Following their dreams on Lake Street

(Ingebretsen photo by Kelly Povo, all other photos by Bruce Johansen)

Working on a book for Ingebretsen’s 90th anniversary has helped store manager Julie Ingebretsen better imagine her grandfather’s life. A Norwegian immigrant, Charles arrived in New York City in 1905, learned the butcher trade in Fargo, and headed to Minneapolis, where, eventually, he opened Model Meat Market on Lake Street’s streetcar line. Julie marvels, “Coming with nothing, opening a store and then more stores; it remains a mystery how he did it.” Over time, Minneapolis has developed a reputation for welcoming and assisting new immigrant business owners. Three Lake Street proprietors recently shared their stories about emigrating to the U.S., starting businesses, and becoming citizens.

Manny Gonzalez and Manny's Tortas

For Manny Gonzalez, a Mexico City native with a background in hotel administration and culinary arts, Minneapolis was to be “a grand adventure, not a place to stay.” Interviewing for a job at a Sheraton Hotel in Mexico City, Manny was told he needed to speak English to work in the hospitality industry. The Mexican Consulate showed him a directory of places where he could learn. Minnesota’s lakes and snow caught his eye. Manny’s plan was to take a three-month ESL (English as a Second Language) program at Hamline University in St. Paul, and return to Mexico City. Instead, Minneapolis became home, and one by one family members followed. That was 30 years ago.

After working in other people’s restaurants for years, Manny credits the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) with “taking me by the hand,” providing the technical, financial, and business support he needed to open his own. “To this day, they still give that support.”  What makes NDC’s approach effective, Manny offers, is hands-on, face-to-face contact by staff members. He calls executive director Mihailo “Mike” Temali “the brains of everything,” and praises Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC) President Ramon Leon for his contributions.

It was through a 16-week NDC entrepreneur training course he enrolled in, that Manny learned Mercado Central was about to open. He was encouraged to take part, and helped with a business plan. Soon, he was serving his tortas—Mexican sandwiches—to a receptive clientele. Manny's Tortas is truly a family business. Vicky, Manny’s sister, arrived in the U.S. just days before the first shop opened in Mercado Central. She does financials. He gets to do “the fun stuff,” cooking and talking to people.

Minneapolis: Where it's at
  • Ingebretsen’s, 1601 E. Lake Street
  • Manny’s Tortas, Midtown Global Market, 920 E. Lake Street, and Mercado Central, 1515 E. Lake Street
  • Safari Express, Midtown Global Market, 920 E. Lake Street, and Safari Restaurant and Banquet Hall, 3010 4th Avenue S.
  • Gandhi Mahal, 3009 27th Ave. S.
"Minneapolis… is a remarkable example of a city that has not only taken steps to incubate immigrant-owned businesses, but has also taken a more holistic approach to reviving areas like the Lake Street corridor, integrating the work of private foundations and community organizations to increase public transportation, expand affordable housing options, improve public education, and expand civic engagement." -- Next American City

“When Mercado opened, everything was on our side,” Manny recalls. “The economy was strong. We had lots of customers. There were lots of Latino immigrants coming here for work.” Now, with the economic downturn and tighter border restrictions, people are leaving, and not arriving at the same rate, but business is solid. Mercado celebrated its 12-year anniversary this month.

NDC was also the driving force behind Midtown Global Market, marking its fifth anniversary with a jazz festival on July 30. Manny explains that when a chain supermarket was slated to become anchor tenant in the long-empty Sears building, small business owners and NDC rallied, pushing for something different. “A giant supermarket would have killed a lot of us,” he says. An attractive proposal for a global marketplace featuring local, independent businesses was offered and approved. As at Mercado, Manny became an initial tenant.

Both developments have received widespread attention as innovative retail business models serving different clienteles. According to Manny, 80 percent of Mercado’s clientele is Latino, versus 20 percent at Global Market.

One of the ways Manny gives back to the community is by locating in a development that has become “like home” for new immigrants. He also recently testified at the Capitol on behalf of University Avenue’s small business owners who are confronting challenges similar to those he faced during Lake Street construction in 2007. He cites that project as a major factor in the closing of his restaurant at 27th and Lake two years later.

The restaurateur’s achievements have been recognized through awards and media attention. He proudly displays a photo of him standing next to his hero, the late Senator Paul Wellstone. He beams when telling of having been featured on Guy Fieri’s nationally televised Food Network show.

