Dig into a heaping plate of spiced teff with charred kale, fried okra, and harissa and date-braised lamb prepared by a local chef. Mingle with other Roxbury residents at mixers and community meetings. Or choose from fresh cuts of lamb, mutton, and beef in the well-stocked halal butchery.
That’s the invitation Ismail Samad and Yusuf Yassin are extending to customers at Nubian Markets, their fast-casual eatery, grocery store, and community space centered on the African diaspora. Slated to open in Nubian Square this summer, the business aims to provide a unique shopping and dining destination in the heart of Boston’s Black community.
“To be able to create your own adventure of the African diaspora is one of the most unique food experiences you’re going to get in Boston,” said Samad, whose roles include founding culinary director of local nonprofit grocery chain Daily Table. “We need what Nubia means to the Black diaspora to show up through the Black and brown folks that are here in Nubian Square.”
Building the market of their dreams comes with a unique set of challenges. The two Black entrepreneurs must strike a fine balance, laying a foundation for their shop that doesn’t displace the mom-and-pop stores embedded in the Square’s cultural fabric, and crafting a high-quality grocer experience that’s also affordable for a wide array of consumers.
“This is more than a business,” said Yassin, an entrepreneur who manages Ascia Kitchen in the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. “I want people to see this place as theirs.”
The idea for Nubian Markets began several years ago, when Samad and Yassin, acquainted through their work with Dorchester-based food business incubator CommonWealth Kitchen, sought out operating roles at a Good Food Markets store planned for Nubian Square. The two Muslim men hoped to tweak the D.C.-based neighborhood grocery store by not serving alcohol, offering halal food, and, most importantly, offering an overdue “dignified dining and shopping experience” to Black people.
Samad said racist assumptions have kept white supermarket chains from opening stores in Black neighborhoods. Structural racism has kept BIPOC businesses from the capital needed to grow and thrive. Plus, he said, advertising for upscale grocers in the United States often targets white consumers. Because of these factors, Samad said, many Black people are excluded from a high-quality market experience.
“The standard of markets in our communities needs to be raised,” said Samad, who since the pandemic has relocated to the Cleveland area to be near family. “I’m interested in creating spaces that engender dignity, are curated by us, and are for us.”
After the murder of George Floyd in summer 2020 and the racial reckonings the tragedy engendered, Samad and Yassin realized that operating a Black-focused business under white owners wasn’t enough; they wanted the business to be fully theirs.
“When you don’t own the building, you’re basically working to pay the landlords,” Yassin said.
Nubian Markets’ funders, including Boston Medical Center, the Local Enterprise Assistance Fundand Massachusetts Housing Investment Corporation, agreed to transfer ownership over to Samad and Yassin. Nicole Obi, president and CEO of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, said support from the Black community as well as from institutions are key for BIPOC-owned businesses like Nubian Markets to remain open and grow.
“This is where our allies come into play,” Obi said. “We see this as foundational, and required to help close the racial wealth gap.”
The owners said they, in turn, hope to build wealth in Nubian Square by hiring from the community, and by prioritizing products from Black farmers and traders. They also hope to offer opportunities to invest in Nubian Markets through NFTs, or nonfungible tokens that can be sold and traded, that would offer specialized products like a personalized meal or artwork from a local Black artist.
Obi said Samad and Yassin’s innovative ideas could contribute to the neighborhood’s economic development.
“Not only are they generating revenue and paying taxes,” Obi said. “They’re also, in many cases, hiring Black and brown people.”
Nubian Markets will join a handful of mom-and-pop food shops in and near the Square, including Tropical Foods on Melnea Cass Boulevard, which offers products for Latin American, African American, West Indian, and African cuisine, and International Halal Market on Tremont Street, which advertises beef, goat, chicken, fish, and lamb. Suya Joint on Dudley Street offers West African dining, takeout, and catering services.
The introduction of another business catering to the African diaspora has raised some concerns about its impact on existing shops. But some, including Suya Joint’s owner, Cecelia Lizotte, see Nubian Markets as a chance for opportunity, not competition. Lizotte said the market could help her restaurant by attracting more people interested in African cuisine to the business district.
“Nubian Square is a dead zone,” Lizotte said. “The more people we can get into Roxbury, the better.”
Segun Idowu, Boston’s chief of economic opportunity and inclusion, said that having similar shops close to one another isn’t always a bad thing.
“I don’t see them cannibalizing one another, but, in fact, supporting one another,” Idowu said.
The new market is situated in a place of change, and some contention, in the neighborhood. It will occupy a ground-floor commercial space at Bartlett Place, an 8.6-acre former MBTA bus yard that was once a blank canvas for graffiti artists, sculptors, and creatives. Nuestra Comunidad and local developers demolished the site in 2015 to make way for the residential and retail space there today.
But Kai Grant, a cofounder of retail incubator Black Market, which has partnered with Nubian Markets, said it’s important that the community look forward, and welcome businesses that could move the neighborhood in a positive direction.
“It’s up to the residents to be courageous, not lead with fear, and see ourselves in Nubian Square’s future,” Grant said.
Roz Freeman, Nubian Markets’ operations manager, said that having owners with ties to the local community who reflect its needs and concerns will help mitigate the forces of gentrification in Roxbury.
“We want this to be for the people already here,” Freeman said. “Not the ones that are coming.”
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Freeman guided a visitor through the unfinished storefront. In the market area, those hoping to make their own meals or grab something quick can pick up to-go meals, locally grown produce, and food products from the African diaspora like puff-puff and injera. Shelves near the front of the grocery area, Freeman said, would hold items produced by other local entrepreneurs.
In the fast casual area, customers could build their own plate of grains, vegetables, and protein or try chef’s dishes inspired by different regions of Africa and its diaspora. Their menu will change according to seasons, product availability, and farmers’ surplus.
“You’re going from Ethiopia to Mississippi,” Samad said. “Today, I’ll get some fufu. Tomorrow, I’ll get some mofongo.”
Though their plans won’t be certain until Nubian Markets opens its doors, the team is confident that their shop will challenge the status quo.
“There’s a moment for disruption,” Samad said.