On a sunny Thursday afternoon this past summer, a customer peruses racks neatly stocked with more than a dozen brands of hot sauces and salsas at Ruby’s Market, an artisan store housed in a former brick duplex on South Pearl Street. Inside the Platt Park building, four ivory-walled rooms are lined with tables and shelves showcasing more than 175 snacks, spices, cooking supplies, textiles, jewelry, plants, and other products made by local and global artisans, the majority of whom identify as women or members of immigrant, refugee, or Indigenous communities. In one room, a homemade sign declaring “Refugees Welcome” in large yellow letters hangs above a fireplace next to a display of colorful animal paintings by artist and Iraq native Mousa Al Khafaji. Reggae plays softly in the background, and the scent of warm spices wafts through the air as a woman shopping with her school-age daughter chats with owner Michelle Lasnier. “Just pull up to the alley,” Lasnier says as the pair walks out the front door. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

It’s August 26. Earlier in the day, a suicide bomber had detonated explosives outside the Kabul airport in Afghanistan. In the 10 days since the collapse of that country’s government, Lasnier had partnered with Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains and African Community Center to host a supply drive to collect pantry items and toiletries for Afghan refugees relocating to Colorado. When the last customer in her store exits, Lasnier darts behind a fabric curtain and out the back door of the building to meet the woman, who’s parked in the alley. There, she hands Lasnier grocery bags stuffed with travel-size shampoos and laundry detergent to store in Ruby’s backyard, garage, and storeroom, which serve as an emergency supply pantry for the Denver metro area’s refugee and immigrant communities. The storage spaces, which total about 2,000 square feet, overflow with donated products: stacks of packaged menstrual pads and baby diapers; a wall of electric tea kettles; tables piled with bags of basmati rice, dried lentils, and nuts; and laundry hampers and reusable tote bags packed with paper towel rolls.

Within a few minutes, Lasnier is back in the store, talking about how she’s always running out of one of Ruby’s best-sellers, Dead Veggies kimchi. The 50-year-old can even identify the facial expression of customers seeking a jar of the popular fermented cabbage. “They look at the fridge in anticipation when they open the door,” she says, shifting her gaze to the small cooler in the corner of the room. “People fall in love with these products once they try them, so it’s hard when I can’t get a restock and I have to shut them down. It’s just that small-business juggle.”

Michelle Lasnier, owner of Ruby’s Market. Photo by Onda Pictures

Since Ruby’s Market opened for in-store shopping in June 2020, Lasnier’s juggle has included managing the store’s operations by herself while accommodating alleyway rendezvous to collect donations for the pantry up to three times a day, seven days a week. Although she oversees the two worlds with grace, this wasn’t the original vision she had for the business.

Lasnier’s passing for working with artisans blossomed six years ago, when she began volunteering with the We Made This employment skills program at the African Community Center (ACC). Lasnier helped the participants sell bags, accessories, and clothing—crafted in ACC classes—at farmers’ markets and other happenings. Their ingenuity inspired her to establish the nonprofit R Bazaar in 2017. The roving incubator supports artisans, chefs, and entrepreneurs, with a focus on those who are members of refugee, immigrant, and Indigenous communities, through pop-up markets and mentorship.

Three years later, Lasnier left her full-time gig as a corporate events planner to open Ruby’s Market as a home base for R Bazaar and to fulfill her longtime dream of owning a mission-driven business. (The name of the shop is a nod to her late grandmother’s birthstone; the native of Brazil lived as an immigrant in Portugal and the United States.)

When the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the shop’s opening in March 2020, Lasnier opened a temporary emergency supply pantry in the space after she realized that many of the makers planning to sell their goods at Ruby’s were particularly vulnerable to the sudden economic downturn. To generate revenue and meet rising demand for online grocery sales, she also launched what she called a “market box” program, curating fresh and shelf-stable foods from local producers, such as Rebel Farms, Syrian Sweet Baklava, and Pint’s Peak Ice Cream, for weekly alleyside pickup. This gave her the funds to run the pantry in collaboration with ACC and Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains, which faced increased demand for food and supply pantry services and welcomed Ruby’s food-storage capacity and assistance. In 2020, the two Denver-based human services agencies supported more than 4,700 refugees, asylees, and immigrants from about 12 countries. They predict 50 additional families—including at least 800 Afghans—will arrive in Colorado by early 2022.

Because a lot of refugees are employed in restaurants, hotels, and other sectors of the hard-hit hospitality industry, many were laid off early in the pandemic, leading to the highest demand for ACC’s services in the nonprofit’s 20-year history, says Kate Weatherbee, ACC’s volunteer coordinator. “There was often a gap between when families became unemployed and when they were able to access unemployment and/or other benefits [like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP],” she says. “So, Ruby’s became an essential way for us to get food and supplies to those families who really, really needed them throughout 2020 and even the beginning of 2021.”

The agencies sent Lasnier lists of families’ needs and mobilized a network of volunteers to deliver packages of nonperishable foods, cleaning supplies, and toiletries collected at Ruby’s to households across the metro area. Lasnier posted calls for donations on Ruby’s social media accounts and received an overwhelmingly positive response. Because people in many cultures aren’t used to eating the processed products available at other food banks (think: boxed mac and cheese and canned soup), Lasnier did her best to gather culturally appropriate foods, such as dried beans, basmati rice, and black tea. From April to December 2020, the volunteers delivered $84,435 worth of groceries—including more than 300 care packages for the Thanksgiving holiday—to 503 people, all as a result of Ruby’s efforts, Weatherbee says.

Lasnier planned to return to her original business model—the artisan store—within a few months of the onset of the pandemic, but the need for donations hasn’t subsided. With the help of 12 rotating volunteers and as-needed supply drives, like the event for Afghan refugees, she continues to prepare donations for 30 to 40 families every week. While the unexpected ability to respond to the needs of the community in a volunteer capacity through the supply pantry has become a vital part of Lasnier’s day-to-day life, she is eager to make an impact via the store, too.

Although the Market Box program remains popular, the opening of in-person sales at Ruby’s Market gave Lasnier the opportunity to increase revenue and promote her merchants by sharing the stories behind the products in the shop as often as possible. “I want to know what the vendors want to communicate, where they’re from, why they started the business,” she says. “I do feel like I talk too much sometimes, but customers are like, No, no, we want to know. And if any bit of this could help integrate these cultures, that’s my personal mission. What a win if we can do that and at least break down some barriers.”

Lasnier’s encouragement and mentorship have made her an ally to many of her vendors, who pay Ruby’s a small commission on products sold at the store, through events, and in market boxes. Before she met Lasnier, Madhavi Tandon, the chef-owner of Maia Foods, struggled to find the right place to sell her ghee, spice blends, meal kits, and baked treats. The homemade creations are inspired by her upbringing in western India, and she didn’t want to modify them to be more approachable for those unfamiliar with Indian cuisine just for the sake of boosting sales. “I do want to stay authentic, and Michelle really supports all of our chefs in being as authentic as we want to be,” she says. “We can own what we make.”

That’s evident on a Sunday morning in mid-July, as Denverites are standing shoulder to shoulder at booths selling the likes of fresh-baked pies, plump Palisade peaches, and verdant houseplants at the South Pearl Street Farmers’ Market. There’s a tent set up in front of Ruby’s, where Lasnier features a different group of makers each week; Flana Soap owner Leila Baroudi and chef-caterer Vicky Mayanya of Vicky’s Thai Kitchen are on deck this weekend. Mayanya serves patrons glasses of Thai iced coffee and containers of chicken fried rice while Baroudi answers customers’ questions about her Lebanese soaps, bath bombs, candles, and lotions. Behind them, a continuous stream of shoppers wanders in and out of Ruby’s Market.

At 1 p.m., Lasnier and her crew pack up the booth and carry the tent to Ruby’s alleyway, where cars will begin arriving to pick up market box orders or donate more items for the pantry later in the afternoon. It’s one of the few days each week Lasnier isn’t managing the store on her own. “[The scene] is like an international train station,” Lasnier says. “When the vendors are here, they’re not just here with customers. They’re here interacting and helping each other. This is their domain. That’s my happy place.”

How You Can Help

Ruby’s is accepting donations for immigrant and refugee families. For information on the latest drive, go to rubysmarketdenver.com or follow the market on Facebook and Instagram.

This article was originally published in 5280 December 2021.
Patricia Kaowthumrong
Patricia Kaowthumrong
Patricia joined the 5280 staff in July 2019 and is thrilled to oversee all of the magazine’s dining coverage. Follow her food reporting adventures on Instagram @whatispattyeating.