Accomplishing the “American Dream” of becoming a successful entrepreneur, leads Manny to think about “how to take this to the next level.” “Our product is authentic; it’s unique to what’s offered here. It’s cooking in the style of Mexico City.” Yet, he knows the timing has to be right. A while back he approached his banker about opening downtown. He’s grateful his banker advised against it until the economy rebounds.

One important step in the direction of becoming bigger was last year’s invitation to begin selling his sandwiches at the Minnesota State Fair, an invitation which came after ten years of applying. “It was like winning the lottery,” Manny exclaims. Even though last year was about learning the ropes, it was a “great success.” His business got tremendous exposure and earned new customers. Plus, “being at the State Fair helped pay the bills.” He’ll be back next month.

Jamal Hashi and Safari Express

Jamal Hashi’s experience coming to the United States as a boy, 18 years ago, was far from an adventure. He and his family, who’d lived a stable, privileged life in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, were uprooted by violence and political upheaval. They endured a Kenya refugee camp for “two hard years”—his father, a retired Somali government official, died there—before landing in Arlington, Virginia, not a welcoming place for Somalis. Jamal explains that speaking no English and lacking the support that comes from belonging to a community of people with a shared experience, was fraught with challenges.

Fortunately, he says, “Somalis are part of an oral culture and enjoy sharing good news.” Eventually word trickled down that Minneapolis was the most welcoming place for Somali refugees. It became the place his mother and siblings aspired to move. Today, Jamal says “Minneapolis is the closest thing there is to Somalia.”

Life in Minneapolis was difficult initially. Jamal’s family lived in a shelter their first month, then moved to a rough neighborhood, where rents were low. “Minneapolis was known as ‘Murderapolis,’ at the time,” he says, “because the murder rate was so high.” He recalls the first night, walking with his mother in the dead of winter, looking for groceries. Seeing a brightly lit sign on a large building not far from home, they thought they’d found what they were looking for. To their dismay, it was a liquor store. They then walked 20 long blocks before finding a Cub supermarket.

Things improved dramatically when the family moved to Southeast Minneapolis two years later. There, Jamal met University of Minnesota students and professors. A naturally inquisitive person, he asked questions, “fell in love with a coffeeshop, that became my ‘Cheers,’” and became involved with East Side Neighborhood Services, where he thrived. Architectural engineering was something he began to pursue, and then, real estate. Owning a restaurant was not something Jamal dreamed about.

Now, Jamal says, it feels like the life he’s living chose him. When Jamal’s brother, Sade, severed relations with his business partner, he turned to Jamal. (Sade, who launched the first Safari restaurant, downtown, prefers to remain in the background.) Soon, Jamal says, “I discovered I loved the work passionately.” Exposing “adventurous diners to Somali food, and then being told, ‘thank you, I had a great experience,’ is the ultimate pleasure,” he says.

Travels to Stockholm played a key role in Jamal’s path to opening Safari Express in Midtown Global Market. After experiencing an indoor marketplace there, he mapped out his vision for something comparable in Minneapolis. Not long after, he was approached by the African Development Center (ADC), on behalf of NDC, Global Market’s developer.  

“I liked the fast, casual concept,” Jamal remembers, and the opportunity to give more people the “wow” experience of discovering foods found nowhere else, like mango curries, camel burgers, and Chicken Fantastic—and learning about Somali cuisine, influenced by a history of colonization and role as a main port for Eastern and Western countries. Jamal describes Somali food as a blend of Indian and Italian influences and spices.

Jamal’s more recent encounters with Sweden, as part of a delegation there, have verified that Minneapolis has an “immigrant-friendly system,” making it perhaps, “the most open and supportive of any city, anywhere.” Sweden, he explains, has been seeking out Minneapolis delegations, because Somali people there are not succeeding. “They (Swedes) have begun wondering why Somalis in Minneapolis are functional and successful, becoming entrepreneurs and opening up their own businesses,” while there, “Somalis tend to be isolated, living far outside the city, and don’t work.” He observes that, “We have access to the system here, the Mayor of Minneapolis, and resources that are impossible to attain over there.”

It was Jamal’s personal investment, along with outreach and resources provided by ADC and NDC, which launched Safari Express in Midtown Global Market and later Safari Restaurant and Banquet Center, just off Lake Street on 4th Ave. S. Jamal credits Joyce Wisdom and her staff at Lake Street Council for doing “an amazing job,” ensuring that “things actually happen”—like assisting with zoning issues and façade improvement funding.  “The Lake Street Council is who speaks for us,” and does much of the marketing. Jamal says it takes time for new immigrants to understand the value of such connections. “It’s not something those who are fresh-faced, recently arrived, and just starting up, are thinking about—yet, anyway. They don’t come with the concept. They’ll come to see the value after they’ve been here for a year.”

