Bruce Johansen: It’s June 28, 2013 and I’m Bruce Johansen. I’m at the Flamingo Restaurant, right off of University Avenue, at 490 North Syndicate, in St. Paul. This interview is one in a series of interviews I’m doing with business owners along University Avenue, also known now as the Central Corridor and the Green Line. This project is funded through a State of Minnesota Historical & Cultural Heritage Grant. With me is Flamingo co-owner Shegitu Kebede. [Audio at bottom]
To learn more, read Flamingo Restaurant: “We feel like we’re home” by Bruce Johansen, listen to the audio below, and watch video here. This article is part of the series, Along the Corridor: University Avenue business owners navigating change, an oral history project funded through a State of Minnesota Historical & Cultural Heritage Grant.
I’m going to be asking you a series of questions today. I have questions that are planned. We always go off course. That’s perfectly fine. Thank you for accepting my invitation to be interviewed.
Shegitu Kebede: It’s my pleasure.
B: We’re going to start at the very beginning. Where were you born and where did you grow up?
S: Well, I am born in Ethiopia, in the southern part of Ethiopia. And until the age of 17, I have lived in Ethiopia.
B: And what size city or town?
S: It’s mid-sized, you know, for an African country. I didn’t grow up in the capital city, but it’s the second or the third largest city in Ethiopia. It’s a well-known city.
B: What is the name of the city?
S: Awasa. We are known for our lakes and hills.
B: So you moved to an area with a lot of lakes, not so many hills.
S: Yes, yes.
B: You were there until age 17, and then what happened?
S: Then because of the war, I flee the country, I came to Kenya. And from, I celebrate my eighteenth birthday in Nairobi, Kenya. And until in my early 20s I move to the United States.
B: Directly to Minnesota or first to someplace else?
S: I was in North Dakota and finally moved to Minnesota.
B: Why North Dakota?
S: As a refugee you don’t have a choice. The U.N. decide what country, what state, what town they send you. So that happens to be the choice they made for me. They didn’t know that there was Florida or California, I guess. I prefer those.
B: What town in North Dakota?
S: I was in Fargo.
B: So right on the border of Minnesota.
S: It was not too far. Yeah, yeah.
B: How long were you there?
S: I was there a little less than a year.
B: That was enough?
S: That was enough. We have another refugee family came. And I was a single mom, have a little boy, and that family also have a little girl, and they came to Fargo, and we both, you know, it’s not even a lot of Ethiopian, not even colored people live in Ethiopia, so our kids connect right away, they were playmates, and they were under age five, both of them. And then they have friends here, so they move to Minnesota. And I just didn’t want my son to be not having a playmate, so I moved, just to be with them.
B: And you ended up first in Minneapolis, is that right?
S: Yes, in Minneapolis.
B: I heard the other day that you moved out to the suburbs for a while.
S: Yes, I have lived for 13 years in St. Anthony Village. I have loved that neighborhood, I have raised my kids there, so when they became independent adults, and I just thought, why waste your time in a big house, you can live a simple life as an empty nester and be close to your business, and so I moved to St. Paul.
B: So you’ve scaled down a little bit.
B: How many blocks are you to the restaurant?
S: Not too many. We’re very close. East 7th Street, it’s like a 5-minute drive.
B: What was your childhood like in Ethiopia?
S: Me and Frewoini, we both, I’m from Ethiopia and she’s from Eritrea. At the time it was one country and our two countries were fighting. So we both pretty much were born and grew up in a war. That’s all we knew, there was not a peace time in our time. So even though personally I have really a good childhood, my home was, you know, I lost my mom and dad and brothers in the war, of course, and I became an orphan at the age of five. I grew up in an orphanage. It was a lot of Scandinavians, people from Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and things like that, but it was a good home, very productive, a very loving, caring home that I grew up with. But that home came to an end, when the government at the time, it was Communist and they were not a big fan of Christianity, and my folks were Christian and they were running churches, clinics, hospitals, and so they’d been told to go back to their country, and so I lost my parents a second time. That’s what led me to be a refugee in Kenya and finally coming to the United States. Even though a lot of tragedy has happened in my childhood, it was really, I have a lot of good memories.
B: What are some of your good memories of childhood?
