Success stories

Suipi’s East End Eatery

Battle Creek, Michigan

Za Nei Thuai knows her gift is feeding people. “God gave me the talent to cook,” says the 49-year-old Burmese refugee known as Suipi (Swee-Pee).

Suipi's East End Eatery in Battle Creek got a small business loan from Northern Initiatives.She was only 4 when she first realized food builds bridges. She was at a wedding with more than 10,000 guests. “They killed 13 buffalo for it,” she remembers, “but the ceremony took too long and people were sooooo hungry.” A chef spotted tiny Suipi and let her eat. “I saw just how powerful that can be.”

Now she’s the one building bridges with food, regularly feeding 1,000 people at a time at events throughout the year, preparing meals for people experiencing homelessness, and now – finally – serving eat-in and take-out meals five days a week at Suipi’s East End Eatery.

In 2013, when Suipi immigrated to Battle Creek, she joined extended family, worked in a factory and began feeding friends and family out of her home kitchen. In 2017, she bought a building that housed a former diner. What she thought was the end game was just the beginning.

“The City of Battle Creek loves me the most because they’ve helped me so much,” Suipi laughs. That’s not far off, says John Hart, Development Director of Small Business Development. “When the City decided to form a small business development office, we modeled many of our services based on our initial experiences assisting Suipi.”

Suipi's East End Eatery in Battle Creek got a small business loan from Northern Initiatives.For instance, after the City inspected Suipi’s building and found it needed major improvements, Hart asked her if she had funding. That lead to the introduction to Northern Initiatives. “I didn’t want to take a loan,” Suipi says, “but this was my dream since I was young.” An SBA Community Advantage loan, using funds from the Battle Creek Small Business Loan Fund, helped Suipi refinance the land contract and get to work on improvements.

“We didn’t want her to lose that building before she could even start,” Hart says, but there were still hurdles to clear. As the City, Northern Initiatives, the Burma Center and others worked with Suipi, they began to understand the barriers and the types of support Burmese-American entrepreneurs needed.

Northern Initiatives Business Coach Jenny Mualhlun was among those helping Suipi, even before she worked for NI. “The business plan was not easy,” Jenny remembers. “Talking about yourself is not part of our culture.”

Suipi's East End Eatery in Battle Creek got a small business loan from Northern Initiatives.Northern Initiatives Commercial Lender Kellie Hoffman says the loan took longer than usual to close, as everyone worked through language barriers, supply chain issues, equipment shortages, the theft of an A/C unit, and rising costs on everything. “Things took so long her business model ended up changing,” Kellie says. “She was originally going to open an American-style diner, but now she’s serving delicious Burmese food.”

Burmese cuisine is a wonderful blend of Thai, Chinese, and Indian cuisines, says Jenny, with rice and noodles figuring prominently. It is often characterized as chin ngan sat, which means “sour, salty, and spicy.”

Suipi is gently opening her restaurant this summer while still catering weddings and other events with upwards of 1,000 guests. She regularly donates her entire catering fee back to the Burma Center.

One of her other gifts is remembering everyone’s favorite food, “even if they ate it 10 years ago,” Jenny laughs.

“Jenny’s is bayar kyaw (Burmese version of falafel) plus veg and no oil,” Suipi rattles off.

 

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