Editor's Note: This story is part of a series supported by Northern Initiatives that uplifts equitable small businesses and their ecosystems in Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Grand Rapids.
Suipi (Sweepee), a Burmese immigrant in Battle Creek who loves to cook, thought she was about to be in business in 2017 when she acquired a building for the restaurant she long dreamed of owning. It did open — six years later.
Suipi, 49, who seems to have a permanent big smile, is a model of perseverance.
Her given name is Za Nei Thuai but she’s always called Suipi. In 2013 she went to Battle Creek from Burma (now called Myanmar) and joined the Burmese American residents there, now estimated to number 3,000. The Battle Creek Burmese community is the largest in Michigan, having started around 1980 when a local church sponsored the immigration of a refugee. Most of the Burmese immigrants fled political and religious oppression and persecution.
Suipi worked full-time in a manufacturing plant and became known for her extraordinary catering skills. She says she once led the catering for an event that fed 1,800 people.
Diners at Suipi’s are served lunch.
To keep working on her dream restaurant, Suipi needed help. She got a lot of it, including a loan to complete the remodeling of her building and prepare to operate the restaurant. Financial help came from Northern Initiatives
, based in Marquette and serving all of Michigan. Northern Initiatives is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), which is a lender active in minority communities plus areas of persistent poverty. CDFIs provide financing for communities where conventional lending businesses traditionally don’t invest.
Suipi was assisted by Jenny Mualhlun, a Burmese American who came to the U.S. when she was 12 and now is a business coach for Northern Initiatives. Mualhlun says, “She thought running a business was going to be as simple as how it was back in Burma; as soon as you can occupy a building, then you can be up and running. She didn’t know anything about the building codes, the health department requirements, all of those things. It is an old building; it needed a lot of improvement.”
Mualhlun adds, “She never had a credit card.” Suipi says, “I thought I would work hard and save money and then I would purchase everything without a credit card.”
Halfway through a lunch for two.
Suipi experienced most of the difficulties and endured the typical challenges of an owner of a building being fixed up, but one event was unique. The outdoor unit of the new air-conditioning system was stolen. Mualhlun says, “But then she has such a positive outlook on life that she just said that maybe they need it more than me.”
John Hart, Battle Creek’s director of the City of Battle Creek's Small Business Development
, has long worked with Suipi. He once saw a do-it-yourself handicap ramp at the back of her building that wasn’t close to being correctly constructed. “I told her, ‘We have to get a plan together because we have to go through plan review,’” Hart says. “Then we have to get the permits. Once that’s approved then you have to hire a contractor to build it. I was able to use a small amount of grant money to get the plan together, have it pass plan review, get permits, pull the permits, and then have the contractor build it.”
A cozy corner of East End Eatery.
“We didn’t want her to lose that building before she could even start,” Hart says. As city departments, Northern Initiatives, the Burma Center
, and others worked with Suipi, they began to understand the barriers and types of support Burmese American entrepreneurs needed.
Suipi now says, “Everybody had to come check my business — the inspectors, everybody worked hard for me. So I want to thank everybody. I feel in my heart that was not easy for them.”
Also not easy for anybody was two years of restricted human activity because of COVID-19.
Sharing is Suipi’s way of life. She often donates a catering fee to the Burma Center and she is a volunteer cook for a homeless shelter that regularly serves 80 to 100 meals daily. “They are my customers, too,” she says.
Her restaurant, called Suipi’s East End Eatery
, opened last May at 915 Territorial Rd. W. She is easing into the business operation, purposely delaying a grand opening until later this year. Burmese cuisine is a blend of Thai, Chinese, and Indian cooking with rice and noodles figuring prominently. One description is sour, salty, and spicy. In the recent Food Prize competition in Battle Creek, Suipi’s was among the 12 finalist food entrepreneurs and ultimately won fourth place, securing a $2,500 prize. During the recent Restaurant Week, Suipi’s got the most public votes for best noodles.
Burmese in Battle Creek
It took a long time for many of the Burmese in Battle Creek to feel like they belonged in the community. This began changing in 2011 when the W.K. Kellogg Foundation
, based in the city, gave a two-year $400,000 grant for the establishment of the Burmese American Initiative, a nonprofit organization focused on fostering a sense of belonging and building relationships between Burmese families. This led to the creation of the Burma Center at 765 Upton Ave. in Springfield, an incorporated enclave in Battle Creek.
At the back of the dining room is the kitchen.
Among the center’s many services is Catching the Dream Learning Center
, which provides educational services to Burmese American children up to age 5. It is the only such school in the United States.
John Hart, the small business development director, praises the Burmese who have settled in Battle Creek. “They were lifting neighborhoods’ value,” he says. “They would go in and make improvements with houses and it was bolstering the housing market. Then other members of the community were like, ‘OK, that looks great. That was a sound investment so now I’ll make an investment.’”
More on Northern Initiatives and W.K. Kellogg Foundation
Northern Initiatives (NI) and the Kellogg Foundation have long worked together, with NI finding worthy entrepreneurs and Kellogg giving grants to assist them. The two partners also work together to help would-be business owners figure out exactly what they want to do and then create a plan for getting it done. This is accomplished by offering three to four business-planning cohorts annually with each 10-week course having 10 to 15 participants.