S: I loved gardening. That’s what they instilled in me. We did a lot of gardening, we did a lot of knitting, crocheting, volunteering in the church and the clinics, going on field trips, we went camping, a lot of camping, we did a lot of mushroom roasting and going to the lakes and camp by the lake. Traveled with the missionaries to the countryside. So those kinds of many trips, traveling to countryside. Things like that. Picking up berries and roasting mushrooms that we picked out. We did a lot plays in the church, we did a lot of drama, we learned a lot of songs. As little children, even though a lot of killing surround us, we were so sheltered by doing those things we kind of didn’t even notice it’s there and so it was that kind of sheltered home that we have and that I have experienced that it helps me to balance life. Even though tragedy is out there but you can make a way of your situation. And so I believe that translated to my life today and throughout my journey. I’ve been a multitasking person in taking care of myself and taking care of my family. That I did not depend on a system or anything. It taught me to be strong, as a child. I’ve been playing music here, playing soccer there, and doing drama here and gardening there, those things they came really handy in life, so yeah.
B: So that’s how you started out. What can you tell me about Fre and her early years?
S: Fre also left in her early teens, I believe. And she went to Sudan. She was a refugee in Sudan and came to the United States at the young age also. Fre grew up in a very well-to-do upper-class family but they lost everything. They lost everything. Some family members got killed. Most of them flee the country. Their dad was separated from them for, I think, 10, 11 years. Their mom in a different part of the world. So there was a lot of scattering of the family, so then finally, the majority of her siblings are here now. And so she has a similar journey.
B: And her parents?
S: Her mom passed away but not got killed. Finally the family got together after 12, 13 years, I believe, they finally all got together. Her dad is still alive, he’s 90-something.
B: Where is he?
S: He’s back home in Eritrea. He used to live here and he went home.
B: What kinds of work did your family do in Ethiopia?
S: Some of them are nurses, doctors, you know, preachers, teachers. The organization that I grew up in, they have technical colleges, Bible colleges, high schools, elementary, kindergarten, all kinds of educational departments. There’s management, educators, nurses, doctors, so I grew up with that kind of professionals.
B: And you said that Fre’s family was quite well-to-do.
S: Yes, her dad owned the biggest mechanic shop in the country, so his client was the King and the Royal Family brought their cars there. So that was their means for making a living.
B: I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to be a refugee and move to this country and all of the challenges that come with new cultures and languages. Can you say something about what that was like, relocating?
S: You know, America is the place of, in my opinion, with all the negative and all of that, it’s a place of celebration of that kind of lifestyle. The early settlers who came from Europe or Scandinavia, they also have a good and bad life. They left what they have because of their beliefs or ideology or whatever it is, they left and came here to start a new life. It’s the same thing with us, the new Americans today. We came because of war or this and that, but we didn’t just drop from the tree. We all have a life. Each one of us, life is different, but we all have a life, we all have the things that we value, we have a family, we have a business, we have people who are educators. If you look at cab drivers in the Twin Cities, most of them have a Ph.D. It’s just that their education didn’t translate here. And so we just have to learn to say that my ancestors, three generations back or two generations back or five generations back, was just like Fre or Sheguta, they just came and they starting all over. I think American history is, that’s all of our history. We are just separated by many years between the gap of the generations. Other than that, we really all of us have the same history. And so for me and Fre it’s an honor to be a part of that society and that today we are welcoming the other newcomers and saying, “If we can do it, you can do it,” and we have been looking at other people, Americans I have a lot of mentors that are, CEO of a company, president, people who run an organization. If they can do it, I’m saying to myself, I can do it and when I mentor a newcomer or a new, young person, I’m saying to them, If I can do it, you can do it, so we are a mentor to one another, that’s how we, that’s how I look at this country and I’m glad to be a part of that.
B: Can you just say a little about how that happens, how the mentoring happens? How do you connect with people and become a mentor and help other new Americans?
