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Yemenis have found business opportunities where few others have: on Buffalo’s beleaguered East Side.

Members of the small Arab community have bought or opened more than 160 convenience stores and other businesses in the inner city during the past 30 years.

And in recent years, Yemeni entrepreneurs have started taking their businesses to the next level, investing heavily in East Side neighborhoods.

“We’re not just thinking corner stores anymore,” said Sameer “Sam” Salem, who has owned Imperial Food Mart on Bailey and Kensington avenues since 1993. “We want bigger businesses to make an impact.”

Earlier this year, Salem and his business partner spent $1.2 million to buy the 12,000-square-foot plaza that houses his store. They are spending another $1 million to expand his store into a full-service supermarket that will offer fresh produce, a pharmacy department and 40 to 50 additional jobs.

For years, mainstream developers have shunned the East Side due to apprehensions about poverty and crime. But the Yemeni community, driven by need and powered by hardworking family and friends, has come to operate nearly all of the small stores on the East Side. And that success has led to another wave of investment.

In 2011, Ahmed Ahmed and his brothers spent $80,000 to buy and demolish several abandoned houses and expand Farm Fresh Market on Bailey Avenue. The siblings spent another $300,000 to purchase a boarded-up building across the street to open Sky’s the Limit, a clothing store.

And in 2005, Mugib Mohamed and his relatives spent close to $1 million to tear down nearby dilapidated houses to expand their store – Mid City Market on Kensington Avenue – to six times its original size.

“The first store was too small and it didn’t look good. Some people didn’t want to come in,” Mohamed said. “We wanted to make it better to get more customers.”

In a ‘food desert’ like the East Side – a community with few supermarkets and many residents who can’t afford cars – Yemenis bought or opened dozens of convenience stores that sell everything from frozen meats and bread to scented body oils, winter jackets and gloves. Yemeni businesses sell whatever the community needs. Mid City Market – across from Sisters Hospital – even sells scrubs and other hospital uniforms.

In the process, Yemeni entrepreneurs have nearly monopolized the market, acquiring more than 120 convenience stores, 20 gas stations, 15 clothing stores and seven beauty supply businesses. It’s a stunning accomplishment since local Yemeni residents number around 5,000, less than 2 percent of the city’s population.

Yemenis pulled off this unlikely business coup not by traditional financing means, but by supporting each other with loans and advice.

But the Arab shop owners have some long-standing image problems. They continue to be criticized for selling junk food in neighborhoods that need fresh fruits and vegetables, and breaking apart packages to sell items, like diapers and cigarettes, individually. In addition, their relationship with the black population they serve can be tenuous.

“We know the perception is not good, but we are working on that,” said Fred Merukeb, president of the Arab American Businessmen Association, an organization comprised largely of Yemeni entrepreneurs. “There are a lot of misconceptions, but we are trying to build bridges to improve relations.”

Tough business

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. Unemployment is rampant, and if you do work, “you work 12 hours a day just to earn 50 cents,” Ahmed said.

Hailing from that sort of hardship, Yemenis are extremely industrious and entrepreneurial, Mohamed said.

“Yemenis all over the world, wherever they go, they open businesses,” he said. “They are hard-working people; they put in 16 hours a day.”

Yemenis also dominate the convenience store business in Brooklyn and Detroit, and they own the majority of liquor stores in Oakland, Calif., said Adeeb Mozip, the national board president of the American Association of Yemeni Scientists and Professionals. Yemenis also are branching into bigger and more profitable enterprises in those cities.

“It used to be that Yemeni Americans operate small retail shops, but now they move to become owners of restaurants, pharmacies, medical clinics, and small sizes of professional business,” Mozip said. “Yemeni Americans in Michigan and California are emerging as successful business owners as more of them are graduating from higher education institutions and are getting acclimated to the U.S. economic system.”

Locally, second and third generation Yemeni-American men are now assuming the reins of their fathers’ businesses, which may have begun as dingy storefronts. These younger men, who were raised in Western New York, are expanding and modernizing the stores and funding their bigger projects with bank loans. And they are also diversifying. Omar Shaibi’s father owned a convenience store, but the 33-year-old operates a bustling custom T-shirt and graphic design business on Bailey.

“We grew up here, so we know the culture better. We are more familiar with the American experience,” said Salem, who graduated from Grover Cleveland High School and attended Erie Community College. “We are Americanized. We have better understanding, so we want to take our businesses to the next level.”

Manufacturing jobs first lured Yemenis to Western New York. As early as the 1950s, they were laborers in steel plants, said Nagi Awass, a longtime leader of the local Yemeni business community.

As the region’s economy moved away from large manufacturing, Yemenis found themselves in a rut. Largely unskilled and uneducated, entrepreneurship was their only option.

“They turned to the convenience store business when the manufacturing jobs were no longer available,” said Awass, who also is the accountant for many of the Yemeni retailers.

The Yemeni foray into the business was made easier as other grocery stores closed, leaving the East Side without a full-service supermarket for years. African-American shops were up for sale, too, as owners retired without succession plans or gave up the business for other reasons.

