“I had a completely different career. I have a philosophy degree, and that’s the field I worked in when I was living in Sudan,” says Ibti, who came to the States as a political refugee in 1999.
Ibti says she’s only been cooking for about 10 years, which is when she started cooking for Caritas Village in Binghampton, where she was known for her soups. Despite her lack of experience, she apparently had a hidden talent. She gained a following at Caritas and eventually branched out on her own, forming her own catering business cooking traditional Sudanese food, like sambusa and chicken shawarma.
Today, Ibti cooks at Global Café, alongside Chefs Fayha Sakkan and Indra Sunuwar, of Syria and Nepal respectively. The fast-casual eatery, owned by Sabine Langer (originally from Switzerland) and managed by Juan Viramontes (from California by way of Mexico), allows refugees and immigrants a chance to showcase the flavors of their home countries while offering them a steady and secure career.
“When refugees get resettled here, they’re not always told ahead of time where they’ll end up. They may not have time to learn the language, and they have six months to become self-sufficient,” explains Sabine, who volunteers with the Refugee Empowerment Project. “Many refugees have families. They have to take what jobs they can find just to have income.”
Sabine wanted to offer a way for refugees and immigrants to make money in a setting that was supportive and empowering. She eventually met Juan through a running group in Ventura, California and the two talked about her vision for Global Café.
“Was it a dream of mine to open a restaurant someday? No,” Sabine laughs. “It’s such a bad business financially. But we’re not doing this for financial gain. It’s really about supporting the immigrants and refugees.”
The restaurant is sometimes described as an incubator, since both Sabine and Juan have expressed that they’d support and encourage any of their chefs who wanted to branch out and start their own independent business. But Juan says “incubator” isn’t quite the right word.
“If they want to retire from here, then that’s what they’re going to do. But if two years from now, one of them builds the courage and the capital to spin off on their own, we’ll support that too,” Juan says.
Fayha, whose Syrian menu features rice-stuffed grape leaves and chicken/beef kababs among other items, says she’s perfectly happy where she is for now.
“I love coming to work here. Even when I have to stay late, I’m still happy, and I never feel like I don’t want to come here,” she says.
Fayha, who emigrated to the States from Syria on a medical visa in 1992, has always loved cooking, but she feared the business side of opening her own restaurant would be a headache. After retiring from a 20-year stint as a nanny to a Memphis family, some of her friends encouraged her to open a restaurant. But instead, the offer came from Global Café, and she jumped at the chance.
“I thank God. We’re like family here — me, Ibti, and Indra. We have good times together,” she says.
Indra moved to Memphis from Nepal in 2011 with her family — mom, dad, and four siblings. Her parents and grandparents were originally refugees from Bhutan and settled in Nepal, which is where Indra was born. But they were eventually resettled in the U.S.
“I always liked to help my mom cook, and this opportunity came up. I thought I could try and sell food as a way to make money,” says Indra, who’s already built a loyal following around her mo mo dumplings and chow mein dishes.
Still in her 20s, Indra can’t say if this is what she wants to do with the rest of her life. But for now, she says she’s thankful for the opportunity to showcase Nepalese cuisine, which she says is hard to find in Memphis.
The three chefs each have their own stall within Global Café, but Juan says they work together as a team.
“We have one walk-in cooler, one freezer, one carrot bag, one onion bag. The two ladies who use rice, Ibti and Fayha, may borrow rice from one another in the middle of a rush. We all take from it and profits are split across the board,” Juan says. “The three main chefs and myself are on a salary to ensure that we can all make a living.”
Besides the food, Global Café also boasts a full bar. That is Juan’s territory.
“There are close to a dozen drinks on our specialty cocktail menu, and they’re exclusive to Global Café,” Juan says. The café has two happy hours daily — all beers, well liquors, house wines, and selected specialty cocktails are $3 Sunday-Thursday from 3-5 pm and from 9-11 pm. Weekend happy hour runs from 9 pm-midnight Fridays and Saturdays.
Juan is also responsible for weekly food specials. “The specials will usually be Mexican cuisine, but you might occasionally see baby back ribs or a pulled pork sandwich,” Juan says.
Through food and drink, Sabine hopes Global Café will help bring communities together.
“That’s the reason we have a large community table in the middle of the dining room. It’s for everyone to come together, chat, and share stories about life,” she says. “That’s the concept, much like Better Together concept of Crosstown Concourse as a whole.”