by Abbey Marshall

Despite the difficulties Hsa Win faced growing up in a Thailand refugee camp, he reflects on the smell of his grandmother’s noodles bubbling in a medley of spices and vegetables, and helping his mother peel carrots in the kitchen — some of the happiest moments of his childhood.

“I would say my mother and grandmother were the two people who inspired me to cook and inspired my love for food,” recalls the 20-year-old former Burmese refugee, now a North Hill resident. “My parents didn’t have much money to send me to school. I’d have to stay home and help them prepare noodles for a living.”

Now Hsa, along with at least a dozen others in North Hill, has the opportunity to share his culture’s food with Akron in a pop-up restaurant that will showcase a new local food entrepreneur each weekend. 

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“Food is a universal language,” says Hsa, who will be preparing dishes such as pho, fried rice, spring rolls and boba tea. “For me, I’m excited to take advantage of this opportunity to build friendship and community. I want people to taste different dishes and to know more about my background.”

Launched by the North Akron Community Development Corporation, the NoHi Pop-Up aims to provide North Hill residents an opportunity to share a taste of home with their neighbors, while giving potential restaurant entrepreneurs a chance to test-drive what running a kitchen is like. 

“We wanted to activate Temple Square and give Akronites something to do across the bridge while also highlighting the diverse culture in North Hill,” says Justin Chenault, a board member for North Akron CDC who is helping run the project, referring to the neighborhood around Main Street and Cuyahoga Falls Avenue. “A great way to do that is through food.”

Coached by a professional chef, North Hill food entrepreneurs will run their own restaurant on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Each food entrepreneur will select three to five dishes they will prepare for takeout or delivery.

“We’re creating the infrastructure for food entrepreneurs who may not understand fully yet or have the capital to run a restaurant,” says Katie Beck, the executive director of NACDC. “Hopefully, they’ll do really well and develop a clientele and open a restaurant. We’re lowering the risk factor for failure, but also providing a great way to share with the community and make a profit.”

That includes people like Samantha Byake, a 23-year-old former refugee from the Congo who lived in Uganda for eight years, who loved to cook from a young age but never thought to open her own restaurant prior to the pop-up. 

At right: Samantha Byake (Photo: Autumn Bland)

“I’m excited because people are going to know more about my culture. I’m so happy because people can learn more about Africa,” says Samantha, who moved to Akron from Uganda in 2019. “It was never in my official plans to work in a restaurant, but I think, ‘let me try this and see how it goes.’ If this goes well, I might think about starting a big restaurant with traditional African food and dancing.”

Though the participants will supply their own kitchen staff and recipes, the NACDC will cover all food costs, utilities, rent and delivery through Jobs for Ohio Graduates. The organization will take a cut to accommodate overhead, but the participants will keep the profits from their weekend in the kitchen. They will be coached by Marcus Idley, an executive chef with over 20 years of experience working in culinary services.

“With my expertise, I just want to help them be able to grow and expand after this,” says Marcus, who was born in North Hill but now lives in Cuyahoga Falls. “I want to show how it actually is running a restaurant, benefits of it, being happy with what they put out.”

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To generate additional revenue, the NACDC will fill the space on the remaining days of the week with a grab-and-go restaurant called NoHi, which will open in tandem with the pop-up. In addition to coaching and assisting others on the weekends, Idley will run NoHi during the week, which will serve fresh fish, hand-cut french fries, coleslaw and sauces. 

The initiative will launch mid-July at 772 North Main St., most recently home to Mexico City Restaurant and Bar, and run through the end of the year and possibly longer, depending on the number of residents interested in participating. 

“I’m happy this will attract people to North Hill. It’s a community that has many, many different kinds of cultures, and it’s beautiful,” Samantha says. “I’m excited for people to see the treasure we have here through our food.”

If you are interested in participating in the NoHI Pop-Up or helping with delivery, email Katie Beck at katie@northakroncdc.org for more information. Menus for each week can be found at northakroncdc.org or on the NoHi Pop-Up Facebook page

Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at abbey@thedevilstrip.com.

Photos: Autumn Bland

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