Community Sparks Detroit Brick-and-Mortar Breakthrough

Restaurateur Ameneh Marhaba has fire in her belly — and it’s not just her “Hot Keyeh Sauce.”

Fueled by the legacy of a courageous father and guidance of a resilient mother, Marhaba has transformed a lifetime of cooking for survival into a  career slated to hit a major milestone in 2024 with the opening of her first permanent Little Liberia location. 

Marhaba’s rising star traces back to humble origins many aspiring chef-owners will recognize, leaning on imagination and grit to gain traction through pop-up operations.

Ameneh Marhaba

Photos by Alejandro Ugalde from Featherstone

Marhaba has also gained a leg up by leveraging local resources like entrepreneurial training programs and business pitch competitions to secure funds to expand her ventures.

Starting From Scratch to Winning “Hatch”

Opening the doors of a new restaurant often requires courting investors or taking on sizeable loans to get operations off the ground. For many, even getting approved for those loans seems impossible. 

Impossible, meet Armeneh.

“As a small business you don’t have the [same] high sales or financial resources as other big businesses,” shares Marhaba. “Unfortunately when applying for loans from large organizations, those numbers are all that matter.”

Undeterred, Marhaba found education and resources through ProsperUs Detroit, a nonprofit organization that aims to empower entrepreneurs to revitalize local economies from within. Through the organization, Marhaba was introduced to (and won) the 2022 Comerica Hatch Detroit contest, where she was awarded a grand prize of $100,000 to put toward a physical location. 

Hatch Detroit represents a creative solution to raising money to cover restaurant opening costs, and affordable local training programs like ProsperUs are valuable business tools available to driven chefs looking to round out their skill sets.

Personality Over Perfection

Social media is a fundamental facet of any modern marketing strategy, and Marhaba has some actionable advice to get the most out of content: 

  • Don’t get caught up with fancy equipment. “I record most of my reels and post with my iPhone — and people love it,” reveals Marhaba. 

  • Be consistent. Marhaba describes this concept as her “secret weapon.” Relationships are built over time, and publishing content regularly is crucial to keeping people engaged. 

  • Tell your story. Authenticity resonates, and Marhaba advises “[keeping] people interested by sharing your craft in the best way you can.” 

Community Rooted in Belief

In addition to showcasing Liberian culture through vibrant dishes such as Seafood Palm Butter and Fufu, the ethos of Little Liberia’s new location will be to create a welcoming space, especially for immigrants, to connect and inspire one another. 

Supporting others facing challenging circumstances offers a chance for Marhaba to be a driver of change, further growing the network of impactful bonds she’s already forged.

“We need to believe in ourselves and do the best we absolutely can, and the right people will see that commitment,” says Marhaba. “The community I have now was built on relationships I formed with people around me who believed in me. Sometimes when [things] get tough, I think about that community … and not letting myself down by quitting or giving up.”