A trailblazing entrepreneur

Founder of hot sauce company is leading the way for Somali American women in business

Yes, Sadia Abdi is trying to grow a sauce company, but her goals are about much more than a new food product.

Abdi believes she is the first Somali woman to bottle and sell a food product in the U.S. With her business growing, she recently announced plans to donate 10 percent of all proceeds from Sadia’s Gourmet Sauce to humanitarian efforts in the Horn of Africa, primarily through the American Refugee Committee’s Neighbors for Nations program.

Sadia’s Gourmet debuted at the Uptown Market in 2009 and has been a fixture there ever since. Her product is also available at a number of local co-ops, including The Wedge.

Earlier this year, with sales increasing, Abdi hired a public relations consultant to help grow the company she founded four years ago. She said her next goal is to get her product on the shelves of large-scale retailers like Cub Foods and Target.

But as it has been since the beginning, her long-term hopes go beyond just capturing a larger market share.

“I want to work on helping my family back home — that’s my goal,” she said.

Looking for a better life

Abdi and her family — along with tens of thousands of her compatriots — fled Somalia in the 1990s following the collapse of the country’s central government in 1991.

The first stop for Abdi and her family after leaving their homeland was a refugee camp in Kenya. There, life was hard. With food scarce and very little access to medical care, Abdi endured a failed pregnancy and worried about what the future held for her other young children.

In 1999, Abdi was fortunate enough to win a lottery that allowed her family to emigrate from the refugee camp to California. She, her husband and her nine children soon found themselves in San Diego, but struggled to find work.

Abdi said she didn’t want to resort to receiving welfare, but it was becoming increasingly difficult for she and her husband to provide for their children without a steady source of income. When she discussed her family’s plight with friends, some recommended they look for work in Minneapolis, which has the largest concentration of Somalis in the country according to the latest census data.

Abdi’s husband made the trek to the Twin Cities, was able to find a job, and soon sent money back to California to help the rest of his family move. Shortly thereafter, Abdi found herself working as a housekeeper in Minneapolis.

“I came to the United States because I was looking for a better life. Where is the better life? Where you can find a job,” Abdi said.

With nine children to feed, Abdi is used to doing a lot of cooking. One of her specialties is a hot sauce based on an old family recipe. After coming to Minneapolis she began taking note of the rave reviews her sauce received from family and friends.

She decided to enter the sauce in a Festival Foods competition, where it was unanimously voted the best tasting hot sauce. Festival expressed interest in stocking her product, prompting Abdi to begin work on compiling nutrition facts and product labeling.

In 2007, with the help of loans from the city and the African Development Center of Minnesota, Abdi began renting space in a community kitchen in Columbia Heights, where she mass produces and packages her hot, mild and sweet sauces.

Her all-natural sauces feature a spicy-tangy flavor a bit reminiscent of a sriracha-peanut sauce hybrid. Sadia’s Gourmet, which has the consistency of a salad dressing, can spice up soups, rice and pasta dishes, sandwiches and eggs.
A 12-ounce bottle of Sadia’s Gourmet sells for between $6 and $7.

Unsurprisingly, the recipe has been slightly toned down since it made its debut in East Africa — a change Abdi attributes to the demographics of the Twin Cities area.

“Minneapolis people are Scandinavian, they can’t handle the hot like we have in Africa,” she said with a smile on her face. “You have to communicate with your customers and make them happy, and that’s what I try to do.”

Giving back

Abdi’s pledge to donate 10 percent of her proceeds to humanitarian efforts comes at a time of grave need in her homeland.

Millions of people in Somalia are at risk of starvation as the Horn of Africa experiences its worst draught in decades.

Abdi still has a lot of family in Somalia and throughout the horn, including her mother, brother and sister. She said she believes the causes of the current crises are similar to the problems that drove her and her family from Somalia almost two decades ago, including political instability, violence and lack of economic development.

“The people don’t have work,” Abdi said. “Yes, some people have money but they can’t make a business because of the politics. There are a lot of problems causing the hunger.”

Beyond her entrepreneurial activities, Abdi said her ultimate goal is to found a charitable organization focused on the needs of East African women and children, especially in the areas of food, shelter and education.

Although she is still paying off her business loans, Abdi said she simply couldn’t wait any longer before using her small-scale entrepreneurial success to do what she can to help address the large-scale problems of her hardstruck homeland.

After all, if she hadn’t won that lottery over a decade ago, her family might still be in a refugee camp in Kenya. Abdi’s feel-good story has involved a lot of hard work, but she’s also been more fortunate than some who were never able to flee the hunger and strife that have unfortunately become facts of life in the Horn of Africa.

And though her business is still fledgling, Abdi’s story has inspired many supporters, one of whom is Colleen McCarthy, a poet and yoga instructor who began doing public relations work on behalf of Sadia’s Gourmet last winter.

“This is a story about a person who is generously giving back even as she’s just getting started,” McCarthy said.

Reach Aaron Rupar at arupar@mnpubs.com.