In November 2016, PROPEL, CEI, Fork Food Lab, Maine Access Immigrant Network, and the Maine Public Health Association collaborated to co-host a promotional Taste the World event to bring together the increasingly diverse Greater Portland community over a shared love of food. The success of that event led to the development of the New Mainer Culinary Entrepreneur Program, which supports immigrant and refugee entrepreneurs in the culinary field in Maine through a multi-pronged approach.
This approach includes promotion at regular Taste the World community building events, and the provision of the New Mainer Culinary Entrepreneur Scholarship that covers the cost of a three month membership at Fork Food Lab, ServeSafe Certification, Department of Agriculture License, and insurance for one year. It also includes business support from CEI’s Start Smart program, a program that offers free, confidential business counseling for New Americans starting or expanding a business in Maine.
As the first recipient of the New Mainer Culinary Entrepreneur Scholarship, Aklilu Tsaedu, owner of Niyat Catering, was able to launch his Ethiopian catering business at Fork Food Lab.
“Without the help, I wouldn’t have been able to start. Everything really worked well. I don’t expect to continue to get help, but the little jumpstart has allowed me to get going,” said Tsaedu.
When he moved to Maine 12 years ago from his home country, Ethiopia, he quickly learned that people were looking for a variety of healthy foods. His love for cooking traditional Ethiopian food, which is known for being very nutritious, coupled with the opportunity he saw in Portland, was what made him want to start a food business.
With support from CEI’s Start Smart program, he developed a business plan to begin with catering, rather than his initial idea, a restaurant. He received a microloan from CEI which allowed him to supplement the Scholarship and purchase kitchen equipment and pay for a catering license and some other startup costs.
Tsaedu began selling his food at Portland Adult Education, and at local events including the annual Festival of Nations and CEI’s 40th Anniversary Celebration, all of which gave him some visibility in the community. Being a member at Fork Food Lab has also provided exposure for the business without paying money for advertising. “Fork always has events and open houses for visibility,” he said. “It is a wonderful kitchen and a very good place to work.” Tsaedu’s success has allowed him to continue on as a member of Fork Food Lab after his scholarship has ended.
Tsaedu’s food was featured at the 2018 Taste the World event on November 8th at Fork Food Lab. The event was sponsored by Machias Savings Bank as a part of their sponsorship of PROPEL’s In Focus Series, and served as a fundraiser to make another New Mainer Entrepreneur Scholarship available. Machias Savings Bank generously matched up to $1,250 in funds raised at the event.