The popular immigrant-owned Afro Deli and Catering in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood is stretching its muscle to make its mark on West Seventh Place in downtown St. Paul.
On Tuesday, the 4-year-old Minneapolis Afro Deli will have a new sister serving African, Mediterranean and American cuisine in the heart of Minnesota’s capital.
“It is a dream come true,” Abdirahman Kahin, owner of Afro Deli, said of the new location. “I have always wanted to replicate our great service and unique taste of food in every city and town in the state.”
The idea to establish a chain of the restaurant sparked two years ago after Kahin realized the boom of his business — even as the sweeping wave of recession closed down many businesses in the neighborhood.
Afro Deli continues to thrive and grow, Kahin said, because of its unique dishes, which attract diverse customers — many of them students and staff from the University of Minnesota and Augsburg College, employees from the nearby hospitals and clinics, and residents from the neighborhood.
“Food doesn’t have borders,” the soft-spoken Kahin is quick to say. “We serve everyone who eats.”
Partnership between Afro Deli and ADC
Before Afro Deli, Kahin ran a media production business in the early 2000s, making short films and recording wedding ceremonies, parties and events for the East African immigrants in Minnesota.
Kahin later developed an interest in the food industry and decided to leave his production business behind to open a restaurant. At the time, he said, there weren’t many immigrant-owned restaurants — and the few that existed focused on serving their communities.
“I had a vision to create a mainstream restaurant,” he said. He also wanted to showcase his community’s positive contributions through ethnic foods.
Kahin’s vision was fulfilled in 2010 when Afro Deli and Catering opened its doors, thanks in part to the investment of the African Development Center (ADC).
For ADC to thrive, the late executive director of the organization, Hussein Samatar, said at the time in a video interview, it would be best to generate its own income — and not rely on donations only.
So ADC invested in Afro Deli, with Kahin now runs and manages — and with ADC receiving its share of the profit.
‘I want to prove them wrong’
When Kahin sought loans to finance the new Afro Deli in St. Paul, some lenders turned down his request, telling him that it wouldn’t thrive in the downtown — and recommending he find a neighborhood with a larger immigrant population.
Kahin explained to the lenders that the majority of his customers are nonimmigrants and that his restaurant would do just fine in St. Paul. But this argument didn’t persuade the lenders.
“Just because Afro Deli located in Cedar-Riverside, they think all my customers are immigrants,” Kahin said. “At first, I was disappointed to hear that. But it only took me 20 minutes to say, ‘I want to prove them wrong.’”
Last Saturday afternoon, scores of people kept coming in to the new restaurant only to face Kahin and his staff, who greeted them with: “Sorry, we’re not open. Grab that menu and come back on Tuesday. Thank you.”
Ryan Colbert, a local actor, was among those who stopped by the restaurant. Colbert grew up in the Cedar-Riverside area and is a longtime customer of Minneapolis’ Afro Deli.
“I’m glad to see Afro Deli branching out,” he said. “In my experience in the one on Riverside Avenue, all types of people love the food, coming all the time — business people, school people, neighborhood people. That’s really a great community spot. I hope that this place can be like that, too.”
Afro Deli’s new location, 5 W. Seventh Place, formally housed Mexican-style Tacos, Nachos and Bear restaurant, which went out of business after less than a year.