Dothan residents, Scott and Sasha Fowler, share their story of a new business venture with an activist twist.
Get ready for a sweet, sweet love story. Oh, and a sweet story of success. In fact, get ready to fall in love, yourself, with the sweet taste of Cinnimmigration Rolls! Wait…you haven’t heard of Cinnimmigration Rolls? You don’t know what Cinnimmigration Rolls are? Well, let me introduce you to them!
Growing up in the Deep South, Scott found coming out as a gay man to be a loving process, thanks to his mother, Barbara. He says, “My mom kind of dragged me out of the closet. She always had gay friends since I was a kid.” On his 16th birthday, after asking if some of his close friends were gay, she eased into the question she most wanted to ask. “Are you gay?” Scott continues, “I kind of hesitated for a second and then, you know, my mom is one of the most loving, understanding people to ever walk the earth, and so I told her yes. She said that was ok, and she said, ‘I don’t want you to feel you have to hide it.’ She kissed me on the cheek, told me goodnight, and that was it. I have a lot of friends who have very different stories from mine.”
If he and Scott had known each other growing up, Sasha would have been one of those friends with a very different coming out story. On being gay in his homeland, Sasha says, “Kazakhstan is a Muslim country and it is very much illegal to be gay. And of course, the whole life of pretending to be somebody else and only a few closest people knew I was gay. Of course, it had to be secret because it is dangerous to be open gay. That was the main decision to move to United States.” Once here, he came out to his mother in a phone call back home. “Yes, actually I came out to her just two years ago. She told me, ‘I know; I knew’. I was like, ‘Mom, really? And you never asked me about it?’ She tried once a while ago, but I guess she didn’t use the right words and it scared me, so I never came out to her [before leaving home].”
Sasha arrived in New York City in 2012. He spoke very little English. With the help of friends and an extended Russian immigrant community, he eventually made his way to the sunny sands of the Gulf Coast and settled in Panama City Beach, Florida. He began learning English right away and picked it up quickly. “I had inspiration. I didn’t want to be an outsider and not be able to talk with people and communicate. It took me about two years to start talking and being able to hear people.” Sasha speaks with only a slight hesitation, testing his words a little as he says them.
Scott takes up their narrative. “Sasha and I met New Year’s Eve of 2014,” after first communicating through social media. “We got married about four months later in Panama City Beach….Sasha moved in like two months after we met, and, I don’t know, it just clicked. Neither of us really thought we would ever marry anyone, so it’s a pretty funny thing how it worked out.” He gives an infectious laugh; you can imagine him behind a bar mixing drinks and pouring on the charm, making everybody there feel special.
After living together for a short time, they both knew getting married was what they wanted. Scott said, “I don’t know, just one night, it’s not even like one of us got down on one knee and proposed, we were just talking about it, and we both decided we want to do this, we want to spend our lives together, so why should we wait any longer?”
They were married in Panama City Beach on April 4, 2015, just two months before the U. S. Supreme Court decided in favor of marriage equality. However, marriage was already legal in some places around the nation, including Panama City, as well as some Alabama jurisdictions. Still, the ceremony almost did not happen. The person they had asked to officiate backed out at the last minute with no explanation. Online they found Jamie Hullenbaugh, who, despite chronic illness and discomfort, insisted on driving the 2-2 ½ hours from Pensacola to Panama City so Scott and Sasha could have their ceremony when they wanted, and where they wanted. “She made it really special,” Sasha said.
So, how do we get from a love story to cinnamon rolls…? Follow the money. It was not long after they married that Sasha’s work visa lapsed. Scott explains, “He has not been able to have a job, a driver’s license, or all kinds of stuff like that, so saving up the money for his Green Card has been difficult, to say the least.”
Scott’s income was not enough to both pay the bills and save the $3,500 they estimated they would need for the immigration fees and applications. “We were thinking a lot, and we tried to come up with ideas…we just had to make money, and a friend of ours said, ‘try to sell the cinnamon rolls,’ Sasha explained. Scott broke in, “I can’t remember [whose idea it was], I think it was my mom’s. She claims that it was her! We had a lot of friends over for dinner a few weeks ago…Sasha and I made the cinnamon rolls for dessert, and, yeah, I think it was my mom who said, ‘Why don’t you just sell these?’…so, we’ll give her credit!” There’s that laugh, again. Scott continues the story. “So we decided to just start baking at home the cinnamon rolls I had always made for special occasions…and it takes a little more work than making a cake or muffins and stuff, so we thought if people saw us putting the work into it, maybe they’d be willing to help us out. And, after one Facebook post, it went crazy. We had 250 orders that first morning after we woke up and I had made the post the night before. We got to baking, and I thought we could sell 10-20 pans, make an extra couple of hundred dollars, and I would take out a loan for the rest of what we needed. As of now we’ve reached and surpassed our goal (which was $3,500) and now we’re putting back the extra money to start the business.”
That business will be a coffee shop serving Cinnimmigration Rolls in downtown Dothan. Scott and Sasha have been talking with investors, and they think they may be signing a lease within a couple of weeks.
But the story won’t stop there. Meeting Sasha opened Scott’s eyes to the complex and often heartbreaking experience of being an immigrant trying to start a new life in this country. Besides the question of being able to afford the legal and other fees, there is an enormous amount of paperwork, and many hurtles to jump. The hardest part for the applicant is realizing how vulnerable he or she is. At any point, something in this complex process may go wrong, forcing the applicant to start all over. But much worse is the shadow of possible deportation that looms over every step along the way.
Because of this, Scott has pledged that once the shop is up and running, a percentage of Cinnimmigration Rolls’ profits will go to help other couples or families who are trying to get their Green Cards, perhaps offer financial help, or just offer to walk people through what is a very long and complicated process. “This is like something I, I never even thought about it, you know? I was born here, I never even had to look at an immigration website. And now for it to be a very common part of our lives, it opened our eyes to it.”
The support has been overwhelming already, and both Sasha and Scott expressed deep gratitude for the response so far. Scott sums it up. “I do want to make sure that we get a big thank you out to everyone who has helped us so far…it’s been very heartwarming to know there’s that many people out there watching over us.”
If you live in Dothan, or you’re willing to make the drive, place your order now on their Facebook Page, Cinnimmigration Rolls.