In a recent Vanity Fair article, Groupon founder Andrew Mason is described as “the type of guy who comes up with wild ideas that often have no beginning or end, and then lets them rip.” Recent billionaire stories like Mason’s have built a specific image associated with the word “entrepreneur.” Often, it calls to mind educated, smart-alecky white guys with highly developed tech skills.
Somalia-born business owner Said Dubed may represent a different demographic of entrepreneurs than 30-year-old Mason, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to describe him, too, as “a guy who comes up with wild ideas…and then lets them rip.”
Dubed’s Far Janna market sits near the northeastern corner of University and 54th Street. The shelves are sparsely stocked with Jif peanut butter, Comet cleaning products, and a range of jars, cans, and bottles bearing Arabic writing. Beneath the foreign (to me) script, one glass jar reads “Labneh in oil.” Inside, white balls float in a clear, yellow liquid.
The approximately 1000-square-foot space looks sparse now, but Dubed assures me, I would have been shocked to see it six months ago.
“I started from empty,” he says. “For the first four months, I only sold drinks. Like Arizona [Iced Tea], Coke, stuff like that.”
A year ago, Dubed bought this market over the phone. From Atlanta, Georgia. The move was bold not only because of the distance, but also because he’d never seen the store, didn’t know the man he’d bought it from, and knew little about San Diego except that it had a large Somali community.
In Atlanta, where he’d lived since his family arrived in the U.S., Dubed had worked as a taxi driver and a produce seller (at a farmers’ market). He’d received a certificate in electronics assembly and taken some classes at Atlanta Metropolitan College, but when the distance from work to school proved too great and the schedules too competitive, he chose work over school. In addition to his weekday jobs, Dubed bought clothes at clearance prices and sold them on the street for a small profit on weekends.
During those Atlanta years, Dubed visited relatives in San Diego three times. In early 2010, when he decided he “was tired of living in Atlanta,” he began to think seriously about moving to San Diego.
“I thought it would be a better life here,” he says, his voice soft and gravelly. “I wanted to do business. It’s hard [in Atlanta]. Here, it’s still hard, but over there, they don’t have a lot of Somali people.”
Dubed says he would have been happy owning one of three businesses: a Mediterranean restaurant, an electronics shop of the AT&T or T-Mobile sort, or a grocery store. In February 2010, a friend called from San Diego and told him about a building at the edge of City Heights, in the thick of the Somali community. It had once been a taco shop and still bore a sign that read “POLLO AL CARBON Mexican Food.” After the taco shop closed, someone else had rented the space and tried their luck at turning it into a grocery store, but that had failed, and now the business was for sale.
“I talked to the business owner by phone, and then I bought it from him.” Dubed shrugs slightly, as if unsure why these details matter.
We’re seated at the red, green, and yellow picnic table in front of the market. It’s not yet 5:00 p.m., and so far, the before-dinner rush hasn’t begun. Dubed’s friend and coworker Mohammed (short and light to Dubed’s tall, thin, and dark) has joined us, in case we need help communicating.
Two weeks after his initial phone call with the business owner, Dubed landed in San Diego, gave the guy $10,000, and promised him another $15,000 later. The deal was that, for as long as he still owed the $15,000, he’d pay $1500 each month. This bought him the key. And with the key came everything left behind by the previously failed market business.
While he’s explaining all this, a man approaches from the sidewalk. He shouts something to Dubed, who flashes him a smile, jumps up, and leads the man inside. Mohammed picks up where Dubed left off.
“So he gets the key, which means everything is ready,” Mohammed says, smiling. “He owns everything inside, the fridges, and everything that’s been done. He didn’t have to do any of the work.”
Mohammed never stops smiling as he tells me how he started out as one of Dubed’s customers, how they began to chat as friends, and how he began to help out every now and again until Dubed hired him. Today, Mohammed’s pretty sure the store wouldn’t run without him.
“I do everything he can’t do.” Mohammed brings me inside, where, after the bright sunlight, our eyes must adjust to the dimness. “I go shopping to get stuff in here. Right now, I’m trying to see what’s missing, so tomorrow morning I can go shopping.” He gestures toward a wooden fruit stand against the wall to the right of the register. “See, like, we’re out of tomatoes and bananas.”
Two more customers come and go, both men. One shows me his two gallon-jugs of milk and explains that he comes to the store “not only because it’s Somali,” but because it’s close enough to his home that he can walk. “I don’t need to drive, and they have everything. Except clothes. At Kmart [across the street] I buy the clothes. Here they have food, drink, milk, meat, chicken.”
Dubed comes back and reminds me that this wasn’t always the case. He didn’t have the money to offer more than drinks until May, when he began to accept Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) checks from those on public assistance.
“When I got EBT, people started coming,” he says. “Most of my customers use EBT. After two more months, I got WIC, and I got more customers. Then I started selling Mexican food. Pollo.”