“Caucasians were leaving the city, mom-and-pop stores were closing, the economy had changed,” Merukeb said. “And there became a need for these stores on the East Side.”

Hamlin Park, the historic black neighborhood, is served by five convenience stores, all owned by Yemenis.

“Twenty years ago, they were owned by African-Americans from the neighborhood,” said Stephanie Barber Geter, president of the Hamlin Park Taxpayers Association. “But those business owners aged out and their kids didn’t want to do it. So they sold to Yemenis because nobody else wanted them.”

Family funding

While many African-American entrepreneurs complain that they can’t get bank or government loans to start their businesses, Yemenis say they face the same obstacles. Instead, Yemenis take a collective approach to coming up with the cash, trusting one another enough to pool resources.

When Fawaz Kaid bought his first store, Super Price Choppers on Genesee Street, he didn’t go to a bank. He went to family and friends.

“The people I know help me out with money,” Kaid said.

As immigrants, Yemenis often don’t have credit histories, and banks find their inner city ventures too risky.

“Banks are not going to loan you money to do business on the East Side,” Awass said. “They are not eager to invest in the East Side or in a startup company.”

Many get their first stores by working in existing businesses and saving their earnings to eventually go out on their own. Individuals often team up to buy as a group.

“Sometimes they work two or three jobs, in different stores to save their money,” said Mozip, the national board president. “And when they have enough, they partner with other guys from Yemen, and usually from the same area of Yemen, so they know each other and can trust each other, to start their business.”

Along Bailey Avenue, a multitude of Yemeni-owned establishments dot the street – from small shops to an entire plaza of stores selling clothing, hair products and food. It’s a similar scene on Broadway and other East Side commercial districts.

“The East Side has so many locations and abandoned buildings to do business,” said Kaid, who also owns a gas station on Fillmore Avenue and another convenience store on Genesee Street. “White people are scared; they are fearful of the ‘hood,’ but I grew up here. We believe in the East Side.”

Kaid knows firsthand that the business can be dangerous. In 1997, his father was gunned down in his store during a robbery, but the tragedy hasn’t deterred him.

A holdout

When customers enter Grant Variety Shoppe on East Ferry Street, they assume the bespectacled, African-American woman behind the cash register is hired help.

“ ‘Where’s the manager?’ ”

“I am the manager.”

“ ‘OK, then where’s the owner?’ ”

“I am the owner.”

“They are shocked and amazed to learn an African-American actually owns the store,” said Betty Jean Grant, who also is an Erie County legislator. “People automatically think I work for some other ethnicity.”

Grant Variety is one of only three African-American-owned convenience stores on the East Side.

Grant and her husband, George, opened their store in 1980. At that time there were 125 shops owned by African-Americans, she said. By 1984, Grant’s competitors were increasingly Yemeni businessmen, who either bought out black owners or set up shop in empty storefronts.

Today, Grant’s shop competes with four Yemeni-owned stores within a quarter of a mile of her business, including City Market, which is up the block on the prized corner by a bus stop.

“I’m boxed in,” she said. Grant believes the Yemenis buy inventory together and can offer cheaper prices, and she’s not financially positioned for a price war.

“Keeping the business going is a struggle,” she said. “We’re investing my husband’s pension and my income to keep it afloat. We don’t even break even. Some days I’m waiting for a customer to come in.”

But Grant has refused countless offers from Yemeni businessmen. For her, keeping the shop open is no longer about the bottom line.

“I was approached, I don’t know how many times, to sell the store,” she said. “I continue so I can be an example for African-American youth, so they can know that we can own businesses.”

While Grant is hurt by lackluster sales, she doesn’t harbor resentment, as some African-Americans do, toward Arab entrepreneurs on the East Side. Without the Yemeni investment, the community would be destitute, she said.

“One of the things that really hurts me is when I hear people say ‘We have no stores in our community, they came over here and took our stores,’ ” Grant said. “Nobody took anything, the Yemenis saw an opportunity and took advantage of it. We can’t blame them for the loss of ownership. We chose to sell, and they chose to invest.”

Deli task force

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, former Council Member Charley H. Fisher III and other city officials cracked down on Yemeni businesses for selling expired goods and allegedly encouraging drug dealing in front of their stores. Fisher pushed successfully for the establishment of the deli licensing law and deli task force.

“The deli licensing law is a requirement that every delicatessen has to register their business and renew their license every year. And with each infraction,” Fisher said, “it could lead to suspension of their license and ultimately closing their business.”

Fisher said the raids led to the closing of 22 stores.

“As a council member, I wanted to eradicate the bad stores and I welcome the good stores.”

In Hamlin Park, the taxpayers association has been vigilant to keep convenience store owners in line. The neighborhood’s five stores range from “excellent to those that sell loosies (single cigarettes) and allow groups of young men to hang out in front of their stores,” said Geter, president of the neighborhood’s taxpayers’ association.

“You can go in there and buy a slice of bread, an egg, bologna,” she said. “It’s illegal and unsanitary because they are opening the packages. These items are packaged for a reason. Some of the stores will sell you two cigarettes and one diaper. It’s a problem.”

