Award-winning Afro Deli has given Minnesota a taste of African cuisine.

For all of his success as a restaurateur, Afro Deli owner Abdirahman Kahin never imagined he would be named National Small Business Person of the Year and honored at a reception in the White House. The award, presented this spring by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), recognizes entrepreneurs who have excelled at leadership and in creating thriving businesses. The state of Minnesota bestowed a similar honor on Kahin in 2022. 

Abdirahman Kahin outside of his Afro Deli in downtown Saint Paul. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Kahin was a young man in his 20s when he left his parents and siblings in Somalia in 1996 and immigrated to the U.S. He left behind what he described as “a harsh life” in pursuit of his American dream. He chose Minnesota because of its large East African population and the state’s reputation for warm people and good opportunities in education and employment.

From making films to preparing food

Kahin initially wanted to become a filmmaker and enrolled in the media production program at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. He also found free-lance work as a videographer, making use of his avocation in photography. Then, in 2010, Kahin saw an opportunity to introduce the Twin Cities to African cuisine. With help from the African Development Center, a Minnesota non-profit that teaches financial literacy and helps small businesses get loans and grants, he opened his first Afro Deli in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis.

“My biggest challenge was how to bring people in who had never tried African food,” he said. He reached out to students from the nearby Carlson School of Management and Augsburg University. He hired the students to fill jobs in the restaurant, and soon word of his Afro Deli spread to other students and to faculty. 

Acclimating the Twin Cities to African spices

“The students were my best advocates,” he said. They also gave him tips about how to market the restaurant, especially through social media. Kahin employs one of those students today as his social media marketing specialist.

College students tend to be adventurous eaters, Kahin discovered. They were not afraid to try unfamiliar spices. Knowing that most Minnesotans are not used to spicy foods, his chefs keep the spice levels “Minnesota-friendly,” he said.

Among Kahin’s more popular dishes are the Sambusas—pastry pockets filled with beef, chicken or vegetables–and Chicken Fantastic with Creamy Sauce, a combination of ground chicken, cheese, vegetables and African spices. He also serves entrée salads and a variety of sandwiches and wraps with African accents. For the less adventurous, he offers cheeseburgers and fries along with a kids’ menu. His signature beverages are Ethiopian coffee and Somali sweet spiced tea. Customers order at the counter and have their food delivered to their tables.

Deli spreads to three locations

Once his Cedar-Riverside restaurant was firmly established, Kahin obtained an SBA loan and opened a second Afro Deli in 2015 at 5 W. Seventh Place. His best customers in downtown Saint Paul were government employees. He tried opening a restaurant in the skyway food court in downtown Minneapolis’ Baker Building, but closed it in 2020 when COVID-19 struck and many employees began working from home. His other Minneapolis restaurant in Stadium Village at 720 Washington Ave. SE has remained open as workers slowly began coming back to work.

From MSP Airport to Meals on Wheels

Kahin also sells grab-and-go foods at five outlets operated by Hudson News at Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport. The food is prepared in his commissary at the downtown Saint Paul location, which has grown from 1,000 to 5,000 square feet since it first opened. 

His Saint Paul staff also prepares 400 meals daily under contract with Meals on Wheels, Second Harvest Heartland and Ramsey County. Kahin began that work during the pandemic when he saw a need to supplement the food budgets of people at risk for food insecurity. “When you own a restaurant, you have some responsibility to your neighbors,” he said. 

Kahin hasn’t forgotten his native Africa

Kahin also has raised money to help alleviate hunger in his native country. He worked with other restaurants to provide relief during the drought in East Africa in 2017. “We are always ready to respond when something bad happens,” he said.

An ongoing project Kahin supports is the nonprofit Books for Africa organization. He recently raised money to ship around 110,000 books to partner organizations that distribute the books in Africa. He is on the board of the Saint Paul Downtown Alliance and is a member of the Saint Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.

“Kahin is the best,” said Downtown Alliance president Joe Spencer. “We’re thrilled for his well-deserved recognition. Kahin, chef Moussa and the whole Afro Deli team are the secret sauce that makes downtown Saint Paul such a great place.”

“My dream came true,” Kahin said, looking back on his career so far. “Now everybody in Minnesota knows something about African cuisine.”

— Jane McClure


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