At a time when many of us are missing the ability to freely travel and connect with other cultures, Tukwila's Spice Bridge offers a global culinary experience — while also giving us a chance to support immigrant and refugee chefs within our own community.
The newly opened food hall and commercial kitchen, operated by nonprofit Global to Local, is the cornerstone of their Food Innovation Network (FIN) program that helps aspiring entrepreneurs launch and foster food businesses.
Outside of the hall, strangers chat about food choices at (spread-out) tables; indoors, alluring aromas and world music mingle with the sounds of vendors' laughter and banter. There's a sense of community here that we've been sorely missing in recent months.
A diverse set of customers range from neighborhood folks excited to see their cultures represented at stalls to curious visitors from downtown Seattle and Tacoma who have heard the buzz . Patrons pick up tasty treats ranging from hibiscus drinks and Argentinean empanadas to Congolese-inspired beignets and dishes featuring grilled goat. (Read more about the inner-workings of the program in the Food Hall section below.)
Krizia Cherece owns Wengay's Kitchen, specializing in traditional Filipino cuisine. She first got involved with FIN during the summer of 2019, after searching Google for nearby commercial kitchen spaces for catering. When she noticed they were offering an incubator program she reached out, joined an info session, and the rest is history!
“FIN has helped me with all the basics,” she said. “From introducing us to short business courses, connecting us with trustworthy mentors and providing guidance with developing our menus and branding. Their staff has been the most helpful, supportive and accommodating. They have helped us with marketing and getting our name out into the world!”
A few favorite items she serves? The Lumpiang Sariwa (Fresh Lumpia) — a Filipino- style spring roll filled with sautéed veggies and wrapped in an eggy-crepe-like wrap and covered with a savory-meets-sweet peanut sauce. She also loves the Ube Ensaymada, described as "a super dense, brioche-like bun filled with ube filling and topped with butter, sugar and cheese."
Cherece's goal is to share and celebrate what she loves best — Filipino food and culture.
“The food that I create and serve is a reflection of my family, our traditions and hard work," she said. "I want to showcase authenticity and hopefully educate others about our culture and what it means to be Filipino.”
Liyu Yirdaw, owner of WUHA Ethiopian-American Cuisine, got involved with FIN about a year ago. She says her business was merely an idea, and FIN helped make this dream a reality. “I thought of it, and now I have it."
She can’t pick a favorite menu item — and jokes it’s a bit like asking a mom to name her favorite child. “For me, each is to its own,” she says, “Each has its unique taste and satisfies your palate in its own way.”
She describes her cuisine as "fast" Ethiopian food, plus American food inspired by Ethiopian spices. It's meant to be savored by those who are short on time or want to enjoy a single portion. It's also aimed toward those who are health conscious or have allergies that require adjustments. They encourage a healthy lifestyle without sacrificing flavor. They will soon be serving Ethiopian coffee, too.
Yirdaw continues to dream big, hoping to ultimately take her idea global with the first Ethiopian fast food chain franchise, packaged food and lunch boxes, plus WUHA's spice mixes. "I know it's a lot," she says, "but WUHA is here with a new concept to take Ethiopian food to a much higher level that was not done before ... I believe it's time for Ethiopian food to be known, experienced and loved worldwide! And I think the world is ready for it!"
INSIDE THE FOOD HALL
The food hall is part of a redevelopment project; each stall has the support of the Food Innovation Network's incubator, which helps launch these small, budding businesses. They originally planned to have up to 20 (rotating) businesses in the space, but there are currently 13 in the program (eight vendors offering takeaway and five businesses using the space for off-site sales, from farmers markets and catering to creating packaged goods). Due to COVID, they won’t add any more at this time.
The concept began five years ago when community outreach specialists starting asking questions around South King County communities such as: What does a healthy community look like to you, and what’s preventing you from achieving that?
They found common threads like a lack of economic opportunities. They also discovered that many women living in this area already have a background in the food industry— having run a food stand in their home country, for example.
The Global to Local team knows that many barriers exist within any business, especially the food industry, and working in a language other than your native one only adds further complications and challenges. The food business incubator emerged from a pilot program, during which they subleased a small kitchen in Kent while this new facility was built.
The program helps people figure out: "What is your dream?" All businesses have a coach — part of partner organizations Highline College's StartZone initiative, Business Impact Northwest and Ventures nonprofit. Mentors help entrepreneurs build upon their individual strengths, and business owners get to support one another too.
Businesses must apply to join; they then go through stages from the food tasting process and establishing business readiness to business training. Perhaps even six months later, excited entrepreneurs are able to start using the commercial kitchen (at a subsidized rate that makes it affordable). The idea is that most businesses stay in the program for a couple years before graduating on to the next level — perhaps establishing a brick-and-mortar location, for example.
The program is currently recognizing the effects of COVID and not releasing anyone before they’re ready. They've also been taking all necessary precautions such as limiting how many cooks can be in the kitchen at once and requiring masks 100 percent of the time. They are building toward all businesses being able to offer online orders, too (although some businesses are so new, they want to let them first figure out their flow with walk-in customers).
Eventually, they envision Spice Bridge being a community space with a stage for music and regular pop-ups to promote local artists and artisans. Currently there’s art on a display— a visual poetry exhibit — the was created by Foster High School students, who are refugees and immigrants, to help them express and process their experiences.
In addition to helping to create economic security for business owners and their families, Spice Bridge helps build food security. The space supports FIN’s Tukwila Village Farmers Market, a super-affordable venue that sells produce grown by local immigrants and refugees.
Spice Bridge is also used for FIN’s community meals initiative, which has distributed more than 8,000 no-cost meals for seniors and families in need since March. They’re also looking at other programs to ensure food security in the future, such as providing vouchers.
We're so happy Spice Bridge has arrived —and look forward to supporting this global community of talented, inspiring chefs.
Looking to support more small businesses like Spice Bridge? We're proud to collaborate with Intentionalist, an online guide that makes it easier for you to find/connect with diverse local businesses owned by women, people of color, veterans, members of the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities.