“Mama” closes coffee kiosk on 23rd, citing disruptive road construction

Nop Zay, left, examines paperwork at her coffee kiosk on 23rd Avenue as her son, Abodolloh Zay (right) works in the kitchen. (Photo by Venice Buhain.)
Nop Zay, left, examines paperwork at her coffee kiosk on 23rd Avenue as her son, Abodolloh Zay (right) works in the kitchen. (Photo by Venice Buhain.)

Nop Zay, the owner of First Cup Coffee, also known as “Mama’s,” says the long construction project on 23rd Avenue has been too much. Zay plans to shut the drive-through coffee and food kiosk she has run for more than a decade.

The construction hurt my family,” said Zay, who is known to many of her customers as “Mama.”

For four months, she’s seen the formerly constant traffic to her drive-through trickle down to some days receiving less than $20 in sales. The decreased sales coupled with a rise in rent meant that Zay could no longer sustain her drive-through coffee shop, despite receiving $25,000 from the city’s 23rd Avenue Business Stabilization Fund.

“If at least we’d have $500 a month, I’d be satisfied. But all the electricity and water bills and the rent… ” she said. She said the money from the city will cover debts incurred during construction. “I have so many holes, and I don’t have enough.”

While other businesses on 23rd, including Sam’s Moroccan Sandwiches, have closed since the start of the project last summer, Zay — whose business relied heavily on car traffic — directly attributed her financial hardships to the inaccessibility of the street.

The two-year, $43 million project, which started last summer, has been hard on the Central District businesses on 23rd, many of which are immigrant- or minority-owned. Owners told the Globalist earlier this year that city detours have directed the traffic that they depended on away from their businesses and onto other streets.

But for months, the neighborhood residents and businesses have faced street closures and detours. On Wednesday, the 23rd Avenue driveway to Mama’s kiosk was completely blocked, as crews work on the northbound lanes.

In February, following an accusation by Seattle King County NAACP president Gerald Hankerson at a city council meeting that the project was designed to shut down minority businesses, Mayor Ed Murray announced that $650,000 in federal grant money would be redirected to help the small businesses in the district.

According to the city, 17 small businesses including Zay’s received assistance from the fund, and an additional five are going through the application process. Some of those same businesses were also referred to utilities.

Business affected by the street project also can apply for deferment of taxes and utility payments, according to the city.

But for Zay, the assistance wasn’t enough. Nop Zay, who is Cham, left Vietnam 30 years ago and raised her children in Seattle. Zay, who owns a home in West Seattle, said her plans are uncertain after 12 years of owning her own business.

“Maybe someone needs a server? I need to find a new job. I’m 70. How am I going to find work?” she said.