This month we shine a spotlight on Beatrice Ajaero of Nneji, which opened in Astoria mid-pandemic with a mission to make African food mainstream in a way that is environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable.
Supported by an MBA and law degree, Ajaero followed her dream and chose to become a restaurant owner. She is committed to sharing Igbo heritage through food traditions which is embodied in Nneji’s tagline “Africa. Food. Kindred”.
Please share your background with our readers.
I am the third of six siblings. My family moved from the Bronx to Roosevelt Island when I was 2 months old, where I have lived ever since. Roosevelt Island is a very small village, similar to my parents’ experience in Nigeria prior to moving to America. Growing up, I spent much of my time between a choir school I attended in Harlem and several choral commitments throughout New York City. I was constantly surrounded by many adults from very diverse backgrounds, including extended family throughout the Tri-state area, who guided me and taught me the concepts of service, tenacity and community across cultures, faith traditions, points of views, and abilities. This shaped my approach as an entrepreneur in the communities where Nneji and IBARI are located.
Did you go to culinary school or are you self-taught?
Food is at the center of our daily activities. My parents survived the Nigerian Civil War as children, where food deprivation was an instrument of genocide. Throughout my upbringing, food represented nourishment and an essential shared experience. Each time we visited families we met in America, my mother went into that kitchen to cook with an Aunty. My family’s culinary traditions imparted very deep-seated values; sharing, caring, conserving, edifying. This was my culinary education. These experiences across cultures deeply resonated with me and inform what I share now at Nneji.
I had an interest in culinary arts from a very early age and took baking class to further explore this endeavor. I was the youngest participant in a baking program called Patty Cakes near Jackson Heights. However, as an Igbo, education stands at the center of one’s accomplishments in the modern world and nothing could interfere with this. Once I earned a law degree and an MBA, I felt prepared for entrepreneurship.
Who were some of the mentors that had an impact on your career?
Ayesha Muhammad at Accra Restaurant was of tremendous help to me as I was rolling out several elements of Nneji. Her dad, executive chef at Accra, insisted that I finish my education first. As promised, they guided me when I was ready to launch. My neighbor Alon Kruvi, owner of Zula, encouraged my interest in Mediterranean food. Most of my equipment from Nneji came from him as we were struggling to open in the middle of
What was your inspiration in opening Nneji in Astoria, Queens?
My siblings attended school in Astoria for several years and learned Greek from the wonderful sisters at St. Markella. We began to visit Astoria daily and discovered that its diversity presented us a great opportunity to share what Nneji has to offer. My mother taught at Long Island City High School for several decades and her familiarity with the area is a great asset.
You want to make African food mainstream. Beyond Nneji, what are your goals toward accomplishing this?
With Nneji, IBARI Astoria, and IBARI Roosevelt Island, we hope to encourage robust conversations around common food traditions in Africa, the Mediterranean, and beyond. We focus on sourcing sustainably, adding menu items with the highest nutritional benefits and presenting traditional dishes to a wider audience. At Nneji, we offer a wide variety of international pantry items: palm oil, broken rice, garri, amala, fonio, and more. We hope that visitors to our locations who are in search of home decor, hot soups, and grains, will continue their experience in their own kitchens, with their own cooking.
Where do you source ingredients and supplies? Distributor?
Gold Coast Trading is the backbone of our West African supply chain. Every item from the melon seed for our famous egusi soup to the ever-loved Ghana Malt drink and ethnic spices from every region in Africa can be found there. Access to West African power grains like fonio and garri is only possible through their support. Here in Astoria, Rose & Joe’s has been a tremendous source of support to us, particularly during the height of the pandemic. We are grateful for their willingness to share a very long and cherished tradition of bread-making from Sicily. One look at the map shows a straight line to the shared heritage between Africa and this part of Italy. Our work with Rose & Joe’s has helped us and our visitors remember these important cultural connections as examples of the connections that we see all around the world. On Roosevelt Island, each Saturday, this has helped neighbors from Bulgaria, Burundi, Brooklyn, and beyond connect through a common love of high-quality bread.
Highlight one or more equipment brand name that’s essential to your operations.
Our pastry case is made by Marchia and allows us to present fresh Greek and Sicilian pastries. This will be the home for our Nigerian savory items as well. It is quiet, easy to operate, and more spacious than you think.
What have you done to improve delivery and take-out? Do you partner with any services?
We use GrubHub and UberEats throughout the week and take pick-up orders via phone. GrubHub allows us to reach customers in the Astoria area, while UberEats is one of the few platforms that allows for drivers to cross the bridge to Roosevelt Island to deliver to our neighbors.
How your experience in opening Nneji been, so far? Also, you also have a strong commitment to give back to your community–tell us more about this.
From the moment we signed our first lease at IBARI on 23rd Avenue, the warm reception of our neighbors blew us away. We quickly made new friends and met neighboring businesses. When we opened Nneji in 34th Avenue, our first customer was the owner Best Pizza next door. Many customers were interested in the food and gave us very encouraging remarks as we worked through the pandemic. I feel very inspired because of this reception. For me, it begins with sharing the cultures of Africa and making myself available to engage with customers, reconnect with them, and discuss their past experiences in the Continent. It is very important to me that everyone feels welcome at Nneji, especially those who have never tried West African food before. We are part of the larger conversation on sustainability. We are aware of the food needs of our neighbors and contribute hundreds of meals through local organizations, as well as working with Queens Together and Save Our Storefront (SOS) so that programs and funding can be directed towards helping our doors stay open and keeping our workers from the economic disaster that the pandemic has brought on us all.