Abdirahman Kahin sat on a brick stoop outside the Food Building at the Minnesota State Fair Friday to reflect on how his restaurant, Afro Deli, went from a vision of uniting the community through food to four locations in the Twin Cities with more on the way.
But before he was named Minnesota's Small Business Person of the Year and shook President Joe Biden's hand, Kahin set out with a simple purpose.
Filling a gap:
The idea for the Afro-American fusion restaurant came to Kahin in 2009, who came to the U.S. from East Africa in 1996 after he surveyed the food landscape in Minneapolis, in 2009.
“I saw the demand for an African restaurant, a halal restaurant, that caters to the mainstream,” he said, referencing the manner of meat preparation that allows Muslims to indulge in carnivorous diets.
In 2010, he made his move to the city.
Kahin says many questioned his idea of placing the first-ever Afro Deli in Cedar-Riverside, a diverse Minneapolis neighborhood that already housed more than a dozen African restaurants and the University of Minnesota’s West Bank campus.
“The concept has always been to cater to mainstream Minnesota, college students, hospitals, that was my main focus and Afro Deli was born in the heart of the University of Minnesota,” he said.
Four years later, Kahin opened the second location for Afro Deli in downtown St. Paul. Another location in that city’s skyway system would come soon after and in 2019 Kahin opened a fourth location in the Minneapolis skyway.
While his fusion-restaurant empire grew elsewhere, the chain’s flagship store in Cedar Riverside would close after its lease ended.
Looking to make the best of the situation and keep his student base satisfied, Kahin opened a new shop on the U of M’s East Bank campus, before reopening a branch back near the West Bank in 2020.
Growth through the pandemic:
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Kahin knew without a new strategy and a way to keep his employees working, the business would end.
"I had never worked in a restaurant in my life, but I had the vision and brought a good team of people together," he said.
He credits partnerships with nonprofits and hospitals for keeping Afro Deli not just alive, but growing.
“We were working over our capacity, we were helping hospitals get food, homeless people, elders, nonprofits like Meals on Wheels and Second Harvest,” said Kahin.
Kahin said through the partnerships, Afro Deli served over a million meals throughout the Twin Cities.
Working with those organizations didn’t only keep his employees working at the Deli, but had another business boost as well.
"When we participated to help the community, we grew our workforce. The nonprofits already had their own clients so we became their extended kitchen," added Kahin.
While the pandemic did force the closure of Afro Deli’s St. Paul skyway location, it didn’t slow down growth in other areas. Today, he celebrates the chain’s first Minnesota State Fair appearance - a feat he likens to one of the biggest nights in sports: The Super Bowl.
The Super Bowl for restaurants:
"All the restaurants want to be at the Super Bowl right? All the teams want to win something, so they want to be at the final. This feels like the final because everyone doing business here is making money. You get 2.2 million people in 12 days," explained Kahin.
He emphasized that any business needs to have the right products, before explaining what it was that Afro Deli brought to the fair.
"African food and halal food were missing, so I think we brought something valuable to the fair," he said.
If the fair is the Super Bowl, then Kahin and Afro Deli will be walking away with this year’s Lombardi Trophy.
The team was named among the best vendors at the fair.
"Sometimes when you are competing for something, for an award, or a trophy, you have to work hard, right? You have to gather all your forces, you have to deliver. So our goal wasn't to win something, but to deliver great service great food, be different, and make people excited. That's what we just did. And then we got the trophy. I think that's the reward of our hard work," said Kahin.
Thirteen years after the first shop opened, Kahin said he remains focused on bringing fusion and halal foods to the Twin Cities.
A new location is already in the works for Lake Street and Kahin has his eyes set on a possible Burnsville shop as well.
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