S: By volunteering. One other thing that’s very celebrative in our culture and in America here is that we have a volunteer spirit. We really do have people who believe in volunteering. We have a college student to go and volunteer which it’s a part of our educational system. We make the high school student go and volunteer, give service to the community. We have a man and woman who go abroad and give service by being in the military. So we are a country of volunteers, and there’s no way that I could not be a part of that. It’s something beautiful that you cannot pass by and so I am volunteering in many nonprofit organizations. And also I have a lot of people who mentor me and I still reach out to people. When I started first my cleaning business to help the immigrant woman….My first company before the restaurant, I had a cleaning business and so I went to the different CEOs that I know and I asked them how to lead a company, how to start a business, how to manage that. So I have to go to different people, the tax person and volunteer management and a recruiting person, so I have to approach different people and learn all these things, how it’s done. Because I didn’t have the time or the money to go to school for it. So that’s another way to learn, by being mentored or shadowing the company and seeing how things are done and so I have benefited a lot from that.
B: How did you and Fre, first where did you meet and how did that lead to you becoming business partners?
S: We have something…what that is is usually the East African women get together and we have, once a month we’ll visit each other’s house, and we go and we have coffee and eat together and then we come up with $100, $200, whatever we feel comfortable in the group, we put that money together and today, one month, I’ll take and Fre, and so on, and that’s how we start a business. That’s how we come up with a house down payment or a first car or sending your child to college. So it’s, as big as the group you want it to be.
B: Who organizes that?
S: The group that, the woman that you feel comfortable with. Some people have it a hundred women, some people have 200, some people have 50, so whichever your circle is. For us, those of us who came in the same area of the time. And so we all get together. We know each other, we have been for 20 years in this country together, we raise our kids together, so we feel comfortable with that circle, so you want to buy a house, obviously not many of us have good credit, usually a bank doesn’t approve us, so that’s how we come up with it, or we wanted to buy a business, and we’re not going to go through the bank, so that’s how we do it. Or you’re sending your first child to college and you may not have the first studying money, so those are the things we use that money for. No interest, no nothing, just, I’m comfortable with $200, you’re comfortable with $200, so a hundred women would get together with that amount, so each month we take turns, and whoever is in urgent situation, they can take first. And so we go like that. If in the middle of the year you have an emergency situation, we give to that person. So we have been doing that for heaven knows how long. We do that back home, too, so we met through that program. And so we met though that and right away we clicked. We both like things done certain ways, and even though there are restaurants, Ethiopian restaurants in town, we just didn’t find everything fit together. Some place you go, the house, the restaurant looks beautiful, but the service may not be good, or the service may be great, but the food may not be good. So we said we’ve got to come up with a restaurant that have the service, the food, and the environment looks just inviting, where people can come and feel free to sit down and so that’s how me and Fre had been thinking about that, and finally we said, ‘We’ve got to do ourselves,’ you know. Like we say in this country, ‘If you want something done, do it yourself.’ So we did that, that’s how we came up with the restaurant.
B: Had she run businesses, too?
S: She used to have her own restaurant and then she was managing for Crowne Plaza. She was the restaurant manager for many years and then in 2008, when everybody was laid off, she was one of those people who got laid off and so that’s what we were thinking about and how we got started.
B: And what was her restaurant prior to working at Crowne Plaza?
S: Um, I don’t know what it’s called, the one is called Blue Nile now. That, she used to own that before the Blue Nile bought it.
B: The Blue Nile in its own space (location)?
S: Yes, in the same spot. It was in the basement when she was owning it. And then they bought from her and it grew and expanded.
B: What was the sequence? You decided that you wanted to own a restaurant, what came next? Did you have to find the space?
S: Yes, we were looking for the space and we were looking and we were looking and we were looking and this place came up and we, me and Fre, we didn’t have enough money that they were asking for so we brought other people to help finance it, and things just didn’t work out. At the end of that, we proposed this time of the year, and then in December, the owner just called, in the middle of the night, and said, ‘You know if you and Shegitu decide to own it by yourself, I’m willing to give it to you for this amount of money. And I don’t even need a down payment, just pay me every month. So that was a miracle. So me and Fre we just jumped on it and here we are.
