When Tewelde “Jimmy” Nemariam opened Massawa Café & Bistro in downtown Edmonton on Canada Day 2015, he hoped for the best, but he also knew he had a lot working against him. A declining economy and little marketing meant for a slow start. He knew his dream would be an uphill battle.
“Running a business is tough,” says Nemariam. “I also have another job driving a truck in the city so I’m going back and forth all the time. We expected that things would be tough with the economy at the time, also just being a new business with a new name, but now a year later things are picking up.”
Massawa Café—affectionately named after a port city in Eritrea, the country where the owners immigrated from—was a longtime dream for Nemariam, growing up in the restaurant industry with his sister, who also works at the café. Over the last few months they began to integrate traditional Eritrean food to their predominantly Italian menu. The move was a success, and traditional cuisines are now the most popular items on their menu.
Nemariam, who co-owns the café with his brother-in-law, Michael Yohannes, is overwhelmed by the support that has come his way from the local arts community. Sampler Café welcomes fans of hip-hop to the space to create music. The poetry slams are also well attended, with the last event boasting one of the largest attendance in years for a poetry night. The café has quickly become a gathering place for a demographic that always needs space.
“From the beginning I wanted to do an open mic type of thing,” says Nemariam. “I wanted people to come and tell their stories. I like listening to stories. I was a poet back home [in Eritrea] when I was in high school, and it still interests me.”
Brandon Wint, an active member of the local poetry community who regularly attends the café in his spare time, can’t emphasize enough the effect a space like Massawa can have on a thriving arts community.
“While I am sure the imperatives of business are also of importance to Massawa, when the poetry community enters that space, we are made to feel as though the contributions we make artistically have a tangible or meaningful value to Massawa in a way that extends beyond simple business ethics.”
This new relationship, which has turned into the new home of the popular Breath in Poetry showcases that were formerly held at Rouge Lounge, looks like it will turn into an enriching relationship for all parties involved.
“When the community gathers in a space like Massawa, which is Black-owned and welcoming of people of all ages, we stand a better chance of creating a community that is multi-racial, multi-ethnic, inter-generational and vibrant,” says Wint. “That is, of course, a rare thing. Spaces like Massawa give us the chance to create and sustain a community that is more truly representative of the people that live in this city.”