Martha Pewee had been in the United States for about 10 years with her husband, John, and their family in Grand Rapids, Mich., when she got the idea to start a grocery store that would feature food products from Africa and other nations that weren’t being offered at traditional supermarkets in the area.
Today, the Pewees, who are immigrants from the West African nation of Liberia, own and operate Martha’s International Market on the southeast side of Grand Rapids. With the help of a business mentorship program offered through Madison Square Christian Reformed Church, the Pewees recently purchased the building they had rented for the past seven years.
Martha Pewee had operated a small food shop, or “coke shop,” as it was called, in Liberia before her family moved to the U.S. in 1997 with the help of a brother-in-law who had graduated from Calvin College and had become a pastor. She worked as a nurse’s aide for a few years before starting the market from her home. She and John would travel to Chicago and other large cities to purchase meat, fish, and vegetables. “When we’d get the stuff, she’d put it in the car and drive around to shops to sell them,” John Pewee said. Often the goods were sold to braiding shops, where women of African descent go to have their hair braided.
“We started out with two [freezers in our home], then we ended up with six,” Martha said. “The electric bills were high and we couldn’t keep it in the basement anymore.”
The Pewees rented their current space, running the business while also maintaining their regular jobs. They were living paycheck to paycheck, wondering how they could do this. “It was almost impossible. But with God’s help, here we are today,” Martha said.
The Pewees credit the help of the people she met through the mentorship program at Madison Square Church, offered through Partners Worldwide, for helping them navigate the legal challenges of purchasing the building as well as financing for the business.
“I could see through the process that God was blessing us. All these people were helping us free of charge. The lawyer we worked with told me he charged $600 an hour, and he was giving us one hour free. He did all the paperwork for us,” Martha said. “We didn’t know him, but he was on our side.”
Today, African natives and other immigrants travel up to several hours to buy food, African print clothing, and fashion accessories from Martha’s International Market. But just as important, Martha lends a listening ear to fellow immigrants who may be struggling with similar challenges to what she went through.
“They can relate to someone who understands them and their problems in their own language,” John said.