Photo: Meriyem's

We talked to: Meriyem's Cafe/Bazaar

Hi, Rania! Could you tell us a bit about yourself, your business, and why you chose downtown Northampton as a location?

Hi! We are so excited to be here, and it’s a huge relief to finally be open. We now have a space where people can gather and make up for time we all lost during the pandemic! This really started with nothing but a dream. Though I’m 23, I truly feel like I am much older, due to many of the experiences I’ve already had in life, from dealing with heart surgeries and staying at Boston Children’s Hospital for a couple of years to being an immigrant and trying to adjust and adapt to living in the U.S.

There have been so many shifts, ups and downs, and also many wonderful moments. I got married to Caleb, the love of my life, at a young age and we had our son Isaac a few years ago. I think there’s always been a fire under us to see our dreams come true and now with our son, to model our drive and commitment to our goals for him. My own mother, after whom the cafe is named, sacrificed and made choices to make my life better, and I want to do the same for him.

After Caleb got out of the Air Force, I began taking courses on how to start a catering company. Then, during a slow period of things not fully being open yet in the pandemic, we started our own company.  I am quite audacious and will literally try anything. I have no problem with people telling me “no” to my face because I will just keep trying. I knew I really wanted a kitchen space for catering, but I didn’t want to deal with a giant operation like a restaurant. I also knew I wanted to create a warm and welcoming environment for students and others in the community.

As an immigrant from Morocco, I know how vital it is for other immigrants in the area to have a place they can go and feel at ease that reminds them of home and the foods and beverages they grew up with. I feel like Northampton has the vibe for that—there’s just so much love here for culture and community. Everyone is doing their own thing and there’s space to be us.

We moved out to Western MA in August of 2022. A friend of ours had recommended Dobra to us, and when we saw it was closed, we were curious about the space. For months we were walking by and calling, and no one was answering. And though we saw the Faces space was available, we just felt like it was too huge and overwhelming and not the right fit for us. As we were leaving town one day, I saw one of the former owners of Dobra moving out. I ran down there and said that I loved the space and asked what was happening to it. They got us in contact with the wonderful owners of the building, and the conversation started.  When I saw the tiles, arches, and overall feel of the space, I knew I could make it work. At that time, I thought, “All I’ll have to do is paint!” So many other things ultimately had to be done, but we knew the space felt right for our vision.

What are some challenges you’ve experienced as well as some positive things that have transpired in the past few years?

A big obstacle was financing. We needed a lot of capital to start something like this, and other banks were laughing us off because we were such new business owners. Then I got connected with Amy Cahillane, who ultimately connected us with the Franklin County CDC. They made it happen for us in the most incredible way, by not only giving us money, but also giving us their insight on our numbers as well as recommendations on how to move forward.  

There were some major challenges in the beginning, such as codes that were changed in the City, and things taking five times longer than they might normally take. I also felt that many parts of the process were difficult for me as a younger woman, and definitely noticed that people responded differently to Caleb than they did to me. It was incredibly frustrating, given that this is my passion and I’m the one who has done the research and knows what needs to happen. I often had to give him the script to relay to people from whom we were getting quotes and working with, as they did not fully listen to me or respect me in the same way. It was also really sad for him to witness this. It’s a taxing process all around, but when I’m passionate and determined, I know that ultimately I will accomplish what I set out to do. We are excited to be here, to be open, and to continue to evolve and grow.

What are some exciting things coming up for the business?

I have a lot of ideas—there are so many things we could try! We have the wedding catering side of things, and I’d love to host a wedding expo and have other wedding vendors in the Valley come in, along with couples who are planning their weddings. It would be great to be able to showcase area photographers, special desserts, and more.  We’d also like to start making the space available for events like showers and fundraisers. I think the space is very neutral so that people can bring their own vision, but it also has its own unique vibe.

We plan to expand our menu once our kitchen is fully set up and ready to go! I envision having things completely operational by Ramadan next year, so that we can hopefully help out college kids who are observing away from home. It would be nice to have meals for them to pick up for breaking their fasts.  I also envision offering events such as trivia and game nights. I just want this space to feel lively, welcoming, and fun for everyone who visits.

As business owners, what do you do to unwind/relax/rejuvenate?

We love spending time with family and friends. We missed out on so much of that in recent years, so any time we can do that, it’s special. We also love hiking and walking our dog as a family.  I love to read and learn new things. If I can get out and take a course, I feel like that’s how I get my energy back. And getting to communicate with other people—especially with other women business owners—is so important and revitalizing.

And finally... What’s your favorite summer food and/or beverage?

I love cheese, crackers,  veggies, and a variety of dips—that “girl dinner” vibe! And we love going to local farmers’ markets for fresh vegetables and fruits. I also love smoothies with lots of homey flavors that remind me of my childhood, such as date, golden turmeric, and orange blossom. Smoothies are the perfect thing to drink when we’re waking up early before beginning a fast during Ramadan. I was very excited to bring some of those smoothies to the cafe, so we now have those on the menu and people can enjoy them daily!

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