirt and faded jeans. “It was hard.”

In the past decade, ethnic grocery stores have become some of the fastest growing stores in the United States. Now, Chinatown is flooded with Asian-specialty markets, putting a strain on long-time grocers, like Myint and Khin. Profits for Best Choice Foods have declined, and Myint said revenue is now 25-percent less than that prior to 2008.

“Before, we could set prices however we wanted and people would buy,” said Myint. “Now, we’re making just enough to keep the business going. It’s tough.”

Prior to opening Best Choice Foods in 1989, Myint’s father owned a small, successful biscuit shop in Myanmar. Myint said running a business in New York City is more taxing.

“It’s much more complicated in the U.S.,” said Myint. “More competition.”

The couple manages every aspect of the business, which employs seven people working as cashiers and stockers. From 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day, the couple serves customers from opposite counters at the front of the grocery store, warmly greeting the constant flow of customers in different Asian dialects, and speaking in Burmese when customers aren’t present.

The pressures on the business are severe. The 2008 opening of Hong Kong Supermarket on Hester St. has lured away shoppers from Best Choice Foods and other area grocers. Best Choice Foods’ closest competition, One Long Hing Market, is located only 20 yards away.

Chui Ping Yan Ng, who has lived in Manhattan for 35 years, said she prefers One Long Hing Market to others.

“Every day after work, I pick up fruit from here. It’s on my way home,” said Ng. “Sometimes I will pick up fruit from other places if the prices are good. But, here, it’s fresher.”

Every shelf, counter, and corner of Best Choice Foods is packed with goods. The narrow, rectangular store holds an inventory of over 2,000 products- a mix of neat piles of 10 different brands of rice, hanging packages of fried, seasoned poultry skins, and a section full of pickled fruits and vegetables, among others. To differentiate themselves from other grocers, Myint and Khin said they constantly study consumer behavior within their store by paying close attention to the items purchased by customers and to the items that remain unsold. After analysis, the couple then adjusts their prices, sometimes daily, to appeal to customers. According to Khin, unsold items indicate that other grocers are selling at cheaper prices.

“Price is important to our shoppers,” said Khin. “We have many people who bargain the price because they see it cheaper somewhere else. Sometimes the difference is pennies. We say ‘okay’ and sell it.”

But the effects of the tough economy have made it difficult for the owners to remain competitive. According to the New York City Police Department, reported thefts in Chinatown have increased by 20.5-percent since 2010. Myint said that every year, he has lost approximately 10-percent of revenue from stolen goods. As prevention, he installed a 42-inch Panasonic television screen at the entrance, which monitors every corner of the store.

“It’s easy for people to steal because our store is small and items are small, too,” said Myint. “The security system is to put fear in stealing from our store. But, not all our shoppers are like this.”

Despite this, many of the customers at Best Choice Foods come often. Jane Zheng, who has been living in Manhattan with her son and family for three months, has become a regular. She said she comes for the variety of products sold at Best Choice Foods.

“I end up buying all my groceries here,” said Zheng, while holding her baby Ethan. “The owners are easy-going, too.”

Other shoppers come for the experience. John Wilson, a Manhattan resident, comes once a week to buy special curries and chilies at the market.

“The owner is really nice and sweet. One time she gave me a free soda,” he said. “I love coming here.”

For owners Myint and Khin, keeping customers satisfied is enough to keep them going.

“We know it’s difficult times for our customers, too,” said Khin. “If they leave happy, they will come again.”

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