There are a lot of words that can be used to describe Bangor resident Angela Okafor. She’s probably best known as a Bangor City Council member, but she’s also a lawyer, fashion designer, hair stylist, mother of three and small-business owner.
For most of the pandemic, however, Okafor was unsure if that last title was something she’d be able to maintain, after she had to close her business, Tropical Tastes and Styles International Market on Harlow Street, for nearly two years so she could care for her children.
Luckily for her and her customer base, Tropical Tastes and Styles finally reopened last week with a colorful new interior facelift, but with the same array of West African, Caribbean and Latin American food, as well as Okafor’s hair braiding services and handmade, self-designed apparel.
As a lawyer, Okafor mostly assists recent immigrants to Maine with their legal issues. But as a community member and proud Nigerian-American, her personality and values shine brightest at the market.
“Law is my profession. But this,” Okafor said, gesturing around the store, “this is me. This is who I am.”
Tropical Tastes now has a full inventory of both dry and frozen and refrigerated goods, ranging from meats like oxtail and goat commonly used in Caribbean cuisine, to spices, chilis and other seasonings for curries, stews and other dishes. But Okafor said her market serves an even more important purpose beyond what’s for sale, as a place for immigrants and people of color living in Bangor to come and feel connected.
“This place has become a resource for so many people. Just to know that you have a place where you can not only get the food you want, but to get questions answered if you’re new to Bangor and this country,” Okafor said. “It’s not just a grocery store. That is why I knew I had to reopen. I knew I could not fail.”
Before the pandemic started, Okafor was already busy, having opened Tropical Tastes in 2017 and run successfully for the council in 2019. Then the pandemic struck, and Okafor found herself caring for three kids under the age of 10, who were all now at home doing remote schooling. Trying to juggle that with her law practice and small business — all while dealing with some chronic health issues — was too much. She made the tough decision to indefinitely close the market not long after the pandemic started.
“I had to do it,” she said. “In the back of my mind I hoped we would reopen, but at that point, I was just trying to survive.”
By the end of 2021, however, her life was beginning to get closer to normal, and the thought of reopening Tropical Tastes and Styles began to seem more possible. Okafor said she received an enormous amount of support from friends in the community, who helped paint walls, sew curtains and stock shelves, and supply child care when needed.
Okafor said she feels a lot of responsibility to Bangor’s immigrant community, and said caring for others comes naturally to her. She is the first-born daughter not just in her immediate family in Nigeria, but in her generation in her entire extended family as well. In her culture, with that birth placement and as a woman, she was born with the drive to help others — but when she needed her own help, she didn’t want to ask.
“When you are the first daughter, you always have that unconscious thing where you are always thinking about other people,” she said. “The downside of that is that you’re not supposed to show vulnerability. So it was hard for me to accept help. But I had friends who told me, ‘I don’t care if you think you don’t want help, I’m helping.’ And that was huge for me. I’m really grateful to this community for showing up when I needed it.”
Tropical Tastes and Styles International Market is located at 347 Harlow St., behind Northern Kingdom Music. It is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, and noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays.