ST PAUL, Minn. — Downtown St. Paul remains desolate. The theatres are empty. Few cars pass by and even fewer pedestrians walk the streets.
But inside Afro Deli on 7th Place and Wabasha St., the pace is bustling as hundreds of meals are being prepped and packed by a still fully-employed staff.
How could this be? In a restaurant, in these times?
“It’s been a blessing,” said owner Abdirahman Kahin.
In March, he said he was faced with a sadly familiar ultimatum for restaurants this spring: find a way to adjust or close for good.
“Especially the first week of march it was really, really bad, especially for my staff,” said Kahin. “I didn't know what to do for them.”
The restaurant had food purchased and stocked for the week with no one to serve.
“So, we decided to donate to the elders, people with special disabilities who live in public housing . . . yeah that touched my heart. Because for a few days people did not eat or cook,” said Kahin.
That need turned into opportunity. In April, Kahin connected with Meals on Wheels, delivering 40,000 meals to seniors in the Twin Cities. For many, it was the only way to safely access halal food during Ramadan.
“We love catering where we cook food and deliver large amounts of food, but with COVID and the new restrictions we had to adjust our whole work flow,” said Mohamed Mohamed, marketing manager for Afro Deli.
The next opportunity came from Frontline and World Central Kitchen, where donations paid for 2,000 more meal deliveries to those in need.
That got them to August, where Afro Deli signed a deal with Ramsey County delivering meals to those put in danger by the pandemic.
“We opened up this opportunity for small businesses, different venders to apply and deliver meals for people who were home bound so that they can get the food they need,” said Carissa Glatt, Food Security and Basic Needs Operations Chief for Ramsey County.
Afro Deli received nearly $500,000 in its contract with the county, joining four other vendors to provide 20,000 meals to those in need, according to Glatt.
Delivery now makes up about 75 percent of Afro Deli’s business.
“The plan was to help the community for like two or three weeks. Now we are in seven months, and we are just growing and the demand is just growing,” said Kahin.
The contract with Ramsey County, provided by funds from the federal CARES Act, expires at the end of the year.