Staying Afloat in Minneapolis
Recovering Small Businesses Hope Civil Unrest, COVID-19 Are Behind Them
BY ESPERANZA LEE
On the first night following George Floyd’s death last May, Abdiwahab Mohamed was with his family at home after a typically long day at his Minneapolis, Minnesota restaurant. As word spread that peaceful protests were turning into civil unrest near his establishment, Mohamed checked his restaurant’s security cameras and discovered a crisis unfolding.
Mohamed is the owner of Hufan Restaurant and Deli, a restaurant that serves Somali fare. Located on Minneapolis’ Lake Street, Hufan sits just one mile from the police precinct headquarters where all four former officers currently charged in Floyd’s death were stationed.
“People went to the police station, burned it down, then came down Lake Street,” Mohamed explains. It was late at night and Hufan had already closed its doors. No one was inside the restaurant when the crowd arrived.
Mohamed watched in fear as his security cameras showed a group of people smashing Hufan’s windows. Two people entered the restaurant, threw the restaurant’s cash register onto the ground, and stole the cash inside. Along with his eldest son, a college student, Mohamed rushed to Lake Street to protect his business from further damage.
“We were scared because we could have lost our business in one day,” Mohamed says. “We saw that a lot of buildings were set on fire, and we worried that they might come burn us down too.”
Mohamed says the looters got away that night with a few hundred dollars, an amount he calls “not that much.” However, seeing his battered cash register and the shards of glass everywhere took a greater emotional toll. “It was very tough,” he says.
For the next six nights, Mohamed rotated with his son and his landlord to keep watch over Hufan. As the unrest continued, Mohamed was forced to shutter Hufan, and the restaurant remained closed for three weeks while its storefront was being repaired. Insurance covered some of the losses, but not all. Much of the food in storage spoiled while Hufan was closed, and Mohamed estimates he suffered around $20,000 in total losses.
Nearly a year later, as Minneapolis braces for a verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer accused of killing Floyd, Mohamed says that many of his diners continue to worry about venturing to Hufan. “When customers call, they tell us that they cannot come to Lake Street because it is not safe,” he explains.
As Minneapolis braces for a verdict in the trial of former Police Officer Derek Chauvin, the owner of Hufan Restaurant & Café, Abdiwahab Mohamed, is considering whether or not to board up his windows.
As small business owners in Minneapolis recover from a difficult year marked by the unrest following Floyd’s death and the setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, immigrant and minority-owned restaurants continue to face disproportionate challenges. With the fate of Chauvin now in the hands of a jury, business owners hope that justice will be served—but many also fear the verdict might create more unrest and, in turn, bring further damage to their businesses.
Throughout this past year, Alondra Cano, who represents the Minneapolis City Council’s ninth ward, has become even more involved as an advocate for immigrant businesses. Cano, who is herself of Mexican descent, says these establishments are often financially less secure compared to their larger and more mainstream counterparts.
“We’re talking about people who sell bread, who sell tacos, who sell juice,” she says.
Cano says that even a smashed window could mean life or death for the small businesses in her ward. “What someone might consider a small interruption in business—whether it’s five days or a month or six months—has easily wiped out a lot of businesses who just can’t wait it out,” she explains.
First elected in 2013, Alondra Cano is the first Latinx to serve as a Minneapolis City Council Member. Photo Courtesy of the City of Minneapolis.
Each dot on this map of Minneapolis represents a business that was damaged in the unrest following George Floyd’s death last May. Ranging from yellow (up to 25 percent damaged) to dark red (destroyed), the darker the dot’s color, the heavier the damage suffered by the business. The horizontal line of concentrated dark dots delineates Lake Street. Map courtesy of the City of Minneapolis.
A map released by the city of Minneapolis shows that around 700 buildings were damaged during the uprisings following Floyd’s death. Much of the damage was on or near Lake Street, home to more than 2,000 businesses—many of which are owned by immigrants, people of color, and low-income entrepreneurs.
According to ZoeAna Martinez, Senior Community Engagement Manager at the Lake Street Council, the civil unrest caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to local businesses, and many of them are still struggling to re-open. “The scope of need in the Lake Street business community is tremendous,” Martinez says. “Rebuilding back to where businesses were before the civil unrest is going to take a lot of dollars, time, and patience.”
