St. Paul: a ‘golden location’

Afro Deli has expanded from its original Cedar-Riverside location to a new storefront in downtown St. Paul.

St. Paul resident Mollie Thao browses the menu at the new Afro Deli location in downtown St. Paul on Tuesday evening. Afro Deli started five years ago in Cedar-Riverside via a partnership with the African Development Center.

Liam James Doyle

St. Paul resident Mollie Thao browses the menu at the new Afro Deli location in downtown St. Paul on Tuesday evening. Afro Deli started five years ago in Cedar-Riverside via a partnership with the African Development Center.

Barry Lytton

A Cedar-Riverside restaurant that has fed the area’s lunch and dinner crowd a mix of African and Mediterranean cuisine for nearly five years expanded last week, opening a new storefront in St. Paul.

The St. Paul Afro Deli and Catering opened its doors recently, but its Minneapolis location was first created near the University of Minnesota’s West Bank as a tactic to diversify an area nonprofit’s income.

The African Development Center partnered with the restaurant’s owner Abdirahman Kahin in 2010, and the two agreed that the ADC would house the eatery and lend it financial advice for half of Afro Deli’s profits.

A few years later, Kahin approached the ADC’s executive director Nasibu Sareva looking to open a second location, but Sareva told him the timing wasn’t right.

“I couldn’t ask for a better partner. He listened to us; he did pretty much everything we asked him to do,” Sareva said.

Over the next couple years, Sareva said, Kahin continued to grow as a businessman and completed business management courses at the University of St. Thomas.

“He came back last year and said ‘Nasibu, I think I’m ready,’” Sareva said.

So the two began exploring a few Twin Cities locations. Kahin said the ADC provided a small-business loan for the restaurant to expand to a space in downtown St. Paul at 5 W. Seventh Place.

For his business to grow, Kahin said, he had to find the right location and be financially capable of expanding.

“The location we’re in in St. Paul is like the Nicollet Mall of St. Paul,” he said. “It’s like a golden location.”

Moussa Doualeh, a chef at Afro Deli’s new location, said he thinks the spot is a great fit in downtown St. Paul.

Some of the new location’s customers were familiar with the Cedar-Riverside location, he said.

“They were so happy to see us in this location, too,” he said.

The ADC provides assistance and loans for small businesses across the state run by African immigrants.

When it moved into its current building in 2009, Sareva and the organization’s former executive director decided to partner with a retailer to bring in funding it couldn’t get elsewhere.

“You get to a point where you want to try your best to increase your end income and reduce a little bit of the dependence on philanthropic community funding,” Sareva said.

The nonprofit monitors the restaurant’s  daily sales, but Kahin runs the business independently, Sareva said, though he meets with its owner every month.

Afro Deli makes the ADC between $60,000 and $100,000 each year, Sareva said. Director of the Gary S. Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship John Stavig said to successfully expand, a business needs to find a location with ample traffic and a market the business can serve.

The second most important step, he said, is to possess a good management team.

“You got to find somebody who’s going to deliver the type of service that you do in that first location, which usually is pretty unique,” Stavig said.

Kahin said downtown St. Paul has a large population of millennials, and young people make up the majority of his customers.

“Our food is more accepted, and it’s kind of trendy for the young generations,” he said.

Though Kahin got a loan to open the new location and will still receive some assistance from the ADC, he will own it entirely.

And although he only just opened his second location, Kahin said he hopes to expand nationally and already has his eyes peeled for new locations.