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When Ameneh Marhaba and her family immigrated from Liberia, West Africa to America in 2010, they didn’t have a clue how they would survive. All they knew was that it was time to step out on faith and leave their country in search of a better life.
As a 16-year-old immigrant, Marhaba searched for a job to help support her family. Little did she know that searching for a way to survive would eventually lead her to find her passion. Now, she is pursuing a future through food and sharing Liberian cuisine on a much higher level.
After over a decade of hard work and pop-ups at restaurants and bars, things are paying off, and her family is living the American dream. Marhaba recently announced that she will open her first brick-and-mortar restaurant in mid-to-late 2024.
Big Dreams for Little Liberia
Marhaba’s Little Liberia is an award-winning Afro-fusion pop-up restaurant serving Liberia’s rich multicultural cuisine in metro Detroit. Little Liberia serves authentic Liberian dishes, a cuisine whose heritage is a combination of African, Caribbean and Antebellum-South African American influences.
Being a woman and immigrant-owned business was challenging for Marhaba, but there’s no turning back. Her mission is to share Liberia’s aromas, cultures and values while building bonds with her guests one meal at a time.
According to Marhaba, “Little Liberia symbolizes much more than a restaurant. Little Liberia represents a Liberian woman’s arduous journey to the United States, growing and developing a business in the face of tremendous odds. Little Liberia is community-driven and intends to be a driver of change, providing job opportunities for those like themselves and more. They are a family and want to be a haven where all feel welcomed and valued as a part of the family.”
“Although it started as a pop-up event, it has become the symbolism of women and immigrant leadership, will, and experience and the culture that these create. I didn’t have a lot of job opportunities available to me. I was looking for a means to take care of my family during that time, so I started my pop-up business, Little Liberia,” says Marhaba.
She adds, “I started going to different restaurants and bars in the cities, asking them if I could sell my food a la carte style. That’s how Little Liberia began. From there, I saw that cultural experience was needed in Detroit. We didn’t have any African restaurants in Detroit at all at that time. And there was still no Liberian restaurant in Michigan. So, when I started doing the pop-ups, I saw the need for that cultural exposure in the city. People love the food.
“I was doing what I love and taking care of my family at the same time. Years after that, when I started working in corporate America, I still used to do it on the weekends because it was my passion. I loved what I was doing.”
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Dreams Do Come True
Little Liberia is not your ordinary pop-up restaurant. A lot of planning and preparation went into building the culinary experience that started in 2016. Last year, her business was crowned the winner of the 2022 Comerica Hatch Detroit Contest, taking home the $100,000 grand prize from Comerica Bank to open the brick-and-mortar business of her dreams in Detroit.
Along with $100,000 from Comerica Bank, Little Liberia also received pro-bono support and counsel from Hatch Detroit. She connected with the mentoring organization SCORE and she put together a plan to do pop-ups at different restaurants.
“Little Liberia stands out because it’s filled with flavors. It’s different. It’s exciting, and it’s not available anywhere else. There is no other Liberian food service in Detroit. People are not accustomed to the cuisine, but yet still they love it. We’re anticipating the opening of the restaurant by next summer 2024. Our lease was just signed a couple of weeks ago. We will officially be on Woodward Avenue in Midtown Detroit,” says Marhaba.
“Liberian cuisine is filled with a lot of bright and vibrant flavors. We also tend to use a lot of spice in Liberian food. The popular dishes from our customers are cassava leaves and our kala appetizer. Our customers enjoy the pepper kala with our hot sauce,” she says.
“My favorite dishes to make for my family are something as simple as our appetizer, which is kala, a dough that’s a little bit savory, a little sweet and it’s dipped in our hot sauce. It’s a staple in Liberia and a favorite among my family, and everybody loves it. I also like to make cassava leaves. Cassava leaves are also a traditional Liberian dish that can be made with chicken or beef and it’s eaten with rice.”
She continues, “Since winning Hatch Detroit last year, my business has grown tremendously. I am beyond grateful for the opportunity and happy that I am so much closer to making my dream a reality,” says Marhaba.
How She Got Started
As a little girl, she would watch her mother cook. Marhaba would help her mother with prep work and cleaning up as she prepared meals. Years later, Marhaba was forced to learn how to cook to survive, which led to her passion and entrepreneurial spirit.
In 2017, Marhaba conducted her first pop-up at St. Cece’s Restaurant in Detroit and it was a success. She would go on to hold pop-ups across the city at restaurants and bars under her former business name, Kitchen Ramarj, which represented the initials of her siblings. Marhaba would also search for opportunities to take her business to the next level. She auditioned for MasterChef in 2019 and was among 25 finalists out of 500 candidates.
In 2021, she completed the ProsperUs Detroit entrepreneurship training for her business and won her first pitch competition with a $500 cash prize. ProsperUs awarded her the Black Businesswoman of the Year Award in 2022.
Later that year, Marhaba participated in another pitch competition and was selected as the Comerica Hatch Detroit contest winner, receiving a $100,000 cash prize for her business.
While working on building her pop-up restaurant, Marhaba pursued her education and earned an associate degree in criminal justice from Wayne County Community College and a bachelor’s in criminal justice from Ferris State University. She is fluent in three languages: Native Liberian, Arabic, and English.
Being a successful entrepreneur and balancing one’s life, family, and business can be extremely challenging. However, with the right attitude, great work ethic and consistency, one can achieve what they put their mind to.
Marhaba says, “Balance is one of the difficulties that all entrepreneurs face. Especially if you have a passion for a business and a full-time job at the same time. I have a lot of different projects going on at once. I have a full-time job, Little Liberia, as well as other responsibilities.”
She adds, “Finding a balance can be difficult, and we don’t talk about this much, but setting time aside for specific tasks is helpful. I dedicate time on the weekends and right after my nine-to-five, I work on projects for Little Liberia. Time management and dedication to a specific schedule is what has helped me the most. Setting a schedule and sticking to it.”
Sharing Lessons Learned
“If I would share one thing, I would like for anyone reading this to take away the fact that there’s nothing that hard work and dedication cannot get you. And if someone like me, who came to this country as an immigrant with absolutely nothing, a 16-year-old, could be here today and accomplish what I have accomplished so far, anyone could do it.
“And another thing that I would also share would be that I didn’t know how much help was available to me until I started asking. So, if there’s something you’re trying to do, or if there’s a project that you just don’t have the courage to start, just ask for help. There, you will be so surprised to see how many people around you want to help you
“So, that’s what I would like to leave behind. Take that courage to start, have the courage to ask for help when you need it and believe in yourself. The more you believe in yourself, the more everybody around you believes.”
Inspiration to be Great
Looking back at her journey, she says, “My family inspires me out of everything. My dad sacrificed everything for us to be here, just to be able to give us a better life. My mom dedicated everything to make sure that we had a good life. I don’t take either of their sacrifices in vain. I look at them and I look at where they’ve gotten us in life, and it motivates me to want to be the best that I can be and to accomplish even more for them.”
Continuing to reflect on her journey, she doubles down saying, “Sometimes we’re afraid to start because we’re afraid to fail. If you have a dream or passion, you should ask for the help you need. If you’re a young immigrant, go for your dreams. I want Little Liberia to create a safe space for all immigrants. And if one restaurant or one business in a year can create something like this for other immigrants, it will make a huge difference.”
For more about Marhaba’s journey, future pop-ups, and details leading up to the grand opening of Little Liberia in Detroit’s Midtown, visit www.LittleLiberia.com and follow along on Instagram and Facebook.