Martinez says there’s been an outpouring of support from individuals who have committed themselves to shop local, and to help small, minority-owned businesses in Minneapolis stay afloat. “We have been amazed by all the generosity, love and support that has poured in from around the world,” she says.
This support, including funding and donations from across Minnesota, has enabled the Council to invest $7 million to help cover the losses experienced by 350 damaged small businesses. In addition, the Council has also pledged $5 million in future support. “However,” Martinez says, “there is still a huge need for additional federal and state level support.”
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In March of 2020, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz banned people from dining inside restaurants due to the health risks associated with indoor gatherings. For months, Abdiwahab Mohamed and other restaurateurs’ only alternatives were takeout and delivery. But Mohamed says that takeout in particular hasn’t been popular among his customers. “They like sitting down at our restaurant, gathering together, and having fun,” Mohamed explains. “It’s not only about the food.”
In June, the city of Minneapolis eventually allowed restaurants to reopen for dining at half-capacity, to maintain social distancing. At Hufan, eager customers were sometimes confused by the new rules, especially if they had to wait for their orders outside once Hufan reached its new limit of 20 customers.
“Everybody wanted to come in,” Mohamed explains.
Throughout the pandemic, Hufan’s sales have mostly followed the ebb and flow of the government’s restrictions on indoor dining. Even after the earliest shutdown was lifted, the state government has continued to announce restrictions throughout the past year. “Anytime we have new pressures, we worry, because we are losing customers,” Mohamed says.
Mohamed also points out that the COVID’s impact on the economy has greatly affected Hufan’s Somali customers, many of whom were employed as bus drivers or through apps such as Uber or Lyft. Throughout the pandemic, these jobs have been hit particularly hard since many people are staying home, have nowhere to go, and have no need to call for a ride.
As a result, Mohamed says a lot of his pre-COVID customers are trying to save money now by eating at home. In turn, Hufan’s business has dropped significantly. Throughout the worst of the pandemic, Mohamed estimates his sales fell by as much as 90 percent.
Today, he says, sales continue to fluctuate. Even as the state and city both now allow restaurants to operate at 75 percent capacity, business is still slow. “We never get there,” Mohamed adds.
The downturn has translated into difficult business decisions. Mohamed used to be able to hire paid employees, but he had to lay them off. Now, his wife and two of his children help him run Hufan’s operations all by themselves, everything from taking orders to preparing food in the kitchen.
Mohamed has six children in all. “We have little kids at home and we are working here,” Mohammed says, “It’s hard. But there’s no choice, we have to do it.” His older children help take care of their younger siblings, he says.
Facing similar challenges is Michelle Kwan, the owner of Keefer Court Cafe & Bakery near downtown Minneapolis, in the West Bank Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Kwan’s parents, who opened Keefer Court more than 40 years ago after emigrating from Hong Kong, turned the business over to her in 2018. Because of COVID, they decided to come out of retirement and have continued to help her throughout the pandemic.
“We had no idea what COVID was going to do,” Kwan explains. “It was scary because [infection] numbers were jumping, death tolls were rising, and we just didn’t know what the world was going to be like in the next few months.”
Because of Kwan’s ongoing concerns about health and safety, Keefer Court has discontinued indoor dining completely, at least for now. “Our dining area is really small,” Kwan explains, “and we were [only] able to have two tables”—even when the restaurant was allowed to open to 50 percent capacity. “It was still hard to maintain the six-foot distance with our staff and customers,” she says. Keefer Court has since transitioned to takeout and delivery only.
Restaurant owner Michelle Kwan has been working with her parents for as long as she can remember. “As a kid, I always said that I wanted to take over the family business, and my dad took my word for it,” she says.
Throughout the years, Keefer Court Bakery & Café’s customer base has become much more diverse. Owner Michelle Kwan attributes this, in part, to the expanded reach of online marketing and social media.
As the cost of operations has increased with COVID, Keefer Court Bakery & Café has been forced to raise the prices on some of its baked goods by as much as 25 cents.
Similar to the situation at Hufan, however, some of Kwan’s customers haven’t responded well to takeout. “Customers just prefer to eat our noodle soup in-house,” she explains. “It’s an easier way to eat it and it just tastes better because noodles get kind of soggy when they get home.”
