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Tukwila’s Spice Bridge serves global cuisine cooked by immigrant, refugee women entrepreneurs

Caroline Musitu cooks traditional Congolese food at Taste of Congo at the new Spice Bridge food hall. (Photo courtesy of Denise Miller, Global to Local)

Federal Way’s Monica Di Bartolomeo, an immigrant from Argentina, has a dream: to open a bakery featuring handmade empanadas, pastries, and sweets from her home country. But the process is daunting.

“The price of the kitchen is very expensive and too risky,” Di Bartolomeo said. “Especially when you’re starting.”

So Di Bartolomeo, along with a collective of immigrant and refugee women of color, found a home in the incubator program at King County’s Food Innovation Network.

“The intent of the incubator program is to help folks that have not had access to commercial kitchens and have challenges navigating the permitting system,” said Kara Martin, program director. “The incubator program provides services around business development, as well as a commercial kitchen space. Even with English as my first language, I can tell you navigating permitting systems can be really confusing.”

For several years, the incubator program has helped immigrant and refugee women launch catering businesses, create packaged food products, and sell their food at farmers’ markets. But until now, they didn’t have a permanent, physical space.

This month, they opened Spice Bridge, a food court and commercial kitchen in a brand new building.

“Spice Bridge is a global food hall in Tukwila,” Martin said. “We’re a non-profit running a food business incubator, so when you come in, you’re supporting businesses that are just getting launched and have incredible culinary talent.”

Spice Bridge features four restaurant kiosks, and eight vendors from the incubator program will rotate through. Some of the cuisine being served is not represented anywhere else in the region, like Caroline Musitu’s Taste of Congo.

“I’m making the food that’s most popular in my country, Congo,” Musitu said.

Musitu fled Congo in 2009 with her husband and two children.

“There was a war, there’s no peace,” she said. “That’s why we came here.”

Her first job in Seattle was in the Oberto warehouse in Kent, but thanks to the incubator program and Spice Bridge, you can now taste her own cooking.

“It’s like a big, big step with my dream,” Musitu said. “I’ve had this dream since I was little. When I was helping my mom [cook for weddings and the community], I said I want to open my own restaurant. When I came here, I didn’t know how to start.”

Oumie Sallah owns Aleffa Jollof Catering Services with her sister, Adama Jammeh. They cook Gambian and Senegalese foods like jollof rice and chicken yassa, grilled chicken with an onion sauce.

“I am from Gambia, West Africa,” Sallah said. “I came to the United States to better my future and change my life because I was going through a lot there.”

She said she fled Gambia to leave a bad marriage.

“It’s not easy sometimes with our husbands and the families,” Sallah said. “That’s why I am here.”

Sallah says she is forever grateful for the Food Innovation Network’s help navigating the complicated system and helping her get a business off the ground.

“These people are great! If we have a word more than ‘thank you,’ we will give it to them,” Sallah said, smiling. “They make everything possible for us. We were crawling and now we are walking with our feet. We are so proud of them. Everything is convenient for us here. Everything is from them, so we have a very, very big thank you for them.”

At Spice Bridge, eight vendors means food from more than eight different countries, including Cambodia, Afghanistan, and a mash up from Tanzania, Somalia, and Kenya.

Di Bartolomeo, who runs Seatango with her husband, says it’s great to have the help and support of so many women entrepreneurs.

“The thing that I can say is that if you have a dream, just follow it,” Di Bartolomeo said. “If you like to cook just keep doing it. We’ve spent more than 10 years trying to do this and the day came and the dream came true.”

Website created in quarantine connects you with local farms that deliver fresh food

Most of these women will spend two years with the incubator, and most dream of moving on to open their own restaurant or sell a product.

Click here for more information on Spice Bridge, including hours and location.

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal,” featuring celebrities like Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Rainn Wilson, and Greta Gerwig. Follow @yourlastmealpodcast on Instagram!

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