Like Manny, Jamal dreams of expanding his business. For both, the sky is the limit. As he ponders what’s next, media continues to be drawn to Jamal’s story and the artistry of his cooking. He has caught the attention of Lynne Rosetto Kasper of American Public Media’s The Splendid Table, which has featured him three times. Other media outlets have aired or published stories, including the New York Post and CNN.

These days, Jamal and his family give back locally and globally through events held in Safari Restaurant’s banquet hall. Because of events unfolding in Somalia, they’ve been hosting benefits to assist starving people there.

Ruhel Islam and Gandhi Mahal

Ruhel’s path from Bangladesh to Minneapolis began in New York City in 1996. Arriving, in the midst of the season’s last snow storm, gave Ruhel “a very good feeling,” he remembers. Snow was something strange and new, so signified a fresh start. “Everybody wants to come here and achieve their dreams,” he says, because of the perception that all Americans have lots of money. New York City was not an easy place, however. Through various twists and turns, Ruhel is pleased he traded the Big Apple for Minneapolis, where Gandhi Mahal has earned accolades from a diverse clientele, including food critics, politicians, and the Small Business Adminstration, all of whom love its fine Indian cuisine. “People want to help you succeed in business here. This is heaven.”

Ruhel smiles whenever he speaks of the help Joyce Wisdom of the Lake Street Council has provided since he opened on 27th, just off of Lake, in 2008. He remembers Wisdom appearing at his restaurant one day, offering loads of assistance. “I felt welcomed, I felt energy. No one like Joyce had showed up in Dinkytown,” home to his first business, in the food court at Dinkydome for three years. Making matters worse, new developers there disrespected immigrant business owners, he says. Not so the Lake Street Council, which he says is especially helpful to immigrants who don’t know about available resources, and who need support navigating the system. “The world needs more Joyce Wisdoms.”

“Power comes through being a part of something larger,” Ruhel says, explaining the benefit of belonging to—or in his case being on the boards of—community organizations like the Lake Street Council and Longfellow Business Association (LBA).  Not only have those affiliations made him feel respected, they’ve introduced him to politicians, including U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, Gov. Mark Dayton, and State Sen. Patricia Torres Ray. His participation has also steered him to other resources with valuable connections and know-how, including Redesign, Inc., a Seward-based community development corporation, whose staff member, Megan Sheridan, helped with a façade improvement grant.

Being accepted as one of 200 up-and-coming entrepreneurs to participate in the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) “Emerging 200 initiative,” is a source of great pride.  The nine-month program is providing skills and tools Ruhel lacked, which in turn has altered how he thinks about the future. Had he not belonged to LBA, he points out, he would not have known to apply to the program. He is thrilled to be one of 19 from Minneapolis accepted, and one of only two city restaurant owners to get the nod this year.

Another development bringing Ruhel joy is the new community space adjoining Gandhi Mahal. At one end is an indoor garden—he grows more plants in front of the building and at a nearby community garden—providing some of the restaurant’s produce. Mostly there are tables and chairs for benefit dinners, school meetings, political fundraisers, and other functions.

When Ruhel became a U.S. citizen a year-and-a-half ago, he appreciated hearing the judge, who presided at the naturalization ceremony, say that becoming a U.S. citizen does not mean forgetting your culture or where you’re from. Besides being an ardent supporter of local farmers and causes, Ruhel gives back to the people of Bangladesh, a country of 160 million people, the size of Wisconsin, which suffers natural disasters annually and has a corrupt political system.

Closer to home, Ruhel “jumps at the chance to create a job for local people” whenever he can, donates to the Page Scholars program, and has sought to create a restaurant space guided by “the peaceful principles of Gandhi,” for the purpose of “bringing diverse people of different beliefs together.” 

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Bruce Johansen's picture
Bruce Johansen

Bruce Johansen (brucejohansen [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is programs manager, education and community engagement, for the Twin Cities Media Alliance, and an active resident of Minneapolis's Seward neigbhorhood.

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Lake Street development

The Lake Street development of 2007 was the end of many businesses on the street. All you have to do is start at the river and drive west to see the many empty buildings for rent and/or for sale.  I expect this will be the case for University Avenue.

Great Story

Nice to hear about  people who actually dream and go after it.  America needs such people by the millions.