Saving Saba - Giving a Voice to Immigrant Owned Businesses

Photo courtesy of The Seattle Times

Photo courtesy of The Seattle Times

By Cathy Guadagno

Immigrants account for 30% of small business growth in the United States and make up 18% of small business owners. Workie Wubushet is one of them. Workie owns Saba, an immigrant owned restaurant in Seattle, Washington, which serves locally celebrated Ethiopian food. Anyone and everyone can find reviews from happy customers all over social media platforms like Facebook and more. 


Saba has been in business for nearly 20 years. During those two decades, Workie, developed an ecosystem within the community around her. The people of Seattle came to her doorstep for one-of-a-kind Ethiopian cuisine, and she, in turn, supported the Seattle community by donating to various local nonprofits, donating food to the city that she calls home.

However, in the summer of 2018 Workie learned that her beloved establishment would be torn down to build a housing complex, leaving her gathering place for locals and the Seattle University community without a home. The building has now been sold for a whopping $5.5 million dollars, none of which she will see a dime of - not even for relocation fees. Developer Alchemy Real Estate and Isola Homes have bought the property Saba stands on, with the ambition of creating a 289-unit apartment building with commercial space and 11 “Live-Work Units” (i.e. a coworking space). The success of this reconstruction - and all the lives disrupted to go along with it - remains ambiguous at best. Seattle has a history of dealing with developers leaving spaces they intend to knock down vacant for months. In this time period these spaces or empty lots have been littered with homelessness and addiction, creating a vulnerable environment.

Photo courtesy of the stranger.com

Photo courtesy of the stranger.com

Saba’s Ethiopian Restaurant looks like yet another tale of an immigrant-owned business gone to Seattle’s gentrification. The issue of gentrification has been on the rise in Seattle since tech giants such as Amazon, Facebook, Boeing, and Salesforce have called this city their new home. In the last seven years, the population has grown to over 100,000 - more people means more housing complexes must be created. This is especially paralyzing for the retail spaces below the new housing complexes. However, such retail spaces tend to only focus on the residents above, and not the actual space itself- which often hosts a space for immigrant owned small businesses such as Saba’s.

Further, the rising rates of Seattle’s rent - which have increased nearly 70% in the last 5 years - make it nearly impossible to afford living space. As a result, these businesses become shutout forever as rent becomes impossible to keep up with. To make matters worse, as of 2016, Seattle has rejected any rent control policies for small businesses. 

According to Kiro7 news, Seattle Councilwoman Kshama Sawant has been pushing for a change to help an increasingly unaffordable city keep these businesses afloat. Kshama has also been a supporter in keeping Saba open to fight against the displacement and gentrification of small businesses. “Seattle’s affordable housing crisis is among the worst in the entire country. One in ten units sit vacant, while working people, small businesses, people of color, and LGBTQ people are being rapidly gentrified out of our city.” says Kshama about the importance of rent control.

If the issue were simply that immigrant businesses were being neglected in the housing boom, the crisis might be easier to solve. However, the crisis goes deeper: immigrant businesses are often manipulated and exploited, as with the case of Saba’s. 

Daughter of Workie Wubushe, Saba Teklegiorgis - for which the restaurant gets its namesake - tells Capitol Hill Seattle that her mother’s restaurant has been in an unfair fight with the management company brought in to help push the tenant out by the property’s owners. “If they are within the law, I don’t know why they keep doing dirty things,” states Saba. 

Saba first went to the press over a year ago when the management company failed on their promise to help relocate the restaurant.

She confirms the management company promised to help find and relocate her Saba’s Restaurant the first time the women went to the press over a year ago. The management company then claimed they made no promises. Most recently, they accused Wubshet of not paying rent, despite the restaurant's payment receipts. 

The fight to save Saba’s isn’t about the physical space of the restaurant being closed, but the manner in which it was. The nature brought upon from big businesses coming to shut down small businesses is an example of how Saba was forced into shutdown so suddenly. This left a hardworking restaurant owner to find a new place for this beloved restaurant. With no help with finding a new lease, no intent to place Saba’s in the new building, and no help from the new property owners, Saba’s is just another one of Seattle’s small business casualties. As far as where Saba goes from this moment on, Saba Teklegiorgis tells us due to the unlawful eviction of their beloved restaurant, they are going to appeal their case and are preparing a civil lawsuit. 

Photo courtesy of change.org

Photo courtesy of change.org

The sad ending to this story - and maybe many other Seattle small business stories - calls into question the role of the Seattle government in these affairs. To an outsider, Seattle is a tale of two cities; one for the rich tech giants investing billions into building condos and office towers, and one for the misplaced residents struggling to stay afloat with the rising cost of living. Only 8% of Seattle’s $5.9 billion dollar budget goes to helping those in need with programs that help the homeless and give affordable housing to those who cannot afford the gentrification boom. The housing budget has stayed at the same budget of $50 million since last year, whereas the Seattle Police Department has increased their budget by $32 million. Why are the residents of Seattle such a second thought to their local government? Where did protection go for these small businesses, which are a staple to the local community, and what is Seattle going to do about it?

To help sign the petition to save Saba, please click here to support the cause. Saba tells us that signing the petition, getting the word out by spreading it through social media, and waiting on the next action steps sent by email will help raise awareness for this ongoing fight for what’s right.