The organization has noticed correlations between fights, drive-by shootings and other disturbances with stores that allow loitering, Geter said. And the sale of illegal drugs has also been observed in front of troublesome shops, she added.

Yemeni business leaders admit in the past there were some illegal activities at some stores, but the majority of owners run clean operations.

“Not all stores operate like that – selling one diaper or cigarette,” said Merukeb. “Out of a 100 or so stores, there are a few bad apples in the bunch. But we are working with them, so they’ll know the rules and guidelines they must follow when running a store.”

The allegations of drug deals in front of Yemeni shops are unfair, Merukeb said. Owners call police when they see suspicious activity near their businesses.

“The Arab stores always get the blame for drugs, but drugs are everywhere,” he said. “These stores have cameras and they have no loitering signs outside. How much of an area are they supposed to police? Some of the owners feel threatened and fearful. They don’t want drugs sold in front of their businesses. We don’t want that reputation.”

While beauty supply stores can sell up to $800,000 and gas stations gross up to $1 million a year, the vast majority of Yemeni-owned businesses are small, mom-and-pop operations, Awass said.

“One of the misconceptions is that they make millions of dollars,” he said. “But they work 12 hours a day just to make a living to get by. It’s not easy work. They can’t afford to hire people.”

Better food

Yemeni shops also are criticized for their inventory and prices. During a recent winter storm, Maggie Boone, a Cold Springs resident, didn’t feel like driving to the supermarket for a can of soup, so she hopped to a neighborhood convenience store.

“A small can of soup was $1.79,” she said. “I was like forget it, but it’s all about the convenience, you’re going to pay more.”

While Geter and Boone may drop in for last-minute items, like bread or milk, the women said it’s limited inventory can’t replace a full-service supermarket.

“These stores are pretty much the crunch and munch corners of the community,” Geter said. “You’ll find a whole lot of snacks, 15 different colors of sodas, and every piece of candy they’ve ever made. But in food deserts, you need real food.”

Salem agreed.

“I see what the area needs, and it’s not another convenience store,” he said. “This area needs a supermarket.”

Salem’s store is packed with so much inventory, he lost count years ago of the number of items he carries. Over the years customers without means of getting to the supermarket or shopping mall have asked Salem to stock an array of food, clothing and hair products, resulting in a store with a hodgepodge of items.

“The senior citizens, who have to go to the suburbs to get to a supermarket, kept asking me for fruits and vegetables, but I didn’t have any space for anything else, so I decided to buy the plaza and expand it into a supermarket,” he said.

Salem and his business partner, Abdullah Ahmed, are working with city officials to get some financial assistance in opening the supermarket, which could cost close to $1 million.

“It will benefit the community and it will benefit me,” he said.

Community members

Yemeni business owners also are working to improve relations with the community by establishing relationships with Common Council members and attending neighborhood block club meetings.

Chief among the misconceptions Yemenis have to overcome is the idea that they are carpetbaggers, looking to make a quick dollar in the inner city, and then return their community.

But Ahmed Ahmed and his brothers grew up and still reside on the East Side, across the street from their store, Farm Fresh Market. Kaid and many other Yemeni entrepreneurs also call the East Side home.

“These owners actually live in the neighborhood where they work, some live above the shop,” said Henry L. Taylor Jr., director of the Center for Urban Studies at the University at Buffalo. “They are part of the East Side neighborhood. They are different from people who live in another part of the region, come into a place to make their money and leave.”

Ibrahim Cisse, business owner and president of the Bailey Avenue Business Association, said there are many East Side businesses that benefit from the community’s demographics through tax breaks and government grants and loans, but don’t give back to the community to the same degree. But thriving Yemeni businesses on Bailey are investing a substantial part of their profits back into their businesses to improve the community.

“You can see the difference they are making on Bailey Avenue with Farm Fresh, Sky’s the Limit, Imperial Food Mart,” Cisse said. “We do have some bad owners who don’t do things the right way, but a lot of them do care about this neighborhood. And Sam’s plans for a supermarket is an example of that.”

Taylor said black East Side leadership should forge relationships with Yemeni business owners to debunk long-standing misconceptions and to improve shops and the quality of their products and service.

“They should celebrate those who choose to not only invest but live in the neighborhood,” Taylor said. “These owners and their businesses are assets to the community.”

Cultural differences sometimes create a chasm between Yemeni business owners and their black customers. And many Yemeni shop owners feel more comfortable socializing within the close-knit Yemeni community, Awass said.

“A lot of them don’t speak English well and aren’t familiar with American culture,” Awass said. “The language difference is the main problem.” With the new generation of owners, relations are changing.

At Salem’s stores, customers file in and out, greeting him with a “What’s up, Sam?” or “Hey, Bruh!”

“I’m a part of the community, I’ve been here since ’93,” he said. “I go to my customers’ weddings. When someone’s sick, I go visit. I give out money to kids from the neighborhood when they have good report cards. We’ve become a family over the years.”

email: esapong@buffnews.com