Beatrice Ajaero always knew she wanted to be a food entrepreneur and use food as a vehicle to share heritage with her community.
And that’s exactly what the small business owner is doing with her newly opened businesses, Ibari and Nneji, that center West African fine goods and cuisine.
“After my studies and after learning a lot about Astoria through my siblings, I thought that the history of heritage sharing here made it a good fit for our first brick and mortar,” Ajaero, a 29-year-old native of Roosevelt Island whose family is from Nigeria, told QNS.
That first brick and mortar is Ibari, a shop located at 26-16 23rd Ave., which Ajaero opened in September of 2019, after obtaining a law degree and an M.B.A.
The small yet elegant space — its storefront adorned with two pale yellow signs, one with the tagline “Bring the world home” — has an array of items, all meticulously curated by Ajaero.
They carry skincare items like their widely popular raw shea butter and black soap (for $4 each); food items like chocolates, teas, oils and spices; clothing items like jewelry, colorful handbags (designed by Ajaero’s mother and stitched by a Colombian bag maker that so happens to be their neighbor), textiles and traditional garments; as well as other items like musical instruments.
Ajaero has a network of distributors who import the items she sells, most of which come from West African countries like Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, Mali, Niger and Morocco and East African countries like Sudan and Egypt. There are also items from Middle Eastern countries like Turkey and European countries like the Czech Republic.
The name Ibari comes from Nigeria’s Igbo language, meaning “joyful exuberance” or the “height of joy,” according to Ajaero.
The store, in many ways, is an extension to their vendor space on Roosevelt Island’s Farmers Market. Ajaero said they still consider that space their flagship, as they often showcase their new items there first and get feedback from community members.
“Our market is central to our business,” she said. “We get the raw feedback from our neighbors who tell us very directly how they feel about every part of the business. So we’re very responsive to them, because they’ve helped us grow and be here.”
It was because of some of that feedback that she then decided to open Nneji, a small restaurant with bright orange walls on the inside that lends itself perfectly for takeout and delivery, located at 32-20 34th Ave. — just three stops away from Ibari on the N train.
Other fan-favorites include the West African red stew with meat and spicy goat stew. The menu includes grains like jollof rice, fonio and garri to complement the soups, as well as baked goods by Astoria’s Rose & Joe’s Italian Bakery.
Nneji also offers products such as glass packaged savory sauces, oils, international spices and grains.
Ajaero noted that they created their menu, much like Ibari, to express the idea of “Africa and beyond” or the ways in which shared food traditions connect people in all parts of the world.
“There are items that we hope show people familiar pieces in their cultures,” Ajaero said. “Oil, spice, tea — these are things that we can see in just about every culture. It helped us sort of remember how small the world is.”
The name Nneji is another Igbo term, which can simply mean “mother,” but for Ajaero, it more accurately translates to “May I never be disconnected from my maternal heritage.”
The sentiment reflects the storefront sign’s tagline: “Africa. Food. Kindred.”
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While Ibari was already open once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Nneji opened in June of 2020, in the midst of the unprecedented time.
Ajaero said that while it was a tumultuous period that required many adjustments, a core team of herself and three family members helped the business weather the storm of the pandemic “by keeping operations lean.” She also cites the Small Business Administration’s resources and guidance as a great help.
But the business woman places more importance on her community and family’s well-being, particularly during the height of the pandemic when they made sure their network was safe and fed.
Now, Ajaero is grateful for the support she’s received from the immediate community — from customers to partnerships with fellow businesses and advocacy groups like Queens Together.
“From day one, so many people came by and just deposited a quarter in our growth and welcomed us to the neighborhood,” she said. “They really gave us so much positive energy to go forward.”