The Mexican food didn’t last long. After four months, the guys he’d hired to make the pollo “got locked up,” and he lost the customers he’d originally gained from their food.
In December, Dubed went to the International Rescue Committee looking for a loan to stock his shelves with the things he’d need to draw in more customers. But the organization needed to see him settle some other matters first.
Turns out, $1000 of the $1500 Dubed paid to the business owner each month went to the landlord for rent. But the other $500 had not gone toward the $15,000 he owed the business owner.
“The bottom line of the situation,” Joel Chrisco of the organization’s microenterprise program later tells me, “is that when [Dubed] started the business, he was in there informally without a lease agreement. He was unfamiliar with how business lease agreements worked or the importance of having a signed lease. He followed his dream of opening a market without really knowing all the legal and regulatory requirements that come along with being a business owner.”
After Chrisco and Dubed met with the business owner and the landlord and wrote up agreements with both, Dubed received a $10,000 loan from the program. He spent about $6000 on goods from a company in Minnesota that carries products, such as dates and date-filled cookies from Saudia Arabia that Somali people buy. As per his agreements, every month Dubed now pays $1000 directly to the landlord and $500 toward the remaining $10,000 that he owes the business owner. He also pays $271.77 monthly toward his loan from the International Rescue Committee.
Dubed walks me toward a shelf in the back. It’s stacked with spices he’s purchased in bulk and divided into two-ounce see-through plastic containers. He lifts one filled with tiny black seeds. From another shelf, he pulls a small bottle that reads “Black Seed Oil.” When I ask what it’s for, he calls Mohammed over.
“Medical purposes,” Mohammed says. “If you’re feeling abnormal, like if you have diarrhea or gas. It’s for cleaning out your system.”
“For building your immune system,” Dubed adds.
But the biggest seller at Far Janna is the meat.
“Goat meat and beef,” Dubed says. “It’s halal. That means when you kill the animal you say the name of God. And all the blood is drained out.”
“Basically, you have to cut off the head.” Mohammed laughs nervously, as though this is not a conversation one should have with a lady. “You can’t shoot it or torture it. It has to be a straight, clean slaughter.”
The beef and goat come from Australia. In two regularly scheduled deliveries, they receive over 1600 pounds of meat every week.
Mohammed lifts the lid on a standing freezer in the middle of the store and heaves out a thick plastic bag filled with 50 pounds of frozen cubed meat. “This is my job,” he says. Then he pulls out another plastic bag, this one containing a 50-pound hunk of uncut meat. “This is round top. It’s the back of the leg.”
He opens the door of a large walk-in freezer to point out the frozen-meat saw machine he uses to cube the meat. When I ask if anyone ever takes the leg whole, he smiles. “I wish.” Then he launches into a brief lecture about the importance of fully cooking meat before eating it, because dead bacteria become viruses.
Most of the Far Janna customers are Somali. The Mexican customers they do have stick to drinks and phone cards. Dubed believes that when he brings in someone to cook Middle Eastern food, it will draw in more people of every background. The pollo did. But that will have to wait until after Ramadan.
A woman in a hijab comes in, followed by a little boy. Mohammed tends to them while Dubed grabs a catalog from behind the cashier counter. His plans, he says, are to add the Middle Eastern food and more 99-cent items.
“Like, this stuff is 69 cents and 72 cents, and we’ll sell it for 99 cents,” he says, flipping open the catalog. The page reveals toothbrushes for 39 cents, air-freshener and wrenches for 72 cents.
The work it takes to build this kind of a business is hard, Dubed admits. He’s at the store 8:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m. seven days a week and has been since his first day in town.
“I don’t know anything about San Diego. I only know from here to Chase Bank. And the only people I know in San Diego are my customers. If I don’t see them, I miss them.”
To keep his customers coming back, he employs generosity. “I give away a lot. When they’re happy, I’m happy.”
So far, after a year and a half, things seem to be going well.
“Since I opened the store, my goal is to make it bigger, but I never look at how much money I make and how much I lose. Most of my customers come at the beginning of the month. At the end of the month, if I see there’s more money in my account than there was last month, and if the store has more stuff than last month, it’s good.”
”I Need That”
Two blocks south of Far Janna Market, Luchia Lokonyen stands in the center of her 600-square-foot garden plot on a Friday evening in early July. While she waters her crops with a garden hose, she points beyond her plot and the next one over, to a long strip of land overgrown with man-sized weeds. There are 84 other garden plots on this 2.3-acre community farm. The weedy strip is the only section that has not been cultivated.
“I need that,” she says.
She winks, but isn’t joking. Luchia wants to build a business that her 600 square feet can’t support. She punches me in the shoulder. “You ask the people.”
By “the people” she means the International Rescue Committee, and more specifically, Amy Lint, the organization’s former senior farming specialist — her go-to for most questions and issues regarding this vacant-lot-turned-community-garden at the edge of City Heights.