She continues, “I still have some customers come in and ask if they can dine in. When we say no, they end up not ordering our food.” Throughout the earliest months of COVID, Kwan says her sales dropped by 8 to 10 percent. By mid-summer, however, sales rose 15 to 20 percent from the dip caused by the shutdown, and have remained steady ever since.
A potentially longer lasting challenge for Keefer Court is the increase of back-end costs. For example, as consumers rushed to grocery stores towards the beginning of the pandemic, the restaurant faced unpredictable fluctuations in the prices of its food supplies.
“We went a couple of weeks where we were just paying crazy amounts for rice,” Kwan explains. In addition, while a case of 15 dozen eggs used to cost $10, Kwan says that for nearly two months she paid between $20 to $30 per case.
As the pandemic dragged on, Kwan feared the worst. “There was a moment where I actually looked at my parents and I said, ‘Is this officially the end of Keefer Court? Are we going to have to shut down because we’re not making enough money to keep the doors open?’”
“I had to wear multiple hats,” she adds, “I was baking, I was working in the front and taking orders —but then in the back end of things, I was also trying to make sure we stayed afloat throughout all of this.”
Kwan says she’s been lucky to have the West Bank Business Association (WBBA) by her side, especially as she navigates the complicated network of grants and loans for small businesses. With around $175,000 in annual support from funders such as the city of Minneapolis and the McKnight Foundation, the WBBA promotes the economic stability of the West Bank Cedar-Riverside area. This neighborhood is home to more than 200 businesses, many owned by immigrants and people of color.
Boasting nearly 20 flags, this mural at the base of the Riverside Plaza apartment complex showcases the cultural diversity of Minneapolis’ West Bank Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.
In addition, KJ Starr, the Interim Executive Director of the WBBA, says the association has received more than $50,000 in crisis funding to help its members. While a larger business might have everything it needs to survive a pandemic—from legal experts to lobbyists who can help secure government funding—Starr says “our [small] businesses don’t have that.”
Instead, she explains, “They have us.”
After the CARES Act, the federal government’s $2 trillion pandemic aid package, was passed last year, Starr produced one of the first summaries that explained the legislation for small businesses; a colleague at the WBBA then translated Starr’s summary into the Somali language for the East African business owners in the community.
“We are really committed to making sure our businesses get every penny that they can get,” Starr stays. In addition, she’s also been lobbying policymakers to relax restrictions on outdoor dining and pickup zones for takeout orders. Both had been limited by concerns about restaurants extending their operations to public areas such as sidewalks.
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Throughout the civil unrest in Minneapolis last spring and summer, Kwan says protesters often passed through the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, located just a couple miles to the north of Lake Street.
“During the day, we had a lot of peaceful protests, we had people coming out for justice, justice for George, justice for Black Lives Matter. And in the evening, just as most things happen, there were people who were not necessarily there to protest, but to riot, to cause havoc,” Kwan says.
At Keefer Court, located just three miles from where Floyd died, Kwan took extra safety precautions throughout the unrest—her parents live in an apartment above the bakery and restaurant.
“I helped them set up buckets of water and hoses at each of the entrances, and [gave them] fire extinguishers in case something happened,” Kwan says.
Starr says that community fears were heightened after a Facebook account linked to a Minneapolis police officer posted a picture online of Riverside Plaza, an apartment complex that houses many immigrants and refugee families. The photo was captioned: “Rioters, you missed one.” Amid complaints from the community about this post, the Minneapolis Police Department opened an internal investigation into the officer in question.
In response to the posting, the WBBA organized a “night watch” that grew to include more than 180 community members. Residents and business owners surveilled the Cedar-Riverside area for potentially damaging activities. Volunteers communicated through a group text chat, as they monitored activity from their apartments, rooftops, and on the streets.
Kwan, who was active in the group chat as well, recalls, “Some of the local residents set up a blockade on one of the side streets. They checked all the cars to make sure that the people coming into that residential neighborhood actually belonged there, instead of coming by to cause trouble.”
Starr adds, “We were basically a presence that shooed people off.”
Following the civil unrest that erupted in Minneapolis after George Floyd was killed last May, volunteers cover the wooden boards protecting Lake Street establishments with murals and declarations of hope and justice. Photos Courtesy of Uche Iroegbu/Lake Street Council.
