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Why you need to eat at this refugee-run food hall in Memphis, Tennessee


Global Cafe in Memphis, TennesseeGlobal Cafe in Memphis, Tennessee — Photo courtesy of Memphis Tourism/Alex Shansky

For visitors to Memphis, Tennessee, many itineraries focus on history, music and food. It’s trips to Graceland, home of Elvis Presley, and Sun Studios. It’s honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy at the National Civil Rights Museum. And it’s chowing down on Memphis-style dry rub ribs.

But the Bluff City’s culinary scene is also influenced by the thousands of refugees that have settled there over the years. Since the 1970s, Shelby County, where Memphis is located, has welcomed them, starting with the Vietnamese community. In recent years, even with changes in local leadership, resettlement has continued to be a priority.

A new kind of food hall

Inside the Crosstown ConcourseInside the Crosstown Concourse — Photo courtesy of Memphis Tourism/Alex Shansky

One place for visitors to experience the city’s diverse culinary legacy is in a restaurant in the Crosstown neighborhood, where many of the Vietnamese businesses are located. At its core is the Crosstown Concourse, a massive converted space that was built in 1927 as a Sears, Roebuck and Company distribution center and retail store. It sat crumbling and vacant until reopening in 2017.

Global Cafe is one of the mixed-use development’s eateries, operating as a sort of mini food hall with different vendors selling daily specials. Sabine Langer, the cafe’s owner, started the business after spending time volunteering with refugees in the Binghampton neighborhood.

“It was during the election cycle almost four years ago. The environment at the time was very anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, anti-foreigners,” she says. “Being an immigrant myself, I knew how difficult the process had been for me. And just learning more about the refugee process was just so eye-opening for me.”

Langer moved to the United States from Switzerland and came to Memphis for her ex-husband’s job. She noticed the ongoing difficulties that refugees and immigrants face, not just in terms of finding a home, but language and cultural barriers. She became acquainted with the women that lived in Binghampton, getting to know their cultures.

“The ladies who were cooking on the side to make a little bit of an income, and that’s how it sparked the idea. I spent a lot of time doing research, getting to know different people, and decided to do a sort of a food hall. I had visited one in Brooklyn, that was a little bit of a common dining room, but different stalls.”

With the concept settled, she had to find a location.

“Initially, I thought I wanted to be in Binghampton because that’s where the refugees come from and I thought it’d be easier for them,” she says. “But then I realized that, unfortunately, if I wanted to have [customers] come, we needed to be where they are.”

The Crosstown Concourse had then been restored and was a hub for thousands of people that lived and worked in the area. “We have definitely not regretted it. We love it there.”

Flavors of the world

Dishes at Global CafeDishes at Global Cafe — Photo courtesy of Memphis Tourism/Alex Shansky

Langer herself had no culinary training and wanted to help these women with little business experience.

“The initial vision I had was for each chef to be hired and then to run almost their own little restaurant out of the stall. I wanted them to hire people from their own [neighborhoods] to be able to trickle down the help. We’re not just helping one person from one specific neighborhood, but being able to hopefully help more than one person in, let’s say a Sudanese community or a Nepalese community.”

Global Cafe started with three chefs, creating Syrian, Sudanese and Nepalese cuisine. The social enterprise allows tips to be divided between all employees and doesn’t have the same upfront costs for chefs.

When the Nepalese chef had to move, Langer sought out another person from a refugee community.

“My thought process was like, ‘Well, okay, which country is in massive turmoil right now? Who can we help?’ And then Venezuela was on top of the list.”

When the pandemic hit, the restaurant struggled like so many, but made changes to adapt. Langer and her team offered takeout options and weekly specials. They beefed up their social media presence, bringing in new customers. They also handed out meals to Memphis healthcare workers.

“We are moving the concept a little bit to instead of saying, ‘Okay, this is the Sudanese stall, this is the Syrian stall, this is the Venezuelan stall.’ It’s more like, we are a global restaurant and we have a bunch of global dishes.”

The menu changes often, but includes dishes from each of the cultures. You might find falafels and hummus, arepas or basbousa, a Middle Eastern dessert made with semolina and coconut. But for the people of Global Cafe, it’s more than just food. It’s a community making its presence known.

“We really try to enlighten people. We’re just regular people and we’re just trying like everybody else is,” Langer says.

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