Spice of life: 2 U.S. lawmakers laud Utah incubator kitchen that helps immigrants launch businesses

(Spenser Heaps, KSL)



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SALT LAKE CITY — When Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., was an infant just after the Vietnam War, her parents fled the war-torn, Communist country to avoid being sent to a prison camp where many didn’t survive.

“They made a very risky decision. They decided to escape in the dead of night by boat with a 6-month-old baby girl and an 8-year-old boy,” Murphy said.

By the time the family, along with other refugees on the boat, arrived at international waters, they had run out of fuel and began running out of supplies. But a U.S. Navy ship found the boat and gave passengers food, fuel and drinking water. The family made it to a Malaysian refugee camp before being resettled in America.

“For me, I think back to that moment, and I understand that that was my first encounter with what makes America great,” she said, which is a combination of “power and generosity.”

“I have been the beneficiary of this uniqueness, this power and generosity, even beyond that one little moment,” explained Murphy, the first Vietnamese-American woman ever elected to Congress in the U.S.

Murphy told her story in Salt Lake City on Saturday to a group gathered at Spice Kitchen, an incubator kitchen that helps refugees and immigrants get their food business ideas off the ground through job training and business development. The kitchen, modeled after La Cocina in San Francisco, was created as a partnership between Salt Lake County and International Rescue Committee while Rep. Ben McAdams was serving as county mayor.

Murphy visited Utah to meet with refugee aid community leaders, along with McAdams, to talk about why programs like the incubator kitchen are important, and what sets Utah apart in its acceptance and support of refugees.

Abudujannah Soud, owner of a food truck called Kafé Mamai and a catering company, will graduate from the incubator kitchen’s program this year. He immigrated from a small coastal island in Kenya in 2001, and cooks African-Caribbean fusion food.

“It’s been nothing but amazing. I’m very happy that I joined the program. I used to do three jobs, just trying to maintain my expenses really. And now being part of Spice, it’s helped me to finally do what I love, and it’s my only job, I can finally spend time with my family, I can raise my kid, I can finally spend time with my wife,” Soud told the Deseret News.

He said the program represents a “full cycle” — the community supporting those from different cultures, who in term bring the flavors of their cultures to the community.

“It’s symbiotic. So now, I’m independent, I’m paying way more taxes than I was paying when I had three jobs,” Soud said, adding that he hopes to soon open a restaurant and increase his impact to the economy.

Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, talks to Sheila Santillanez, center, and her mother, Dolores Santillanez, as they make empanadas for their business, Abuelita’s Bakery, at Square Kitchen in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020. (Spenser Heaps, KSL)
Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, talks to Sheila Santillanez, center, and her mother, Dolores Santillanez, as they make empanadas for their business, Abuelita’s Bakery, at Square Kitchen in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020. (Spenser Heaps, KSL)

McAdams said Utah’s pioneer heritage is part of what makes it supportive of refugees.

“Part of why the conversation about refugees has taken such a different path in Utah, is I think our experiences as the pioneers migrated here, really under similar circumstances, escaping persecution and coming to a place where they could seek safety and refuge,” McAdams told reporters during the event.

“And so when we see people fleeing their home country because of many times religious persecution, looking for a place where they can have religious freedom and safety and security, we opened our doors to them and opened our hearts, and we helped them to be successful, to land on their feet, and to support their families, and to really become self-reliant,” he said.

After the Trump administration last year cut the refugee cap to 18,000 — and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert in response sent a letter requesting more refugees in the state — people in Washington asked McAdams what’s different about Utah, the congressman said.

He said he tells those who ask that question about Spice Kitchen and the work of groups like the International Rescue Committee.

“Not only do we, I think, do the right thing by helping people who are in need find hope and opportunity,” but immigrants come and help create jobs and lift the community in return, McAdams said.

Since the incubator kitchen launched in 2013, it has served 120 participants — 86% of whom are new Americans. Eight have graduated from the program so far, said Kate Idzorek, program manager. At least 50% of people who start the program are expected to realize their business won’t be viable, and fall out of the program.

Food prepared by Zaater and Zayton, a business started with help from the Spice Kitchen incubator program, is served at Square Kitchen in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020. (Spenser Heaps, KSL)
Food prepared by Zaater and Zayton, a business started with help from the Spice Kitchen incubator program, is served at Square Kitchen in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020. (Spenser Heaps, KSL)

But 30 who are either still in the program or graduated now run active businesses, and 20 are in the planning phase. Among them, food truck Jamaica’s Kitchen has become a recognizable name in Salt Lake City, Idzorek said.

“We are ensuring that we are supporting our newest neighbors in realizing their dream and not expecting that immigrants and refugees should just be in whatever job is available to them. This allows them to have the opportunity to thrive and make a living wage doing what they love to do,” Idzorek said.

She said she loves her job because “I get to be in this space with people from across five different continents and 25 countries every day. You get to learn so much about culture through food, and so I just think its really interesting to be able to have these conversations and to be able to be in an environment where everyone’s so comfortable.”

When asked what community members can do to get involved with helping refugees and immigrants locally, International Rescue Committee executive director Natalie El-Deiry urged people to become educated on refugee issues and policies affecting them, and to be an advocate for change. The group also offers a variety of volunteer opportunities.

Leaders also encouraged community members to support food trucks and those at the Spice Kitchen. The kitchen every Thursday offers a set-cost boxed-meal service in the afternoon between 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Meals are prepared by featured entrepreneurs at the kitchen.

For more information, visit Spice Kitchen’s website spicekitchenincubator.org/spice-to-go.

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