Kahin of Afro Deli attending State of the Union address

Abdirahman Kahin, 38, will attend the State of the Union as a guest of Sen. Al Franken. The Djibouti native started Afro Deli restaurant in 2010 in partnership with the African Development Center. Credit: Photo courtesy of Abdirahman Kahin

Abdirahman Kahin was scheduled this week to visit his mom and relatives in his native Djibouti when he got an invitation that made him changed his plans. 

It was Sen. Al Franken’s office, asking if Kahin, owner of Afro Deli restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul, would join him at President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address Tuesday in Washington D.C.

“It took me a couple of minutes to really process it was real,” Kahin said this past weekend. “I was grateful to the senator and his office.”

The invitation came as the 38-year-old Kahin continues to expand Afro Deli, which he opened in 2010 in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in partnership with the African Development Center. Kahin added a downtown St. Paul location last year and expanded that restaurant’s seating in December.

“I knew St. Paul needed a more diverse menu in (its) restaurant scene,” he said. “I took a chance, and I knew it was worth it.”

The self-described social entrepreneur has been taking chances throughout his business career. Kahin emigrated to the U.S. when he was almost a teenager and started a media production company after attending Minneapolis Community & Technical College. He was part of a group that opened Casablanca restaurant about 10 years ago in southeast Minneapolis.

Kahin didn’t have much restaurant experience at the time, and Casablanca closed in 2009, he said. Leaders of the African Development Center enjoyed the restaurant, however, and asked Kahin to become a managing partner for the restaurant they wanted to open at their new Cedar-Riverside office.

The nonprofit African Development center works to help African immigrants grow businesses. For about eight years, the center has partnered with the city of Minneapolis on a small-business loan program that helps Muslim business owners get around the faith’s prohibition on paying interest.

The city began its 2 percent interest program in 1986 and started the program for Muslim-owned businesses in 2007. The program allows small businesses in Minneapolis to take up to a $50,000 loan to purchase equipment or for building improvement, said Becky Shaw, a senior economic development specialist with the city. 

The program is the same for Muslim business owners, Shaw said, but the city charges them 2 percent extra up front to circumvent the prohibition on paying interest.

“From our standpoint it’s the exact same,” she said. “We just charge a fee that’s built into the loan.”

Afro Deli was one of the first businesses to access this loan, former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said, adding that the program helped about 50 businesses get started.

The center used a combination of city, federal and private funds to kickstart the restaurant. The center executed a business plan and provided Kahin back-end assistance.

Kahin worked with the African Development Center to a menu that combined American, Middle Eastern and African dishes with traditional East African flavors. They also made sure to prepare dishes Halal, or acceptable under Islamic law.

The combination proved to be a success. The Minneapolis restaurant, located near the University of Minnesota’s West Bank Campus, attracted a combination of students and neighbors. It’s provided the African Development Center with more than $100,000 in revenue each year.

“He makes an amazing gyro,” Rybak said. “(It’s) lot of fun to go to African restaurant in a formerly Swedish neighborhood and have a great Greek meal.”

Kahin began planning for an expansion soon after the restaurant’s opening. He obtained a mini MBA from the University of St. Thomas, which he said helped him learn management, financial and marketing skills.

Kahin opened the St. Paul location early last year to positive reviews. He oversees the location independently of the African Development Center and is in talks with Hudson Group to provide grab-and-go sandwiches and salads at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. He added that downtown Minneapolis is a target market.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said Afro Deli has become a lunch mainstay among his staff, estimating that he’s eaten Afro Deli a dozen times since it opened in St. Paul. He said Kahin provides fantastic food at a reasonable price, adding that Kahin strikes him as a hard worker.

“He’s really created kind of a neighborhood restaurant feel with the incredible food,” Coleman said.

African Development Center Executive Director Nasibu Sareva praised Kahin’s leadership style, noting that he is a good listener and passionate about what he does. Rybak appeared to agree, calling him a hard-working entrepreneur and an extremely likable guy.

“He is deeply committed to improving lives for people, but he’s also extremely humble,” Rybak said.”He’s a person who says yes when asked, but not a person who asks for that attention to go on to him.”

Kahin, who was a Boy Scout growing up in Djibouti, has continued to be involved in the community and serves on the boards of the Minnesota Somali Chamber of Commerce, the Somali Confederation of Minnesota and People’s Center Health Services.

Kahin said he would like to open more restaurants and continue to mentor small-business owners in the future. He loves sports and plays soccer, watches football and enjoys Minneapolis’ lakes in his free time.

As for his trip to Djbouti, it will happen, he said, but at a later date.

“Africa can wait for me,” he said, “but this cannot wait.”