The welcome sign at Midway Rendezvous Coffee reads, “Coffee of the day – Sidamo Ethiopian Coffee.” The customers sitting around the small circular table are from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.
As they sipped their tea from porcelain and glass cups, they talked about the latest news from their countries. African businesses in St. Paul are mostly family oriented, but open to everybody.
“This is a good place to talk to friends and families. Many don’t want to forget about their culture,” said Benti Samson, a customer at Rendezvous. “They need to support each other; it also brings them together.”
Opened in November 2005 by Ethiopian Darwit Jida and his wife Senait Kifle, Rendezvous, on 518 North Snelling Ave. encourages its customers to stay for a cup of coffee or more. As the name implies, Rendezvous is a meeting place for people from different countries. Africans as well as non-Africans add to the list of frequent customers.
“I like here. It is just nice,” said Macy Salzberger, a student from Central High School. “It is located next door to my drum lessons. I come here every Thursday for about three years.” Salzberger, 15, said she enjoys the Ethiopian coffee, but stays for few minutes on each visit before going to her drum lesson.
It was not a problem to open Rendezvous, especially since Kifle had taken business classes and had previous business experience.. It took about 45 minutes to fill and file documents at the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office, said Kifle. Many African business owners see their role as rendering services to their communities.
“Many of them come here for neighborhood meetings. It is a way of giving back to the community,” said Kifle, who enjoys her community’s support. “It is more than selling coffee.”
African businesses depend primarily on communal support to succeed. When Jida and Kifle opened Rendezvous, eighty percent of their customers were Americans. These days, they boast that ninety-five percent of them come from Africa, said Kifle. They have their regular customers, but to encourage ne comers, they offer and send coupons to new customers.
“The subway system at Midway is to open in two years,” said Kifle. It is encouraging news for her, as it would add to the growth of Rendezvous that is “doing well so far.”
Kifle said that, in the beginning, it was not easy for them to start their business in neighborhood as it was still developing. These days, she looks at “Welcome to Rendezvous Coffee” on the wall with relief.
Rendezvous also served as a place for many Ethiopians to reminisce about the well-known Rendezvous coffees in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “Rendezvous is a very popular place in Ethiopia,” said Jida. “Everybody knows it. Since I grew up there, there are two or three places with name Rendezvous.”
Early this year, SPARC, a St. Paul based organization that supports community development, nominated Rendezvous for the “Hamline Midway Community award for best business practices.”
“Rendezvous was nominated for the Neighborhood Development Center’s Entrepreneur of the Year award, because it provides an excellent space for customers,” said Allison Sharkey, SPARC’s business and development program manager.
“The café brings together a diverse clientele of East African and U.S.-born neighbors. Midway Rendezvous, along with four other businesses owned by African immigrants in the immediate area, is part of a core of new, independent businesses that are revitalizing North Snelling Avenue,” said Ms. Sharkey.
“Most of the businesses in St. Paul are very family oriented,” said Benti. These businesses are opened as a meeting place for their compatriots. “What many Africans in St. Paul do is to introduce their culture to the public.”
The key problems for most of the other businesses are lack of support from their compatriots and funding from government. There is fear that larger corporate businesses will displace them from most of these areas.
Usually, African businesses take time to develop customers; who prefer buying from their community businesses rather than big corporate stores that do not recognize them as customers, Benti observed.
“The main problem for African businesses is that, they don’t have their people’s support,” said Benti. “They don’t get enough of the support of the natives too to build a greater [business] community.”
Next to Rendezvous is Midway Salon, co-owned by Ethiopian Mimi Letta, whose customers sometimes wait at Rendezvous before getting their hair done at Midway Salon. To Letta, it is an addition to making her customers more comfortable.
“Customers can have their hair cut next door, and have lunch next door,” said Kifle. “It is a very friendly neighborhood.”
The growing number of immigrants in St. Paul makes African businesses the meeting point for newcomers as well. Midway Salon opened about a year ago, boasts of getting about 50 customers per week.
“It is like a family. We get more customers,” said Letta. “They get more business. I have different kind of clients.”
At 512 N Snelling Ave. Rendezvous’ business neighbors, Piazza Market battles with security, customers, property owners, and other tenants.
“It is not easy when you start a new business,” said Ethiopian Amare Alemu, owner of Piazza Market. “The window panes and door glasses have been broken almost six times.”
Alemu is concerned about security. His customers are afraid to visit to Piazza Market, open about seven months ago. Though the police sometimes respond to calls for help, he still needs his community’s support to address the security problem.
“This is a new cash register,” said Alemu, as he points to the wire-meshed windows. “They [robbers] break through the front door about three months ago and took away the old cash register.”
Midway is one of the best places for businesses in the Twin Cities, said Alemu whose target is to supply American, African and Latino customers as well.
“We need tight security,” Alemu emphasized. “We need the support of the community.” The Piazza Market is open from 9 o’clock in the morning to 9 p.m. According its Alemu, it needs advertisements, and financial support to enhance its security.
“It is more expensive, paying for the hydro, phone, and electricity,” said Alemu, who plans to expand the Market. “We need security cameras.”
Issa A. Mansaray is a strong advocate of press freedom and human rights. Born in Sierra Leone, he has traveled through Africa, Europe, and the U.S reporting on press freedom, and human rights violations. Mansaray is an award-winning journalist and a frequent contributor to the International Press Institute’s World Press Freedom Review. He is a graduate of Webster University, and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.