Small businesses in Kalamazoo navigate South Westnedge construction

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

KALAMAZOO, MI — “True Shawarma King lovers will always find a way back to the kingdom,” posted Facebook user Aaron Geller. This was the most liked comment from a March 6th Victorian Bakery post referencing the Shawarma King restaurant on South Westenedge in Kalamazoo. 

Victorian Bakery owner, Maria Brennan, originally from Palmerstown in Dublin Ireland, says it is important for immigrant-owned small businesses to support each other “because it is a culture shock for any of us coming over. Especially those whose English isn’t their first language.”

Molhem Tayara and Wajih Elkhochen are two of the three owners of Shawarma King on South Westnedge. Brennan showed that support by baking fatayer, a type of small savory hand pie, with one of the current Shawarma King owners, Molhem Tayara, when he moved to the Kalamazoo area in June 2016. Tayara grew up in Syria, but fled to the country Jordan in 2012, because of the danger of the Syrian Civil War. Tayara worked in a bakery in Jordan for three and a half years before moving to the United States and has been interested in cooking for others since he was 14 years old working in a restaurant in Syria. Tayara says that cooking is a way to share one’s heritage, and is “really nice because when you show somebody the food, you show him the good side of the culture.” 
Shawarma King is a family-owned and operated business. One of the owners' daughters rolls silverware in preparation for the lunch rush.Shawarma King #3 as they are listed on their Facebook, also known as the Shawarma King buffet on Westnedge, has been a staple in the Kalamazoo food scene for decades. If you need convincing about its popularity, you can scroll through the formerly referenced Facebook post which garnered over 5,000 likes, 2,500 shares, 570 comments, and who knows how many saves and screenshots in just over a week. The power of social media is not lost on the Shawarma King owner. Tayara says that he could not be more thankful to the Kalamazoo community and Victorian Bakery for the post's engagement. 

The first step in finding your way around the construction to Thrive and Shawarma King making it past the busy intersection of Whites Road and Southwest. You are still allowed to turn left onto Cork! If you have driven in Kalamazoo since early March, you may have noticed that traffic is denser in the Westnedge Hill neighborhood side streets, Burdick Street, and Oakland Drive. The Kalamazoo City project, described on their website as “a coordinated infrastructure project on Westnedge Avenue,” launched on March 4, and will continue for the next six months. A major water main will be replaced and sections of the road will be rebuilt, including the intersection of Whites Road and South Westnedge.

The $10 million-plus dollar project is likely necessary, but small businesses like Shawarma King, and the newly opened Thrive Adult Day Center that rely on the traffic from northbound Westnedge have to find ways around to ensure customers can reach their businesses.

Shawarma King and Thrive are only a parking lot away from each other, and both previously had main entrance access to South Westnedge. Thrive Adult Day Center, 2901 S. Westnedge Ave., is connected to Shawarma King by a parking lot, and both businesses use a main entrance off of South Westnedge. Thrive, which celebrated its grand opening on March 11, 2024, will provide supervised care and companionship to older adults who feel they need these services, and for those whose caregivers need support. Thrive founder and owner Sarita Alexander knows firsthand what it is like to care for a loved one, and just need a break sometimes. 

“I had mom while I was working. I just need someone to stay with her while I was at work.” Alexander is a trained nurse and told Second Wave that the unit will be secure and staffed by trained caregivers, but not locked, a key difference between the day center and a nursing home or assisted living facility.  Alexander says she is “thinking positive thoughts” when it comes to the construction on Westnedge. 

Thrive founder and owner Sarita Alexander sits smiling, ready to welcome new patrons. Victorian Bakery was warned in advance of the close of Park Street in downtown Kalamazoo last year when the main road closed for four months. “Our business just dropped 80 percent in one day,” says Brennan. When asked how long it took to recoup the business, Brennan was quick to say that she had an emergency fund in place, but it “took maybe four months to make up our numbers. But we had farmers' markets and wholesale orders. The wholesale orders went up because more people were purchasing things at Sawalls.” 

Brennan says that Kalamazoo City employees came to the bakery and other Northside neighborhood businesses and explained the road construction plan. Shortly before the work began, the city also distributed maps with alternate routes for the businesses to use to explain the temporary changes to their customers. 

Now that the road is blocked, the intersection of South Westnedge Avenue and Whitcomb Street is busy as traffic from Burger King, Shawarma King, and anyone who is turning around converges. Tayara and his fellow Shawarma King owners Wajih Elkhochen and Moufid Elkachin join Thrive’s Alexander in sharing that both businesses were not contacted directly by the city concerning the half-year construction on Westnedge.

Alexander says she learned about the construction and how long it would last right before the roadwork started, during a fire marshall inspection of her new business space. As a Black woman who is opening Kalamazoo’s first Black-owned adult day center, Alexander said she is worried about how the construction will impact her new business.  

A detour map for reaching South Westnedge businesses blocked by construction.Shawarma King has experienced a steady flow of business since last week's viral Facebook post, and Tayara hopes that it will continue long enough to help them through the bulk of the Westnedge construction. When asked about contingency plans, Tayara says that posting more on social media is a priority. 

Thrive says at this point there is no contingency plan. Without the help and resources of the City of Kalamazoo, these businesses will need to rely upon the community to support them. Even with a possible difficult year ahead, Tayara mirrors Alexander’s positivity as he asserts “Kalamazoo community is the greatest community.”

You can learn more about the businesses mentioned in this article:

Shawarma King 2925 S Westnedge Ave Kalamazoo, MI 49008 

Thrive Adult Day Center 2901 S Westnedge Ave Kalamazoo, MI 49008

Victorian Bakery 512 N Park St Kalamazoo, MI 49007
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Read more articles by Casey Grooten.

Casey Grooten is a Kalamazoo native who lived in the Vine and Stuart neighborhoods for over a decade and graduated from WMU with a Bachelors in English. Casey lives in Kalamazoo and spends their free time making artwork and music. Casey is passionate about social justice and equity, transgender rights, community events, and the arts.