And six months after we started the business we really have a tragedy happen in our restaurant. We have a power surge run through our restaurant. I think two or three blocks from here something happen, so the power company turned off the power to fix that situation and by the time I run to my box to turn the power off, the power came on. And all that power came and our hood, I don’t know if you saw, but it’s all the way from this wall to way over there, it’s a huge, it’s $75,000 hood, so that burned, ice-maker, freezer, refrigerator, everything that you can imagine. Even the copy machine, we don’t even have that anymore, so a lot of things got messed up. So all this problem happen and we’re thinking, we have insurance, insurance will take care of it. So we called the insurance company and they just say, ‘You know what, you didn’t cover for power surge.’ Until then, I didn’t even know that you’re supposed to have a separate insurance for that. And so I’d been calling the power company the day that my air conditioner and everything went off, so they knew and they were saying, we’ll send someone, we’ll take care of it and so I’m thinking they know about it, they’ll help us. And the power company say it was an act of God because it wasn’t a scheduled maintenance, it just happened. And they have to go and fix it, and so the power company say it’s an act of God, they’re not responsible for it. So we didn’t have money to fix all this. And on top of it, it was just six months after we started.
So you can imagine, everything we had, we invested in the place. We bought all this artwork and so we just like, we were ready to close and I remember I was sitting at that last table, very sad. Fre was upset, closed the door and left. I was sitting by myself there with my laptop and reading, I believe it was… a… story. This woman was barren, she didn’t have a child and she believes in God and one day the man of God came to her house and say, ‘By next year at this time you will have a child,’ and she did have a child. And that child, in the middle of nowhere, he just died. And that woman say, ‘Nope, he’s not going to die because I’ve been waiting all these years. I’ve been told that you’ll have a child and in that concept, you know, the child is the future. And I’ve been told you’re not going to have a future. I’m not going to accept my future dying,’ and so she say to her husband, ‘Give me transportation, I’m going to go see the man of God. And the guy was like, ‘It’s not a Sunday, it’s not a worship day, you can’t go today.’ He say, ‘What’s wrong, nothing is wrong, all is well,’ even though her son was dead, she say all is well. And I say to myself, ‘I’m going to stand in this world and I’m not going to let my business die. I’m not going to let my future die. I don’t know how it’s going to work out. But I’m going to believe God. Things have to work out.’ We’re both single moms, we have kids, you know, in college. We can’t just let things die on us. And a friend of ours, she just fly and came, and she say, I don’t know what’s going on but something pulled me to you guys and she came. She’s in America and I told her the situation and she went home and wrote an email to every person that she knew in town. That email became a snowball. Everybody got it, the newspaper people picked up.
B: And this was when?
S: In 2010, June or July. So people were lining up on the street to get in here. I mean we were packed for. In three weeks we recovered, paid everything. I mean everything was fixed. You have no idea, so our life has been a miracle.
B: That’s phenomenal.
S: It is, it is. Fre and I say to ourselves, one night we thank God, we sit with our kids and we say to them, ‘When you are a refugee you’ve lost your home, you’ve lost your belongings, you’ve lost your family members, you look at yourself and ask, Where do I belong?’ And for the first time in our lives we say to ourselves, ‘We’re home.’ We are definitely home because it wasn’t the Ethiopians or Eritreans, it was the whole Minnesota that came and supported us and sustained us to stay in business and here we are, we’re in our fourth year. And so that only happens when you are with your people, when you are home, your neighborhood and your community come and support you. We feel like we’re home. This is home.
B: What a great story.
B: It really is a phenomenal story. It’s not every day that you hear a story like that. And to feel that kind of support. I can’t imagine being in the situation you were in and –
S: Our kids were jumping, praising God, and just saying, you know they always feel American, but for us. Fre always says we were the last generation because we left at a young age our country, so we’re not rooted in that culture, and we came to this country and we have an accent and people never think of us as American. So we kind of have no place, but the event that take place in your life, this kind of situation, gives you that root. I don’t care if I have an accent. This is home. Because my people came and supported me, my people came to stand with me. So I’m Minnesotan, proudly Minnesotan. Yes.
B: I guess it also shows the value of getting a story out to the media. The first time I heard about the restaurant was because of the tragedy.
S: Yes, yes.
B: Did you look at other locations besides this one? Or was there something about this community and neighborhood that felt like the right fit?
