Little Liberia Afro-fusion pop-up business wins $100,000 in Hatch Detroit contest

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

The owner of pop-up food business that brings a taste of West Africa, and Liberia, specifically, to Detroit has gotten a major boost toward her goal to open a restaurant in the city. 

Thursday night in TechTown, chef and entrepreneur Ameneh Marhaba was named the winner of $100,000 in the weeks-long Hatch Detroit contest. In an emotional, passionate pitch to a panel of judges, she told her story of recently losing her father, who brought his family to the United States from post-war Liberia for a chance at a better life. 

"Also, my mom taught me a lot about not forgetting where I came from, not forgetting about my culture and not forgetting about where my roots are," Marhaba said. "I wanted to bring a little bit of that Liberian spirit to Detroit, so I started the pop-up business."

The 2022 Hatch Detroit winner Ameneh Marhaba, second from right, is presented with a check from Comerica Bank and Hatch Detroit.

She not only wins twice the money the Hatch winners have gotten 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 made it this far by getting votes from the public. Little Liberia was chosen Thursday evening by a panel of judges that included Hatch alumni and others in the business community. 

"Little Liberia is an Afro-fusion pop-up restaurant. It is the symbolism of women and immigrant leadership, will and experience and the culture that this creates for our guests," 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 dinners at many Metro Detroit restaurants, including Brooklyn Street Local and Baobab Fare, the latter which won the same contest in 2018. Baobab Fare co-owner Mamba Hamissi is a mentor of Marhaba, and spoke at the event as a Hatch alumnus. 

During her pitch Marhaba said she believes her restaurant will be the city's first Liberian eatery. 

"We're bringing something very new, very exciting. We have been doing this since 2016 ... and Detroiters have accepted it," she said. "We also want to empower other minority groups like ourselves who came from nothing and want to make something out of their lives. We want to create a safe haven. Have a meal with us and just have a good time."

Marhaba accepted a large novelty check for $100,000 through tears.

"I'm glad I could make my dad proud," she said.

The businesses that made it to the finals are all food-related and owned by women. The five entrepreneurs, hugged on stage and took photos with one another.  

Here are the other four finalists, which will continue to get support from Hatch Detroit as alumni of the program: 

Colfetaire is a European pastry shop that will specialize in Romanian desserts. Owner Andrea Colfescu and her mother, Claudia, pivoted their business to offer baking kits for kids to make at home during the pandemic. The plan is to open a brick-and-mortar location in downtown Detroit. Follow them at facebook.com/colfetarie.

Much has been written about Detroit Farm and Cider, a nearly 5-acre commercial farm on Detroit's west side. Owner Leandra King has been fundraising to build an on-site cider mill that will offer programming for local kids as well as make apple cider and doughnuts. Once her mill is running, she said hers will be the only Black woman-owned cider mill in the country. Visit detroitfarmandcider.com.

Jasmine-Denard Haskins's Asian street food pop-up Gajiza Dumplins specializes in their namesake food served in a variety of ways plus dishes like fried rice, yakisoba noodles and "tiki tots." Find them regularly at Lost River tiki bar on Detroit's east side. Haskins' plan is to take her frozen dumplings to retail. Learn more or order frozen dumplings at gajizadumplins.com.

Coming soon to the Avenue of Fashion, Lily's & Elise will serve European-style high tea with pastries and small plates, plus cocktails made with tea. Owner Kimberly Elise is one of only three "tea sommeliers" in Michigan. Follow their progress at lilysandelise.com.

Over the past decade, the Hatch Detroit contest has given $50,000 grants to businesses looking to open brick-and-mortar locations. This year, Comerica Bank doubled the award to $100,000. 

Nearly 50 participants 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, Baobab Fare African restaurant 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, which won a prestigious James Beard Award last month

“We are eager to support and spotlight Little Liberia as the newest addition to the city’s growing small business environment,” said Hatch Detroit's executive director Vittoria Katanski in a statement after the event. “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. As an organization, Hatch Detroit continues to support its alumni and winners even after the competition, and we look forward to seeing where this victory takes Little Liberia.”

Follow Little Liberia's progress at facebook.com/littleliberia or on Instagram @little_liberia

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mbaetens@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @melodybaetens