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Roosevelt Island’s Diverse, Tight-Knit Community Inspires Nneji’s Mission To Share West African Culture And Cuisine

Beatrice Ajaero is chef-owner of Ibari, a West African food and gift stall at the Roosevelt Island Farmer’s Market and a gift store in Astoria, Queens. In 2020, she opened Nneji, a takeout restaurant and grocery store in Astoria. Since then, Nneji has received acclaim from the likes of New York Times’ Pete Wells for its West African soups, stews, and grains, and has provided thousands of meals to local families through Queens Together.

I’ve been in New York for my whole life. Roosevelt Island has been my home for 30 years. It was a great social experiment to see what life would be like where folks of different family sizes and economic backgrounds and countries of origin shared one grocery store and one post office and one cleaners. I’m a product of that small community.

Roosevelt Island is home to many families who are posted here to work for the consulates, for the embassies, or for the United Nations. While the African community here is small compared to Harlem or other places in the city, the number of people who have touchpoints on the continent or who have an interest in the continent or the diaspora is very high here.

My mom and my aunties on Roosevelt Island always had a very unique experience around food and cooking for many people, because families would gather for social organizations or events. So meals that called people together really spoke to me. Even as a student in the New York City public schools, I was drawn to the big batch prep happening in the cafeteria. I had a great affinity for all the men and women that cooked for us every day because I was imagining how many meals they prepared.

But my family wanted me to have a number of skill sets when I did make a foray into food, so I studied transactions, sustainable business, and other subjects. After completing those degrees, I was given their blessing to pivot into my passion.

beatrice ajaero outdoor portrait at nneji
Beatrice Ajaero at Nneji. Photo: Emily Schindler.

At Ibari, we focus heavily on spices and oils and teas because we know that the trade of goods and spices connected the world many years ago. On Roosevelt Island, we’re very fortunate to be able to see that. Eastern European friends come and visit us, American friends come and visit us, and Latin American friends come and visit us. All points of the world cross at Roosevelt Island.

I think the experiences I’ve had—as an island resident, as someone whose mom worked in Long Island City for two decades, and whose siblings went to school here in Astoria for 10 years—inspired me to see how I could contribute to the great landscape around food and experience in a retail sense. That’s what led us to choose Astoria for our brick-and-mortar with our gift shop, Ibari, and Nneji, our restaurant. But our flagship is at the Saturday Market on Roosevelt Island.

I shouldn’t forget to add that it was actually Astorians who walked into Ibari and asked us to bring West Africa food, when we thought that what we presented at Ibari was sufficient.

beatrice ajaero inside her restaurant, Nneji.
Photo: Emily Schindler.

Our goal is to make West African foods with locally sourced ingredients as best we can. It’s part of the sustainability mission that drives what we do, beyond sourcing paper, glass, and tin. In the food space, it’s very difficult to minimize your footprint. We’ve had to really think carefully, as the supply chains have been upside down during COVID. How can we use mustard greens and kale where we would have used more traditional greens grown in West Africa or Nigeria or Ghana? We’ve been iterating around menus to make the food authentic and approachable. It has been a constant point of discussion for myself and my mom and my aunts—who are really the executive chefs here—and people from afar, and then also with my team. They take a major role in responding to what folks tell us, whether the food is too spicy or not spicy enough.

We set out in March of 2020. That was when our lease for our brick-and-mortar space was signed. We had no idea that COVID would be upon us. Our distributors were counting on us—bakeries like Rose and Joe’s, who had anchored us through a tough season at the market in Roosevelt Island. We knew that our ability to muscle forward would have a ripple effect through our distribution network and also to the customers who had supported us for months and months. We got to a point where we felt like we owed it to the community. So our efforts were to try to push against the wind of COVID.

Because we use grains like fufu, which spiritually are required to be eaten by hand, we knew that we would have a need for hand-washing to create that authentic experience. But as COVID hit, we had to do a 180. We would have to encourage folks to go home and call friends over and eat that way. That’s why we decided to do takeout. Initially we had a plan for bar stools and hand washing for the full show, but we saw that we might be able to encourage folks to gather with friends with takeout and go to Rainey Park or Astoria Park, or sit the steps of Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in good weather, and see more of the neighborhood.

Photo: Emily Schindler.

New York City, not surprisingly, really stepped up and showed the world what we’re capable of doing. Especially in Queens, which most of the restaurant workers of the city actually call home, we had a particular blessing and challenge to put muscle forward. From the outset, Queens Together has really pulled us to remember that we are the bedroom of the restaurant workers in New York. To have a chance to work with them and provide meals for over 1,300 or 1,400 families across Queens—in Bowery Mission and NYPD pantries—has been a huge part of our sustainability mission. It reminds us that we are only as strong as our neighbor.

We ran into supply chain issues, like all other food businesses. But we were grateful because while there were supply chain challenges brought on by COVID, distributors who may have not considered going into the West African food space launched into it. There were new players that we were able to engage with. While it may have taken a little bit longer, there were more distributors to coordinate with to see who had which ingredients.

We are small batch, as small as we can be, to maintain a small carbon footprint. We work hard to source our ingredients as close as Long Island for callaloo, a green you normally find in the West Indies. Who knew that we could get it there through local distributors? Maintaining a sustainable business economically interfaces with how we see people, and how we see the planet.

Ninety percent of our folks who order from online and come in are new to the cuisine. It’s a heartwarming feeling to serve folks who never knew the word “garri,” or that cassava could be paired with something like okasi, which is a traditional Igbo soup that more than 30 million people have been eating for hundreds of years. To know that we put these dishes into the food dictionaries of young professionals in Queens and families and teenagers who stop and get fufu or stew is a huge high point.

Our mission is to share West African food and the heritage behind it. One soup at a time, one grain at a time, one customer at a time.