S: We were really at the time that when we were looking whatever was available we would be going and seeing things. Of course your price range always dictated where you were going to be. But we kind of give up. We thought this would never happen, but that night, that person give us a call and he offered us this. Once we started, we really, Fre and me, we walked the neighborhood and greeted people and let them know that we’re here. They are very welcoming and now we feel like this is the right neighborhood for us. And God have a reason and a plan and purpose. Everybody knows us. The neighborhood, the business owners, the residents. Everybody knows Flamingo and so we could not, we did not purposely study the neighborhood, we just got into it by chance, but we love it. We love this neighborhood, yeah.
B: When did you first encounter University Avenue?
S: When I first came I lived in the Skyline Towers so I knew University Avenue. I used to come for shopping. Sears used to be on University Avenue. It’s still there, I think. So different. Car dealerships. I remember, we bought a car from one of those dealerships down here. We came for a different shopping event but I never thought I would have a root in this neighborhood. But thank God.
B: What changes have you seen on University Avenue?
S: Oh my goodness, a lot of changes. A lot of changes. You know I’ve been here since 1990. And so many change. So many businesses change. University have a face-lift, pretty much. Right now, it’s just, it’s going to be amazing. I have been in California, or Washington, DC, and New York. Really having the train makes a huge difference for a neighborhood. You can go to big cities and you don’t get on the bus. Buses are a good thing. But when I go to DC, if I want to go sightseeing, I get on a train. Something about a train says something about you, something special, attractive, and I’m sure it will bring people back and forth.
B: And bring people over from Minneapolis who haven’t explored what University Avenue has to offer.
S: Yes, so we are very hopeful, very hopeful.
B: The last person I interviewed also has experience visiting DC, so he talked about the ease of the trains. People may not appreciate that.
S: They will once we have it. They will appreciate it.
B: That first year in business, that’s quite a first year. I always hear about how challenging first years are without the kind of tragedy that you experienced.
S: Yes, and also the construction just started. We didn’t know about it. So all of these things come as a surprise. We have the construction, we have that tragedy and one can look at themself and say it’s a hard spot to be, but really for us, God used it for our own advantage. All that tragedy, instead of taking us out, it make us more visible, it brought our name out, and we were written about in Women’s Press and St. Paul paper. In every local. In the Daily Planet. Every paper you can imagine. And so we’ve been exposed more and so we thought it just brought us more family than drive us out of the place, so we are very lucky, very blessed.
B: The construction began, this phase of the construction began, when?
S: It started in 2010. Our block when we got the information, they were not supposed to get to Syndicate area in 2010. But because of Hamline, something happened, so the whole three years we’ve been blocked. But by the goodness of people and the kindness of God, here we are. Last summer was the hardest summer. You are very familiar with it. But that’s the year that a lot of people ordered for catering. And also we came out with the idea that you can’t get to us, but we can get to you. So we emailed people, we sent a flyer to people saying we can deliver to your home, we can deliver to your business. So we really shift our gears, so instead of sitting here waiting for people, we looked outward, and that worked out and people were very gracious. A lot of companies ordered their lunch in, or for company event, or any kind of catering, so that’s what carried us through.
B: That’s something that you hadn’t been offering until then?
S: No, we just didn’t even think that was necessary. But when we figured we are blocked many blocks many ways, you’ve got to think something different. It’s easy for us to look out and see where people are, instead of people looking back and trying to figure out with all this blockage. And also we got a lot of visibility from the Green Line. It was wonderful, they put a billboard for us. We were on Facebook. They just did tremendous advertisement for us, so it really was very supportive, it’s like a community thing. It wasn’t just they’re doing construction and we’re doing a business, it was a team work. And I’ve never seen such a thing. I remember one day we have a water, they have to shut the water down. It was for a few hours. It was early in the morning before we opened the restaurant and by the time I came back it was our guest toilet, the water just wouldn’t stop. What happened was that the little mineral from the sink when they shut down and open, that created a problem. And I called the City of St. Paul, the Water System and the administration person showed up. I was blown away. It wasn’t just a staff person. That tells you how much this was a team effort. That everyone never left anyone behind to struggle by themself. When you have that kind of community coming together, making things happen, you will know that in the end it will be a success.
B: That does strike me as different from other communities I’ve lived in where there’s a big redevelopment project like this. You’ve got NDC.
