Safa Marmarchi lived and worked in Baghdad 11 years ago as one of Iraq’s largest marble traders. His family-owned marble factory operated throughout Iraq, Turkey and Libya. Marmarchi left his homeland in 2007 when the civil war between Shia and Sunni Muslims came to Baghdad.
The idea to open a restaurant came to Marmarchi when he was traveling between the United States and Turkey to manage the marble business. When he was in Afyon, the new headquarters of his marble trade, he met a group of regular American tourists.
“When I asked why [Americans] vacation to Turkey, they say, ‘Big reason is for the food,’” Marmarchi said.
The South Grand Business District sits in the six blocks between Arsenal and Cherokee streets. Here, 23 refugee and immigrant businesses represent 14 different countries and ethnicities. Most are owner-operated, including Marmarchi’s Turkish restaurant, Sheesh.
Marmarchi reached out to the South Grand Community Improvement District (SGCID) to get help with his business venture. Rachel Witt, executive director of SGCID, has worked on their board for 12 years and helped many immigrants start businesses there.
“I work for everyone in this district,” Witt said. “I am the employee to help you be successful.”
Witt serves as a bridge between the existing institutions and new residents. Witt said she helped Marmarchi understand the codes and regulations of American bureaucracy. Health codes, tax codes and building codes are some of the unfamiliar steps Marmarchi experienced when he started his business.
“I can just imagine if you don’t understand our policies in the United States and thinking everyone’s against you,” Witt said. “This is how they are with everyone.”
Witt said South Grand is unique to St. Louis. Unlike other commercial districts in the city, like the Grove or the Delmar Loop, which focus on entertainment and cuisine, South Grand focuses on becoming a community. According to Witt, the district is still attracting consumers from Tower Grove, nearby college campuses and St. Louis as a whole.
According to Witt, the established ethnic businesses in the St. Louis area contribute to the success of new places like Sheesh. Several businesses on South Grand have been open for 30+ years. Cafe Natasha’s Persian Cuisine, King and I and Pho Grand are three of the restaurants Witt describes as the key to branding South Grand as an ethnic corridor in St. Louis.
Cafe Natasha has been running for 35 years in three different locations. Behshid and Hamishe Bahrami started the restaurant. Behshid now runs the restaurant with her daughter Natasha. Natasha Bahrami took over management in 2001 at the Delmar location.
“I literally grew up down the street from South Grand,” Natasha Bahrami said. “I’ve watched this area grow, and it’s been really exciting to not only see that but be a part of that growth.”
Natasha Bahrami says their success comes from the help of the community during hard times, like after 9/11. She remembers nobody coming to the restaurant out of fear or anxiety of the Middle East. After some time, it was a loyal customer who came in and checked on the restaurant to make sure the Bahramis were still in business.
“I can’t even call her a customer,” Natasha Bahrami said. “She is part of who we are. She got off the phone and made a million phone calls. After that moment, we were populated again. We had people coming in again.”
Due to the community’s faith in Cafe Natasha, the Bahramis have faith in St. Louis. Bahrami says she has given back to the community by contributing to the culture of South Grand.
“When the horrific things happened in St. Louis, Ferguson and all of that, we band together to bring this community back together,” Natasha Bahrami said.
Marmarchi and the Bahrami family are just two of many stories in South Grand. Today, the South Grand Business District continues to be a foothold for immigrants pursuing a new life in the U.S.
“We really are in love with St. Louis and how we’ve been embraced here,” Natasha Bahrami said. “We really don’t want to live anywhere else.”