Crain’s Detroit Business
July 22, 2022
For 28-year-old food entrepreneur Ameneh Marhaba, winning the 2022 Comerica Hatch Detroit Contest is about more than earning $100,000 toward opening her own storefront.
“I’ve been working so hard for this. This is my dream and passion,” Marhaba told Crain’s the morning after winning the Hatch grand prize. “I got into the contest to win and for the support Hatch provides, but now I can have something more permanent.”
Marhaba, owner and founder of Afro-fusion pop-up restaurant Little Liberia, took the top prize over four other finalists in a “Shark Tank”-style Hatch Off event Thursday evening at the Wayne State University Industry Innovation Center in Detroit.
Marhaba also earned a package of free accounting, legal, IT, and public relations support from Hatch Detroit and its partners to boost her opportunities to succeed as part of the program that supports brick-and-mortar business growth in Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck.
In 2016, Marhaba started hosting pop-up dinners as a means to pay bills. Little Liberia serves authentic Liberian dishes, a cuisine whose heritage is a mixture of African, Caribbean, and Antebellum-South African American influences. It would be the first Liberian restaurant in Michigan, according to a Hatch Detroit news release.
Marhaba, who with her family in 2010 immigrated to Detroit from Liberia, plans to open her restaurant in either Midtown, Corktown, or downtown Detroit.
“I know $100,000 can’t get you a space downtown, but it’s a starting point,” she said.
Marhaba has prepared for this moment.
In working with nonprofit ProsperUS Detroit last year, Marhaba learned it would cost about $450,000 to open a restaurant. With recent soaring inflation, that number increased by 10 percent to 20 percent, she said.
To further help herself achieve her goals, Marhaba is working with Motor City Match on its development track. She previously received a $4,500 award from Kiva Detroit and continues to apply for pitch competitions.
For Marhaba, getting to this point feels like a dream.
Marhaba was an undocumented immigrant when she came to the U.S. in 2010. She faced difficulty finding decent-paying jobs. Eventually, she got the chance to offer some of her cuisine inside some Detroit establishments.
“Some of them were open to it,” Marhaba said. “Their customers liked that there was a food option and not just drinks. It feels good to share Liberian culture with people. It’s crazy that food is what saved my family and I.”
That family has been involved in the process every step of the way. A sister, sister-in-law, and cousins assist Marhaba at each pop-up. Upon opening a standalone restaurant, Marhaba plans to offer a job to any family member who wants to join her.
Opening that restaurant would not be possible without programs like Hatch, Marhaba said.
“I think competitions like this are what make people like myself succeed,” she said. “This was about more than the money. Myself and the other competitors were able to tell our stories and that helped us all get so much more exposure. I think we all gained a lot from this competition. It’s for people who want to build something with no foundation. We’ve worked so hard to get to where we are, we all deserve this kind of boost.”
Stories like Marhaba’s are at the heart of Hatch Detroit.
“After 10 years of the Comerica Hatch Detroit Contest, it is so evident how strong and deep the entrepreneurial spirit in Detroit runs, and Little Liberia is a prime example of tenacity and hard work paying off,” Hatch Executive Director Vittoria Katanski said in he release.
The other finalists were:
- Colfetaire: An online European dessert and pastry shop specializing in Romanian baked goods.
- Detroit Farm and Cider: A 4.9-acre commercial farm at 1600 Lawrence St. on Detroit’s west side with plans to build a cider mill and offer youth day camps and horseback riding classes.
- Gajiza Dumplins: A dumpling shop at 15429 Mack Ave. specializing in Asian-style food and handmade dumplings from scratch in more than 30 flavors.
- Lily’s & Elise: A tea lounge at 19037 Livernois Ave. with a primary focus on the premium service of European-style afternoon and high tea with fresh pastries and small plates to accompany orders.
The winner was chosen after the finalists made their pitches to a panel of judges in front of a live audience. Public voting, along with the judges’ deliberation, determined Little Liberia as the winner.
Little Liberia joins previous Hatch Detroit winners La Feria (2012), Sister Pie (2014), Live Cycle Delight (2015), Meta Physica Massage (2016), Baobab Fare (2017) and 27th Letter Books (2019). Together, Hatch Detroit alumni have opened 49 businesses, employ more than 500 people and have invested more than $7 million in their businesses.