That’s where the Westminster Economic Development Initiative, or WEDI, came into play. WEDI is the nonprofit that operates the bazaar, a business incubator. With a waitlist of more than 120 entrepreneurs hoping to secure a space inside, the bazaar is WEDI’s most public-facing project. From the long list of hopeful business owners who apply for a stall in the bazaar, WEDI selects cooks and other entrepreneurs who represent a variety of cuisines, cooking techniques, and cultures. Once business owners have secured a stall in the bazaar, they can remain until they have the resources, the confidence, and the customer base to graduate into their own brick-and-mortar location or transition to an online shop.
The initiative assists new business owners and bazaar tenants in securing microloans, establishing credit, and business education. Its public programs are helpful to those on the bazaar’s waitlist because they can begin learning skills they’ll need to operate a business before their applications for stalls are approved—a process contingent on another stall’s graduation. In terms of economic development, WEDI distributes grants and is also certified to arrange microloans that help first-time business owners and those with no credit or bad credit. With every microloan comes a business relationship manager to support new business owners on their entrepreneurial journey. “One of the things [WEDI is] after is helping people avoid predatory lenders,” says Erin St. John Kelly, WEDI’s Director of External Relations. “The goal is to move people into real banking situations. So we give these microloans in order to get people to real banks so they can build credit.”
WEDI’s microloans and business-oriented public education programs are a game-changer for businesses on Buffalo’s West Side, where immigrants and refugees have settled for decades. “Before, [refugees] were scared to open a business. After WEDI started business here, all of the Grant [Street] area became occupied by refugee business owners,” Gemmeda says.
Owning a business can be empowering and life-changing, especially for immigrants such as Htay Naing, who saved money for years with hopes of achieving restaurant ownership someday. “It was my dream to one day open a restaurant—it didn’t matter if it was big or small,” says Naing, owner of the bazaar’s Nine & Night Thai Cuisine. Naing originally hails from the Arakan state of Burma (now Myanmar) but emigrated to the U.S. from Malaysia in 2013, where he worked in a nearby town as a dishwasher and a busboy. He applied for a bazaar stall after learning about WEDI from Maung Maung, a friend he’d worked with at a Chinese restaurant in Malaysia who runs 007 Chinese Food at the bazaar, specializing in dim sum. Naing was waitlisted for three years before starting Nine & Night, which became a smash hit at the bazaar and remained popular throughout the pandemic as Naing expanded his take-out operation with WEDI’s help.
Naing’s thriving business enabled him to bring his wife, May, to the States. Together they own a house in the Kenmore suburb just north of Buffalo and have a one-year-old daughter. When Naing held a second wedding celebration stateside to introduce his wife to Buffalo’s Burmese community, the bazaar’s operations manager Mike Moretti attended, speaking to the close relationships forged at the bazaar.