S: U7, the City folks, the city council person for this neighborhood and their staff has been in and out. They come in here eating and they ask us is there anything that they could do for us. It was just a team effort that I have seen that people want us to be successful, they are not just focusing on the construction. You know, we don’t care who goes away. It was a team effort. And when you have that kind of community coming together, making things happen, you will know that in the end it will be a success. And so I’ve seen that spirit and for us that is just a very encouraging thing. Encouraging that I have someone who cares about my success. It makes me work even more harder and think a different way that so I can sustain myself. And so it was a very great experience for me.
B: That does seem significant. Too often there’s a big development project and nobody’s thinking about the –
S: Small people.
B: Who’ve weathered a lot and whose future depends on it.
S: This was well thought, well planned, and with a lot of heart. It wasn’t just the mind, it was the heart involved in it. Sometimes you have intelligent people just doing business from the head and not the heart and that’s when the little people like us will disappear. This was the heart and the mind together. And when you have that kind of group working together you will not leave anybody behind and we felt it was a heart involved in it and we gave our heart to be a part of that.
B: You must have a big poster with your photos on it. Or you said it was a billboard?
S: Yes, yes. They put one on University Avenue. One on Como. So we were very, very visible. Very visible.
B: What is happening with those now?
S: I don’t think that they’re there anymore, but that brought a lot of visibility to us. A lot of companies called us and said we want to try your sambusas. We saw you up there. We sold a lot of sambusa and we are trying to get into the State Fair. We have applied. They didn’t have a spot open yet but we’re believing they will and we will get it. Everybody who didn’t have a chance to taste our sambusa, they will taste it. We’re hoping that will happen, yeah.
B: Currently, how does business break down now in terms of people who come here to eat, takeout, delivery, catering?
S: Yes. It’s growing. Like I said, this is the first year without construction. And we are really believing that we are growing. We are more in people’s mind and we are more visible. Fre is even going ahead and thinking, ‘Maybe we should get another spot in Minneapolis,’ but we really have a dream that we’re going to expand this place. And we’ll have one in Minneapolis and we’ll have one branch, one more maybe, towards downtown maybe. We think that we will grow. And our next generation, they have started already working here and so they will see it and they will grow it and by the time they have finished college they will come back and they will be able to manage it. We’ll have more community people working here and it will become a community place. Our goal is not just for us to be rich. Of course we want to sustain ourselves, but these, this restaurant, our dream is to really have a place that others will grow. It’s not just job training.
The reason we got involved with Gordon Parks is because we wanted to have young people intern here, practice job. We can train them. Inner-city moms they, a lot of the African American community they really didn’t have a good mentoring program. We want to get into those women’s lives, woman-to-woman and show how to start a business, maybe give them a micro-loan, and so they can start their own business. And right now, next year, I’m going to Ethiopia to go to the refugee camp and start a school. So we’re going to go to the refugee camp and train people in the refugee camp. So, our dream is not just to build a great restaurant but also a place where other businesses can grow. Because we stand, like I shared earlier, because of the community support. What good does it do if you have your support and you die there. We want the support to continue. The snowballing started in 2010, the help that came to us. We want to be of help to others, and grow our city, and let others who are struggling, let them know, because we have been helped, we want to help today. We want to start a lot of businesses that people wanted to start their own. We want it to be a dream for them, and make their dream come true for them.
B: How many people currently work here?
S: Well, it’s all family members now, we don’t have any employees. It’s about eight of us.
B: Who are the different family members?
S: It’s between Fre and my kids and our nieces and our nephews.
B: So many good family businesses along the Avenue.
S: Yes, yes.
B: Every business that I’ve talked to now, staff consists exclusively of family members.
S: If I could say one thing about that. Our family eat here, so whatever we serve for customers, we provide for our family. That makes a huge difference. When you have a family run business, they are taking care of their family with the same ingredients, so you know we’re not eating something different than we’re feeding our customers.
B: Can you say more about who your customers are?
S: We have a very diverse community members as you can see. We have Somalians, we have Ethiopians, we have Eritreans, we have American, we have African American. So we have a very diverse customer base.
B: And I’m guessing a very loyal clientele?
S: Yes, yes. Once you come here, you are addicted, you will become our family.
