Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
A Burmese restaurant in Battle Creek’s Washington Heights neighborhood is feeding the soul of an area that has an appetite for growth and positive change.
In August, the restaurant, Shwe Mandalay Burmese Cuisine, opened in a 3,300-square-foot building that once housed Tony’s Chop Suey at 415 W. Michigan Ave. It was a two-year journey that began when Jennifer Cole, a banker at the time, decided to go all in with a dream that her family had.
“My brother and his wife and my youngest sister Amanda had this dream that they wanted to pursue and I came into the picture in 2017,” she says. “I joined the partnership. I was working for the bank in the corporate world and my family needed me because a restaurant is very complex.
“You can work for someone else or work for yourself with your family helping. I always look out for family first. I decided to take a risk and I joined them.”
Risk-taking is not new to Cole who fled her native Burma and arrived in Battle Creek in 2001 at the age of 19 with one suitcase and $100. She is one of more than 3,000 Burmese residents who fled their native country to get away from political persecution and human rights violations to settle in Battle Creek. They are part of a movement that began more than 30 years ago when members of the city’s First Baptist Church agreed to sponsor the Thawnghmung family, who Cole is related to.
“I came here as a refugee. The government settled us here and I had family here, so it worked better,” Cole says.
Like so many refugees, she and her family were searching for a place where they would have better opportunities and a better life. Her father died while Cole was making her way to the United States, but the rest of her family – mother, brother, and two sisters – now call Battle Creek “home.”
The growth of the community’s Burmese population was the driving force behind the family’s decision to open the restaurant. These residents are a part of more than 10 different congregations in the community.
“There are lots of church events, weddings, and birthday celebrations, and we see that as a need that we could fill,” Cole says. “There are Burmese residents who want to go out and eat the food they grew up with. We have so many other restaurants like Chinese, Mexican, and Thai, and there was definitely a need for this.”
She describes Burmese cuisine as being similar to Indian, Chinese, or Thai, food. Servers at Shwe Mandalay are taught to have conversations with their customers to gauge their comfort level with options on the menu, which include noodles and curry dishes.
“Some people really want to stay in the safe zone and for them we would recommend fried rice or tea leaf salad as a place to start. First, we see what the customers’ needs are and we go from there,” Cole says. “Battle Creek is very familiar with our food, as well, and we think Battle Creek is ready.”
But, Shwe Mandalay is more than a restaurant, says John Hart, Small Business Development director for the City of Battle Creek.
Jennifer Cole finishes up an order during the lunch rush.
“That’s a community making an investment in another community and trying to make a difference,” Hart says. “We’re going to build upon their success and try and create something around them. Everyone should be excited that they’ve taken that restaurant and reinvigorated it. They will now be a catalyst for other people to make investments.”
Cole and her family had originally been looking for property to lease along Capital or Columbia avenues to be closer to Burmese residents who live in close proximity to those major corridors. Her husband, Roger, a local Realtor, pointed out that a leasing arrangement would mean they would have to install their own restaurant equipment and there was the potential for a landlord to increase their rent.
The family partners next looked for property downtown because of the city’s efforts to revitalize that district but weren’t able to find anything that was available without a lease.
They settled on their present location and closed on the purchase in April 2016, because it was within their price range and would not require major investments in necessities such as restaurant equipment.
“You always hope that someone will take an asset and not just drive it into the ground, or accept it and not put anything in, but use it as an asset and raise the market that it’s in,” Hart says. “This is an example of someone taking an initial investment and reinvigorating it and bringing it up. It’s showing confidence in the market if someone else is going in.”
Hart and his team are focusing their small business development efforts on multiple business districts within the community and the health of the business districts and the neighborhoods they are in. The use of strategies designed to create a sense of place, pride and image building, and infrastructure, development, are among the tools being deployed in smaller business districts such as West Michigan Avenue where Shwe Mandalay Burmese Cuisine can be found.
Hart says a focus is being placed on efforts to remove blight, pairing developers and real estate holders with small businesses, and working with small businesses on a business model that will sustain their efforts.
“These businesses are critical to the survival of each other,” he says. “If we can cure the ills in these districts, business should get better.”
Cole says she hopes neighborhood residents will feel good about having a fine dining business in Washington Heights that is contributing to the revitalization and bringing in people from communities such as Ann Arbor, Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo.
“We have a lot of senior citizens dining here which is indication that they feel it’s a good and safe place to be,” Cole says.
Hart says he wasn’t surprised that Cole and her family wanted to open the restaurant. He says he is working with other potential Burmese business owners.
“There are multiple business districts within Washington Heights. We’re in the process of working with property owners along that West Michigan corridor,” Hart says. “We’re trying to take this approach where we’re looking at the geography and defining that area that’s declaring itself as a district.
“We want to do it in digestible pieces. The focus of our work is where we think multiple people will be investing over the years.”
Although Cole says what she has gone through to get to this point has not been a “piece of cake”, she says the Battle Creek community has been welcoming and she and her family received a lot of support and resources from organizations such as Hart’s, Generation E and Western Michigan University’s Small Business Development Center.
Like many immigrants, her American Dream included going to college right away and getting a good job. Those dreams took a hiatus after her father’s death put the responsibility for her family’s well-being squarely on her shoulders.
“I knew I would need to adapt and accept the reality that I would have to put that dream on hold,” she says.
Before leaving Burma, she completed high school. For 10 years after relocating to Battle Creek, she was employed by Denso as a line worker. In 2011, she co-founded the Burma Center with Martha Thawnghmung, a relative who now heads up the center and started attending Kellogg Community College where she earned a two-year degree before going on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Business Management from Siena Heights University.
She and her husband have been married for three years and met while they were both working at the local manufacturer of automotive air conditioning and engine cooling components and systems. He serves many roles at the restaurant, including handyman and host.
About 20 percent of the restaurant’s business is take-out, with the remainder being dine-in customers.
Cole is the head chef and comes in well before the restaurant opens to prep food for the day. Her sister, Amanda Sunthang, serves as CEO and does a little bit of everything, including waiting on and serving customers. Her mother and sister-in-law, Shiang Thuahzathang, are cooks and her brother, Stan Thuahzathang, is the “money guy”, serving as a silent partner.
But, Cole is quick to point out that her family is just one example of what the city’s Burmese population is contributing to Battle Creek’s culture and economy. She says 99 percent of Burmese work, many of them at companies in Fort Custer Industrial Park, where they are able to make a decent living and become homeowners.
Originally from the Albion area, Roger Cole says it’s common in the Burmese culture to have the whole family involved in a business enterprise even though that might seem a little bit unusal to some Americans.
“When you run a business this way, it’s a little bit of a different dynamic,” he says. “A good part of it is that we all know our strengths and weaknesses. As long as we know how to put the puzzle together. We’re a good team.”
Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Battle Creek” series amplifies the voices of Battle Creek residents. In coming months, Second Wave journalists will be in Battle Creek neighborhoods to explore topics of importance to residents, business owners, and other members of the community. To reach the editor of this series, Jane Simons, please email her here or contact Second Wave managing editor Kathy Jennings here.