When Abdirahman Kahin immigrated to Minnesota in 1997, getting into the restaurant business was the furthest thing from his mind. He had no formal training as a chef and said he didn't know the first thing about starting his own business. One thing Kahin did know was that he wanted to be an entrepreneur, and he was determined to do whatever it took to make his dream a reality.
Before opening up his wildly popular restaurant Afro Deli five years ago, Kahin owned a media production company, recording wedding ceremonies, parties, and events for the East African immigrants in Minnesota. After a while, though, he lost interest in that and says he wanted to "become a businessman in a bigger scale."
"I never cooked and still now, I don't know how to cook. I'm more of a entrepreneur and I'm into that side of my businesses," Kahin, who is Somali but was raised in Djibouti, tells me one November evening. We are sitting in a back office at his first location of Afro Deli. With its bright, orange-colored walls adorned with African art, the space is cozy and welcoming. The menu at Afro Deli spans the African continent and makes stops in South America and North America, too. Kahin says it was important for him to represent all foods of the continent, but also mix it up with some traditional American and South American options.
Kahin estimates that there are over 60 Somali restaurants in Minnesota, with 90 percent of them located in Minneapolis. Afro Deli stands out because of its eclectic menu, one that takes the customer around the globe with dishes with names like "Afro Steak Dinner" and "Chicken Fantastic." On the particular night I go to talk to Kahin, I go with the Chicken Fantastic, an entrée that consists of cuts of white grilled chicken with sautéed vegetables and grated Parmesan cheese over Somali-seasoned basmati rice. For dessert, I go light and sip on a Somali sweet spiced tea.
At Afro Deli, Millennials of the African diaspora make up a huge chunk of its customer base. Kahin says they were his first customers and spread the word about the food to friends and family. For a lot of Somali Millennials, the menu has introduced them to a lighter, healthier version of the dishes they were fed at home growing up. "This new generation of Somalis, ones who were born here or came at a young age, they are not like their parents and don't want to eat heavy meals that are common in Somali diets. They are more health-conscious but also love their native food. I've kept this in mind as I created the menu and changed things over time," Kahin explains. They've also brought in their parents, who've have become aware of the health complications that can arise from a diet that consists of a lot of meat and carbohydrates.
Recognizing the popularity of his first restaurant, Kahin opened up a second restaurant in downtown Saint Paul. Kahin is modest about his success and says he still is setting goals and has bigger plans for his restaurants. In 2016, he will become the first Somali-themed food vendor at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International airport. There are also early talks with the Mall of America, the biggest mall in North America, to open a location there. When I congratulate Kahin on these feats, he smiles but insists he's only getting started.
But Kahin is hardly the only Somali restaurateur in town. In fact, Minnesota is home to the largest Somali community in the country, with recent census numbers listing 33,000 residents—a number many Somalis believe is underestimated by tens of thousands. They began settling here in droves in the 1990s and early 2000s, rebuilding their lives after years of being refugees in foreign countries that weren't always welcoming. Among Somalis all over the US, Minnesota was dubbed "Little Mogadishu," a nod to their homeland's capital. There was a major decline in new Somali immigrants in 2008, due to stricter immigration policies, but the number of Somalis resettling in the state has more than tripled in the last four years.
About ten minutes away from Afro Deli's main location sits Safari Restaurant, one of the first Somali restaurants in the state, which has been open for 15 years. Owners Abdirahman Ahmed and Sade Hashi are charismatic, funny, and passionate about their restaurant and their city. The original location of Safari was in downtown Minneapolis; in 2010 they decided to move it to the Central neighborhood of Minneapolis's Powderhorn community, and added an event center that's connected to the restaurant. They are surrounded by restaurants and markets owned by immigrants who hail from China and Mexico, all carving out their own slice of the American dream.
Safari's cuisine is traditional in essence but also dabbles in some contemporary choices. "Our menu consists of three different themes," says Ahmed. First is traditional Somali food like goat meat, rice, sambusas [Somali version of samosas]. Second is contemporary, which is items like burgers, fries, and chicken wings. And last there is something we call fusion. The fusion items are Safari specials, and in this area we play with what's popular. These items have the texture, taste, and smell of Somali food, but have a lesser degree of spiciness."
On this particular visit, I go with the Galcaio Steak Wrap, one of their fusion choices that's named after the capital of the north-central Mudug region of Somalia. It consists of grilled marinated slices of beef and grilled vegetables, wrapped in homemade bread.
Ahmed and Hashi have been in the United States since the mid-1990s; before entering the restaurant business, they worked in the banking and IT industries. They both got tired of the 9-to-5 and wanted to build something from the ground up. "We like the lives we have right now—our destinies are in our hands. The outcome of our work depends on our efforts," Ahmed says proudly. They also say they didn't want to just open a restaurant, but a place of community, hence the addition of the event center that hosts weddings, parties, and even meetings for delegates from Africa.
For many Somali customers who frequent Safari, the food tastes like their homeland that they were forced to flee from due to decades of civil war. It satisfies their stomachs, but more importantly, it fills their hearts with memories. Ahmed tells me they are very proud of what they've built and are excited for the future and what they have planned for their restaurant. "We plan to expand and open new locations in the coming years, and also give back to our community by mentoring young entrepreneurs who want to enter the restaurant business. The future looks bright for Minnesota … and the Somali community here," Ahmed says with a smile.