B: What would you say have been the biggest rewards. We’ve talked about some of the big challenges.
S: I would say that the biggest reward is that we have grown to have more families. Some of our loyal customers, we have people who come from the neighborhood, and when they see the place packed they get up and they stand over there and eat. They get up and pick up plates. Seriously, no where else does a customer get up. You know, we have Terry, from Gordon Park, one of the teachers, when he comes here and the place is packed he starts giving waters, he starts giving menus. We have a lot people that participate, not just stand back and look at us, because they feel that they are part of our home, part of our community, and that tells me that they want us to grow, from the bottom of their heart. And they get up and give their seat up and stand and eat and help us pour water for customers, and that tells you that we are a family. We are a place that everyone can come here. Three times after we see you, then we know your name, and you know our name, and so we haggle over customers, we know them by first name basis, so this is a place for community and family and everyone who knows there are a part of a family.
B: All of that makes such a huge difference in people’s lives.
S: It does, it does.
B: It’s not just going for a meal.
S: No, it’s really more than that.
B: When are the busiest times here?
S: Lunch is usually the busiest time for us, between 11:30-ish and 1:30 that’s the busiest time, and during the day we just pick up as much as we do and then in the evening, 7:00, 6:30, 7:00, until 8:00, 8:30.
B: It would be fun to come sometime when it’s really busy.
B: Thinking five, ten years down the line, the light rail will be, the trains will be coming right down the street.
S: Oh, looking forward to it.
B: You’ll be close to a stop. What do you think that will be like? Do you have an idea in your mind?
S: One is allowed to dream, right? By then we will have two, three restaurants, and maybe other things. Why limit yourself only to the restaurant? Other things that we dream to have, we’ll have those things, and open up more opportunities for employment, and I like said fulfill people’s dreams so that they become their own business owners. And just be a part of the community, be involved in young people’s lives and men and women’s lives and make a difference, that’s our dream.
B: Now I’m kind of hoping that as you expand maybe there will be a Flamingo in my neighborhood.
S: Definitely, definitely. The Seward neighborhood, that’s my neighborhood. My kids, my daughter, was born in that neighborhood, my kids raised there, so it’s a second home, yeah. Definitely.
B: I’m also hoping you’ll move back across the river. We could be neighbors.
S: Neighbors, yes.
B: Eatiply was something that was new to me. Would you say something about how you became involved?
S: Yes, Eatiply is an organization that their mission is to feed the hungry, and the way that they’re going about it is to partner with the restaurants. A willing restaurant, when they partner with them, they donate $0.39 to $0.49 a plate. And so we signed up, we are the first restaurant in Minnesota to be signed up. We give $0.49 a plate, every meal that is purchased from our restaurant, $0.49 of it goes to feed the hungry. And you feed the hungry in one of two ways, internationally or locally. And we choose to be the local feeders so they go to Second Harvest or other feeding organizations and food shelves and they donate that money.
B: How did you end up being the first?
S: The person who is doing the marketing for them is a good friend of ours and so he used to work for another company that we have used as a marketing company before. And when he became their hire he just say, ‘Now I’m working for this company and if you guys want to know a little about it, you guys are welcome.’ So we just said, ‘We’d love to be on the feeding side,’ because you know as a refugee, I have struggled with hunger and I know what that means. And the last thing I want to say is that as a person who has struggled with hunger, if we can do it this way, it is so simple, $0.49 is nothing. And when you think about the concept is that the customer buying the meal, we’re not charging him extra for that, he’s just buying what he’s buying and we’re just donating from that, $0.49, and that $0.49 can feed a whole family in a day, when you collect from many other places. So by doing what you’re already doing, you do something for your community. You can’t beat that. And so we just say, count us in.
B: And so this is also taking place in other cities?
S: It started here, started locally here, and I’m sure they’re going to go nationally, but they started here in Minnesota, so it’s a home-based organization. It started here and it’s going to go national.
B: That covers what I had to ask you. Is there anything else that you’d like to say.
S: No, that’s all.
B: We covered quite a bit of ground and it’s been a real pleasure.
S: Thank you. The pleasure is all mine.
This article is part of a Central Corridor small business oral history project funded through a State of Minnesota Historical & Cultural Heritage Grant.