Somali Bantu Farmers and Chefs Open Cooperative Restaurant in Maine

With assistance from CLF's Legal Food Hub, the new venture will provide a taste of home to Lewiston's growing Somali population

With help from CLF's Legal Food Hub, Lewiston, Maine, will soon be home to a new restaurant, cooperatively owned by a group of Bantu farmers and chefs from Somalia. Photo: Denis Tangney, Jr., via IStock

When the Isuken Cooperative restaurant opens in Maine later this spring, be sure to order a sambusa, a delicious fried pastry filled with vegetables and meats. And don’t forget to bring your friends along as the word “Isuken” translates to togetherness, and sambusas are best when shared.

Owned and operated by a group of Somali Bantu farmers and chefs living in the Lewiston area, the new restaurant and farm-to-table market will serve traditional Somalian cuisine, with the produce grown on their own farm nearby.

In this old factory town that is home to one of the largest Somali populations in the country, Isuken is a welcome addition, bringing a taste of home and delicious, fresh food to the city’s newest and long-time residents alike. Reaching this milestone brought plenty of challenges, but it also inspired many helping hands, including a local attorney who volunteers through CLF’s Legal Food Hub.

Rethinking How to Farm: From Somalia’s Floodplains to Maine’s Rocky Soil

Farming in Maine bears little resemblance to agriculture in Somalia, beyond the basics of planting a seed and nurturing its growth. In Somalia, the Bantu work on shared land, so the North American idea of private property ownership came as a shock when the Bantu farmers first sought out land on which to grow. Additionally, Somali farmland sits on a fertile floodplain. Semi-annual floods provide nutrients to the soil and carry farmers through their two growing seasons: April to June and October through December.

Here in Maine, farmland is notorious for its serious upkeep: Its dry soil requires irrigation and regular amendments to increase nutrients, and the growing season is significantly shorter, spanning only May to September. Given such different conditions, the Bantu farmers have had to adjust their repertoire of crops, raising some familiar fare from home while learning to grow hardy crops better suited to Maine’s harsher soil.

Facing Barriers: From Language to Legalese

The Bantu group have also faced challenges familiar to generations of immigrants before them: language and literacy. Some members of the Bantu group have been in the United States for more than ten years, and others arrived within the year. While some arrived with a basic knowledge of English, others speak only their native language.

Without the ability to communicate well in English, the tasks associated with starting a farm and a restaurant take on a new layer of complexity. When creating a lease contract, for example, it is crucial for both parties to understand the agreement they are making, how the space will be used, and for how much time. All of this becomes especially difficult when each party speaks a different language.

Too Many Farmers and Food Businesses Fail to Address Legal Needs

Beyond these challenges, restaurants, and farms both require a significant amount of money up front, and, as low-income refugees, access to capital has been a challenge for the Bantu community. The Isuken Cooperative restaurant has seven owners, making the process of setting up a business even more challenging.

The reality is that even farmers and food entrepreneurs who don’t face such barriers often fail to seek out legal help when starting their businesses. But if these legal needs are not addressed from the outset, it can lead to big problems down the road. Farms can be lost or businesses forced to close due to these and other financial hurdles.

That’s why CLF launched the Legal Food Hub, which connects farmers, food-related organizations, and food entrepreneurs with pro bono legal services to help start, grow, and operate their businesses. In Maine, the Legal Food Hub has developed a network of more than 45 law firms that generously donate their attorneys’ time to support the state’s burgeoning local food movement. The Isuken Cooperative is just one of the new businesses the Legal Food Hub has helped.

Honoring Culture and Tradition in a New Business Venture

One of the Hub’s volunteers is Sarah McGarrell, an attorney with the firm Pierce Atwood. Through the Cooperative Development Institute, the Legal Food Hub connected McGarrell with the Bantu group of chefs and farmers. She provided the legal help they needed to form the Isuken Cooperative.

The cooperative business structure makes sense both economically and culturally for the Bantu group. A cooperative is owned and operated by its users, so this model of multiple owners is reminiscent of Somalia’s culture of farming on shared land. Cooperatives also foster a sense of community and shared responsibility; in line with Somalian farming traditions, all seven of the owners will govern the co-op with equal influence.

Local Food That’s Good for the Community and the Environment

The members of this Bantu community have become part of a movement that supports the local economy and environment. In this case, by opening a restaurant that utilizes local produce, they have created a market that will enable more members of the Bantu community to work. And, by purchasing the restaurant’s food from local farmers, they have cut down on the costs and carbon pollution associated with transporting food – creating a ready demand for the produce grown by Somali Bantu farmers around the Lewiston area and reducing Isuken’s carbon footprint at the same time.

Isuken Coop sustains its community in a way that is both economically and environmentally sustainable – and we can’t wait to experience all that it has to offer.

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