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Gov Evers visits Gooh Grocery, east side’s new African store

Gooh Grocery co-founder and State Rep. Samba Baldeh shows Governor Tony Evers around the store last week. Photo by Omar Waheed.

Governor Tony Evers stopped by Gooh Grocery as part of his tour of local businesses addressing community needs.

On July 1, Gov. Evers toured Gooh Grocery, 3554 E. Washington Ave., owned by State Representative Samba Baldeh and business partner Jerreh Kujabi. The tour comes as the governor works his way through local businesses around the state that address community issues. The tour met with another as the Cashew Commonwealth, a West Madison Little League team, stopped by to hear the importance of what Gooh Grocery provides as well as civil service, and to meet the governor.

Baldeh and Kujabi founded Gooh Grocery, which opened in late January, to address ongoing issues in food insecurity on Madison’s East Side. It pushes affordability and culturally relevant food, helps fill a need in the area’s food desert and, most emphasized by Baldeh and Kujabi, provides a healthy option in an area filled with fast food.

Governor Evers walked through the store with Baldeh as the state representative gave a breakdown on the goods Gooh sells. The grocery sells a variety of goods respective of Madison’s population of Africans, Arabs and Muslims, Latinos and commonalities in Wisconsin.

Baldeh kept the tour moving with jokes and insights into cultural staples like jollof rice, a west African dish famed for its rich taste; dates, a fruit commonly eaten by Muslims to break fast during Ramadan; spices; oils; and many items that have been lacking in grocery stores in Madison.

“One thing I told the governor is that I really want to take this to the next level and see how I can eliminate all these food deserts in Wisconsin,” Baldeh said. “Hopefully, that is possible, but that is what my goal is. To make sure that every Wisconsinite has access to food that they can afford, and good food at that.”

Most food at Gooh is sourced locally, though many of the harder-to-find international goods come from New York,, Baldeh told Gov. Evers. The cost may be a bit steeper, but Baldeh and Kujabi want to provide culturally relevant and quality foods from Wisconsin farms that promote the health benefits the two push.

Baldeh also pointed out the apartments above the store to Gov. Evers in a chance to speak on issues finding affordable housing for those formerly incarcerated. Four units – two two-bedroom and two single bedroom apartments, are leased out solely through the Black Men’s Coalition of Dane County to provide stable, affordable housing for people coming out of prison. The four apartments aren’t a money maker, but Baldeh said he’s putting his words into action by providing the units.

“Housing is very expensive, but I cannot speak about something and not have the opportunity to fix it or not fix it,” Baldeh said. “I would have rented to people who will have money and pay me on time on all that, but it’s important that we give back and it’s important and sometimes we take along the rest of the people who are struggling.”

The tour moved out to Gooh’s parking lot where Gov. Evers and the Cashew Commonwealth met up before his departure. The team then moved into the grocery store to get the same tour as Evers, but also shopped around with their families while sampling a few dishes Baldeh and Kujabi provided.

The team gathered around to hear the story of how Baldeh got involved in politics. He said he’s not formally educated in political sciences, but told the team that it shouldn’t matter.

“Find a way to also be part of your community,” Baldeh said. “All of you should consider one way or another of doing public service. Whether you serve on the school board, your city council, your county board in your state or things like that.”

The team also gave a brief history lesson on why their team is called “Cashew.” Its owner, Brad Paul, takes heavy influence from Africans due to his frequent travels to the continent. Paul is currently on a mission to improve ethical sourcing and reduce prices of cashews.

“We want to be able to source those cashews from places where we know that farmers will get good prices, where the factory workers who process the cashews will get fair wages that we can trace those cashews in case there’s allergens or health effects,” Paul said. “It’s kind of like the way we purchase coffee or wine, right we know the source, we know the brand identity, you don’t have in cashews.”

Paul said most cashews are grown outside  the United States, but the final flavoring process takes place here, which means the majority of the cost of cashews does not go to the farmers and cultivators who put in the majority of the work to grow cashews.