Diverse businesses meet on Cedar Ave.

Kane Loukas

On Cedar Avenue South, a handful of lackluster storefronts are quietly hammering out their place in the business world. But to be sure, that world is galaxies away from the technological sophistication and corporate mind-set propounded by the Carlson School located just one block east.
The delis and food markets represent business at the most basic level. Before fast food, strip malls and venture capital, entrepreneurship was a family trait — not a bachelor’s degree.
The Cedar-Riverside area neighborhood is flush with immigrants, many of whom have arrived from Somalia and Ethiopia in the past five years.
“(The Cedar businesses) are very much a reflection of the changing community,” said Sandra Bloom, executive director of the Cedar Riverside People’s Center.
For these people, the decision to open a business hinges on whether it will strengthen the community and provide basic needs, not strictly on the potential to get rich.
Having opened its doors just six months ago, Tawakal Halal food market is a newcomer to the Cedar community and one example of the area’s unique business philosophy.
Tawakal isn’t a luxurious shop, and it’s small, even by convenience-store standards. Its yellow sheet metal shelves are stocked with mostly natural foods from India, Africa and the Mediterranean, but not plentifully or in great variety. The shelves aren’t stuffed; there is only one brand of most products, not the dozen or so common to the average suburban supermarket.
Tawakal draws its core clientele from the 8,000-person Somali community residing in the Cedar- Riverside area and the nearly 25,000 Somalians living in the Twin Cities. The Twin Cities are home to the largest number of Somali people outside of Somalia. It was on their behalf that the market was opened on Cedar Avenue South, said Tawakal co-owner Sahal Ibrahim, also a recent Somali immigrant.
“(New immigrants) are confused when they go to the other stores,” Ibrahim said in rapid, well-spoken English. “We teach them a lot about being American,” such as where to find certain food items and directions to various destinations. “I have to bring everything together and give people in the community everything they need,” he said.
The tendency of a group to plant its feet in a new place by opening a business isn’t a new one.
“(Starting a business) is a way of establishing a home in a large and often unfriendly city,” Bloom said. “Our community is really small; it’s a small village in many ways.”
But even a village can be a little intimidating to many of the white bread suburban students at the University who aren’t used to the Cedar area.
“When we say that Cedar isn’t particularly savory, that’s true,” Bloom said. “(University students) don’t come over more, partly because they are so insulated by the big walls of the University.”
Bloom noted that since students have on-campus food courts and cafeterias, they have little need to venture out unless they’re looking for something different. She stresses Cedar’s uniqueness when she refers to one of the area’s better-known nicknames: an urban never-neverland.
Cedar Avenue South is one of the few places near the University where the street exudes a faint, stale smell of exhaust, fried food and garbage. The street is home to a fair share of vagrants who are kept under watch by a squad car, a permanent fixture on the street.
But what the small commercial district lacks in aesthetics, it makes up for in local color, a term Mark Twain used to describe the curious mix of unique traits that characterize small towns and communities.
On Cedar, business owners know their clientele, and they venture outside to talk with passersby, not so much to drum up business, but simply because they’re interested.
Qasem Rashid, owner of The Mediterranean Deli, is well known for his gyros and humus, as well the rapport he keeps with his customers. Rashid’s regulars know him by the poetry he reads to them as they sit at the makeshift counter.
Filled with images of flowers, bravery and references to his Jordanian ancestry, Rashid’s romantic verse isn’t entirely out of place in the deli. Like his poetry, the small storefront is a reflection of the life he left behind when he fled the 1991 war in Kuwait.
Above the makeshift counter, Rashid displays a tapestry of Mecca and Saudi Arabia. Above the door hangs the print of a scripture verse written in Arabic.
Rashid’s shop, like Cedar Avenue South itself, reflects the people living and working in the area. And unlike the usual shopping or lunch experience, the product comes with a healthy serving of the personality of the neighborhood and the people behind the counter.