Occasionally, volunteers were called to respond to real-time incidents, including a fire bomb that was thrown at a storefront. Fortunately, Starr says, community members were on the ground and able to put the fire out. “It was so scary,” she explains, “But people kept watch and totally protected the neighborhood.”
In anticipation of future unrest, Starr and other community leaders such as Council Member Cano have been meeting regularly with city authorities, including Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo. Discussions include safety measures pertaining to the Chauvin trial and verdict, as well as the upcoming one-year anniversary of Floyd’s death on May 25, and the trials of the three other police officers involved, scheduled for August.
Over the last few weeks, Starr has been adding more people to the neighborhood night watch. She’s also been working to help volunteers become better equipped, should the trials lead to more unrest. “We have received funding from the city to do some de-escalation training this summer,” she says.
“It is very important to us that justice is served,” Starr continues. “I don’t know what will happen if [Chauvin] gets off, and that’s pretty scary.”
Closer to Lake Street, the American Indian Movement (AIM) Patrol of Minneapolis has been similarly active in keeping local establishments safe. Last summer, as the city government imposed nightly curfews in an effort to stem the unrest, AIM Patrol was actually exempted from these curfews by Mayor Frey’s office.
Samantha Forliti-Staples helps coordinate the activities of the AIM Patrol from Pow Wow Grounds, a Native American-owned coffee shop where she started working as a barista in August. “This is our meeting ground, this is where we start. We usually have dinner, do prayer, and set up in groups,” Forliti-Staples explains. “We talk through certain apps to stay updated. If someone needs help or we see something, we’re able to communicate with each other.”
Members of the group regularly patrol local neighborhoods by foot and in their cars, maintaining a presence that, as Mayor Frey has acknowledged, is often enough to deter people from damaging local establishments. “There are a few people who are always [patrolling], who are doing it every night,” Forliti-Staples says.
When specific developments occur that could bring about potential unrest—for example, after the April 11 police shooting of 20-year-old Daunte Wright in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Park——Forliti-Staples says that more people get involved in the patrol during those nights.
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As spring brings warmer weather to Minnesota, and as more people become vaccinated against COVID, Abdiwahab Mohamed hopes that many of his customers will once again return. Last year, Mohamed sometimes felt like giving up on Hufan, a restaurant that was actually started by his father 50 years ago before the family moved to Minnesota from war-torn Somalia.
Regardless, Mohamed believes that he—and Hufan—are finally doing okay. “Getting better,” he says.
Michelle Kwan has noticed a recent increase of customers at Keefer Court who tell her that they’ve been vaccinated, and that they’re excited to return to some kind of normalcy. “We have more people asking us to open up for dine in,” she says, “which we’re still waiting on due to our limited space.”
At Pow Wow Grounds, Samantha Forliti-Staples says that all of the employees at the cafe have been vaccinated. “It seems like things are starting to pick up now that restrictions have been lifted a little bit more,” she adds.
The WBBA’s KJ Starr says that People’s Center Clinics and Services, a community health center located in the heart of the West Bank Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, has seen a flood of people coming in for COVID vaccines. As access and availability for the shots have expanded, Starr explains that vaccination is crucial for small businesses to start thriving again.
“I’m hoping that we’re all going to get vaccinated, and the vaccines are going to work, and we’ll be able to start at least being outside, seeing people, going to the bar, dancing, and things like that,” Starr says.
“The key to business is vaccination,” she adds. “It’s going to be the Roaring Twenties here. Businesses that made it [through the pandemic] are going to be doing really well.”
ZoeAna Martinez, in the meantime, says the Lake Street Council is working on an initiative to help business owners access mental health resources they might need to help weather the lingering challenges they still face. Through the Healthy Lake Street Fund, a partnership with the UnitedHealth Group, the Lake Street Council awarded $750,000 to 10 small businesses focused on community health and well-being.
And, as a self-described perennial optimist, City Council Member Alondra Cano says she continues to be amazed by the strength of the Minneapolis community, particularly the willpower of small businesses as they push through the turbulence of this last year.
“What I see is just people digging into the resiliency that they bring to this country as immigrants and refugees who have survived civil wars, who have survived migrations across multiple countries, who have moved forward and revitalized cities,” Cano says.
“Many of us are still here,” Cano adds, “And many of us have been able to enact change in the face of those challenges.”
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