Editor’s note: This article is another installment of “Invisible Walls,” an ongoing joint project of the Granite State News Collaborative, NH Business Review and Business NH Magazine that describes how exclusionary zoning laws have reinforced areas of persistent poverty, impacting many aspects of community life, including crime, public health, affordable housing and access to economic opportunity in Manchester. The team used Manchester as a case study, but the same sorts of exclusionary zoning practices present in Manchester are common across the state, and likely have had similarly broad effects.
There’s a section of Manchester, Center City, shaped by history and perpetuated by vested property interests, that isn’t like surrounding communities. It’s where Amoskeag’s unskilled laborers, often new immigrants, found their first foothold in tenement housing 150 years ago and where today’s zoning laws stand like invisible walls to consolidate the city’s lowest-income residents.
This part of the city, to the south of Bridge Street, east of Elm, west of Maple and north of Valley, is where multi-family residential is still permitted, while the rest of the city has largely gone single-family. As a result, it’s also where the most affordable apartments can be found and where some of the social problems associated with low-income neighborhoods, such as homelessness and drug-related crime, seem to be consolidated.
And while some look to other parts of the city to start their business, there are entrepreneurs that find Center City fertile ground to grow their business. Those that choose to open shop here have a unique opportunity, not only to tap into an overlooked market, but to spur the betterment of the neighborhood around them.
Foot Traffic Fuels Market
Amjad Rana runs a convenience store, Seven Days Market, on Union Street. He’s owned it since 2005 and purchased it after relocating to Manchester from Milford. At that time, the business was failing, and Rana saw opportunity. “From my experience, I saw the potential of this store,” Rana says. He figured he could turn it around, “and I did it…. We do good here.”
What Rana saw was a store embedded in a neighborhood with substantial foot traffic. That told him that the residents of the community probably didn’t have the option of doing their shopping at the grocery store. They depend on businesses such as Seven Days Market. “That is the key of the convenience store,” Rana says.
There are problems, such as loitering in the alley next to his shop, and theft. He usually loses around $500 in merchandise each month to shoplifters. The majority of his customers, though, are friendly, and he says nine out of 10 are on a first-name basis, usually calling him by his nickname, “Sonny.”
Alex Horton saw her opportunity while still a business student at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. “As I spent more time in Saint A’s, I didn’t see any coffee shops open late for students, or sit-down places to do your work,” she says.
At the time, the downtown area had some boarded-up storefronts and other sights that might have turned other entrepreneurs away. Horton had come to know the neighborhood, though, and saw possibility where others saw challenges.
“I had this feeling that it was an up-and-coming area,” she says. She opened Cafe la Reine, selling coffee drinks, sandwiches and acai bowls, in 2013 on Elm Street. “2019 was our busiest year ever, 2020 was about to be even busier, so I think that I chose correctly,” Horton says. She’s planning to open a second location this year. Horton grew up in Methuen, Mass. and says she was surprised to find that customers who aren’t used to city life are discouraged by a lack of nearby parking. The presence of people experiencing homelessness can create a delicate situation, as her customers want to help people in need, but an act of charity can lead to that person occupying a table for hours. “It snowballs into something the customer didn’t mean to happen,” Horton says, adding that a more lasting solution would be to support the efforts of the city’s homelessness initiatives.
Horton continues to see the city as a dynamic place of opportunity, particularly as some workers return to their offices.
The pandemic was a challenging time for Omar Abouzaid and his wife, Ibtisam Azri, manager and owner, respectively, of Al Basha Mediterranean Grill. Both immigrants from Morocco, Azri and Abouzaid met while master’s students at Southern NH University. Abouzaid began professional life as a corporate accountant, but when the time came for them to start a family, they decided to become entrepreneurs as well as parents.
They opened Al Basha on Valley Street, where they found space for both a food preparation business and an adjacent specialty market. The location offered “exposure on a busy street, plus big space, and it was affordable to us,” Abouzaid says. It’s one of the busiest streets in the city, plus there are several parking spaces for customers.
Yet, they knew success was not guaranteed. “I lived in Manchester for 22 years; I can’t remember a business that lasted more than six months,” at that location, Abouzaid says. “But we said, we’ll take our chance, and we’ll make it work. When you come as an immigrant, you have to make it work. There is no ‘Scenario B’.”
It took adaptability to survive. Their original business plan was to sell catered lunches to large, corporate clients, serving 300 meals per day. That plan went out the window when the pandemic hit. Al Basha pivoted to become a restaurant, with their homemade falafels particularly popular. Abouzaid is preparing to launch a spin-off business, “Falafel by O,” selling the chickpea morsels pan-fried and frozen, marketed through retail and mail-order.
