For years, the fate of the former MBTA bus yard-turned-graffiti oasis in Roxbury seemed uncertain. Neighbors were divided between seeing the Bartlett Place Development as either a potential space to meet the community’s nuanced needs or another hotspot for gentrification.
But on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, dozens rejoiced as Bartlett Place became the official home to Nubian Markets, a fast-casual eatery, grocery store, and community space informed by the African diaspora. Many attendees of the ribbon-cutting ceremony, ranging from residents to developers, considered the event a win for the neighborhood, offering access to fresh, high-quality food options through a business created by, and for, local residents.
“When the businesses that feed our communities are owned by our community, and are rooted in our community, we all benefit,” said Mayor Michelle Wu, who attended the ceremony.
State Senator Liz Miranda presented Nubian Markets’ co-owners, Ismail Samad and Yusuf Yassin, with a state certificate to commemorate the grand opening, and said the business would fulfill a need that’s often unmet in her district.
“For most of us who live in the inner-city communities of Boston, we know how hard it is to find fresh, accessible, affordable, and culturally competent food,” Miranda said. Having a halal butchery, fresh vegetables, and fresh fruits “is only going to make our communities sturdier and stronger.”
Community members have floated the idea of a grocery store at Bartlett Place for years. Earlier in the development process, there were plans to open a D.C.-based grocery store called Good Food Markets at the site, with Samad and Yassin as managers.
Then, a few years ago, the duo decided they wanted more. They pushed to own the space and build a business that reflected the surrounding community, and received what Samad said is “a deal only white people get.”
“There has to come a time that we have to just acknowledge what’s possible,” Samad said. “And if it can happen, invest in it.”
Yassin thanked a long list of contributors to Nubian Markets’ mission, including Boston Medical Center, Local Enterprise Assistance Fund, and Massachusetts Housing Investment Corporation. Such funders, he said, allowed the duo to buy and own the space in which the market will operate.
“If you guys would like to see a continued effort, please support us,” Yassin said. “We’re here to learn and listen.”
Richard Taylor, former vice president of development at FMR Properties, called BMC’s role in the acquisition “unprecedented.” Boston Medical Center provided a $1-million, zero-interest loan in support of a Roxbury grocery store, and helped secure the money needed for Samad and Yassin to purchase the property.
“The only way we can not be displaced is if we own,” Taylor said.
Other speakers at Wednesday’s event said the new market would benefit not only the economic wellbeing of the co-owners, but local residents too. Asim Shakur-DuVall, café manager for Nubian Markets, said the store offers 32 Black-owned products, and plans to add more.
Nubian Markets has hired 50 temporary and 20 permanent employees, said Kai Grant, cofounder of Black Market, a Roxbury-based marketplace focused on supporting local entrepreneurs.
“Nubian Markets is now positioned as one of the premier Black-owned businesses that will help make Nubian Square commercial district a preferred foodie destination,” Grant said.
The new store isn’t the first culinary rodeo for either owner. Yassin operates Ascia Kitchen out of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center’s Roxbury location. Samad is a founding culinary director of local nonprofit grocery chain Daily Table, and has since returned to Cleveland to be near family and tackle food insecurity there.
Nubian Markets sits on Bartlett Place, a 374,000-square-foot mixed-use development replete with rental units, homeownership units, and commercial space.
The store joins a mix of locally owned food stores in the square. Tropical Foods on Melnea Cass Boulevard offers products for Latin American, African American, West Indian, and African cuisine, and International Halal Market on Tremont Street advertises beef, goat, chicken, fish, and lamb. Suya Joint on Dudley Street offers West African dining, takeout, and catering services.
Despite Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, Nubian Markets has operated on a smaller scale for a little over a month. It offered a smaller selection of groceries throughout the month of Ramadan, and fine-tuned its halal butchery and fast casual café options until the official opening.
On Wednesday, though, its shelves were fully stocked, the checkout lines flooded. Its fast-casual area was swamped with customers.
Dozens of visitors wandered the aisles and made note of the variety of products, some of which they’d have to cross neighborhood, city, or even state lines to find previously.
“Finally, a place nearby to get quality food,” remarked Roxbury resident Sheena Caine, as she scanned the many grab-and-go meal options.
For years, Caine has trekked to Whole Foods Market’s South End and Symphony locations for groceries.
“The markets that carry food are not nearby,” Caine said. “You may have to take one or two buses down this way, and another one.”
During her first few visits, she bought chicken, kiwi, ginger, and spinach “which was so good.”
“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” she said.