This is where the Westminster Economic Development Initiative, or WEDI, came in. WEDI is the association that operates the bazaar, a business incubator. With a waiting list of over 120 entrepreneurs hoping to secure indoor space, the bazaar is WEDI’s most public project. From the long list of hopeful business owners applying for a booth 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 booth in the bazaar, they can stay until they have the resources, confidence, and clientele to move to their own physical location or move to an online store. .
The initiative helps new business owners and bazaar tenants obtain microloans, establish credit and complete business training. Its public programs are helpful to those on the bazaar’s waiting list, as they can begin to learn the skills they’ll need to run a business before their stall applications are approved – a process that depends on the location. graduation from another stand. In terms of economic development, WEDI distributes grants and is also certified to organize microloans that help new business owners and those who have no credit or who have bad credit. Each microloan is accompanied by a business relationship manager to support new business owners on their entrepreneurial journey. “One of the things [WEDI is] after helps people avoid predatory lenders,” says Erin St. John Kelly, Director of External Relations at WEDI. “The goal is to get people into real banking situations. So we grant these microcredits in order to bring people to real banks so that they can build up credit.
WEDI’s business-focused microloans and 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 afraid to open a business. After starting WEDI here, all Grant [Street] area has become occupied by refugee business owners,” says Gemmeda.
Owning a business can be empowering and life-changing, especially for immigrants like Htay Naing, who has been saving money for years in hopes of one day owning a restaurant. “It was my dream to one day open a restaurant, no matter how big or small,” says Naing, owner of Nine & Night Thai Cuisine in the bazaar. Naing is originally from Rakhine State in Burma (now Myanmar), but emigrated from Malaysia to the United States in 2013, where he worked in a nearby town as a dishwasher and a waiter. He applied for a bazaar stall after hearing about WEDI from Maung Maung, a friend he had worked with at a Chinese restaurant in Malaysia who runs 007 Chinese Food at the bazaar, which specializes in dim sum. Naing was waitlisted for three years before launching Nine & Night, which became a smash hit at the bazaar and remained popular throughout the pandemic as Naing expanded its takeout operation with the help from WEDI.
Naing’s booming business enabled him to bring his wife, May, to the United States. Together they own a house in the suburb of Kenmore, just north of Buffalo, and have a one-year-old daughter. When Naing hosted a second wedding celebration in the United States to introduce his wife to the Burmese community in Buffalo, bazaar operations manager Mike Moretti attended, speaking of the close relationships forged at the bazaar.