Like Abouzaid, Rafael Lora was also an immigrant working in corporate life, with dreams of entrepreneurship. Lora, who moved to the city from the Dominican Republic in 2008, had a background in sales.
“I always knew in my mind that I wanted to own a business. I did not know what kind,” Lora says. His research led him to purchase the Caribbean Market, which sells food aimed at Spanish, Mexican, Dominican and African cuisines, on Lake Avenue. Lora now owns the store outright and has doubled down on his holdings in Center City by purchasing a laundromat and investing $500,000 in new equipment and renovating the building.
“The reputation of Center City is bad, but I don’t think that’s the reality. I live in Center City, there are good people here,” Lora says. “There are issues like everywhere, but people live safe and secure.”
Lora sees the need for more affordable housing in the central part of the city, as demand isn’t balanced by supply. He says the area could also be improved with better streets and more parking, because many people from outside of the area drive in for prepared foods and ingredients that can’t be found at other restaurants or grocery stores.
Lora and Abouzaid are following in the footsteps of Sandra Almonte, owner of the restaurant Don Quixote on Union Street. She and her former husband started the business in 2000. They moved from New Jersey and saw that there was a multicultural population in a part of the city, with few businesses open to serve them.
Don Quixote was first solely a Dominican restaurant, but quickly shifted to a broader offering, with comforting dishes from Mexico and Central America. “We changed our flavors to really cater to the Latino community in general and not just Dominicans,” Almonte says. As her new neighbors came to know her restaurant, she came to know them. “I felt at home.
The restaurant became my livelihood. I made a point of connecting to the people and getting to know their names and families.”
The pandemic was surprisingly busy for Don Quixote, with the takeout boom tripling overall sales. Almonte might be well-established now, but she still feels a headwind when it comes to attracting clientele from outside of the neighborhood. A recent shooting in the alley next to her business certainly didn’t help. While locals weren’t discouraged, news of such incidents in Center City keeps those outside the neighborhood away. “If you’re not looking for trouble, you won’t be in trouble. But people outside see the news and don’t come in…. It’s because of the stereotyping and [fear] of the crime.”
Sprucing Up the Neighborhood
Small business owners have an opportunity to gain insight into the struggles of their customers. And they find ways to help or to advocate for change, whether it’s offering food for recently resettled refugees, fighting for more affordable housing or agitating City Hall for more frequent trash collection.
Almonte says it isn’t logical for trash collection in densely populated parts of the city to be only as frequent as in the single-family neighborhoods. Doing so only guarantees that garbage will pile up wherever there are apartment buildings, while the other neighborhoods stay clean.
“If garbage was going to be picked up more often in the inner city for people living in triple deckers, that would be a good start,” Almonte says. “Elm Street has garbage cans along the way. Can we have some on Pine Street, Union Street, Chestnut? It’s a start to having a cleaner city.”
Almonte advocates for affordable housing in the city, serving as board chair for NeighborWorks Southern NH, which provides affordable rental housing as well as homeownership and financial wellness education programs. When her workers had difficulty finding affordable housing in Center City, she bought a triple-decker building near the restaurant to provide that.
Almonte wants to change the way people see the densest part of the city. “Before I am old, I am hoping to beautify it, to get more business owners and residents to be homeowners.” If so, she says, they will be better caretakers and neighborhood advocates than the absentee landlords. She envisions the litter replaced by trees and green space.
It’s a smart entrepreneur who gives low-income areas careful consideration, says Heather McGrail, president and CEO of the Greater Manchester Chamber. The opportunity is there because so many others have looked elsewhere first.
“In comparison to other, more affluent sections of the city, there is dramatically less competition,” McGrail says. Many low-income neighborhoods are scarce in services that are prevalent in other parts of the city. “Retail, financial services and personal services are often poorly represented in these underserved areas. By fulfilling unmet needs, a new business can gain a loyal following quickly,” she says.
If the business can gain fluency with the unique character and culture of nearby residents, it can be “predictive of success,” McGrail says.
That said, there are also limitations to consider when serving a customer base of limited means—products or services should be priced within the financial reach of the intended market, McGrail says. “We strongly advise that the entrepreneur consider the ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic make-up of the community when designing the business plan.”
In coming to the neighborhood, a new business brings not just a new service or product, but new vitality, and could be a catalyst for community betterment, McGrail says. “A successful business has the power to positively change the fabric of an underserved community and spark the ripple effect of revitalization. When a new business chooses to locate its establishment in a less privileged section of the city, the impact can be truly meaningful and dramatic for the people who live there,” she says.
Editor Matthew J. Mowry contributed to this article.
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. It was edited by Business NH Magazine, a partner in the collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.