Becoming the National Small Business Person of the Year is like winning the big game, at least for Abdirahman Kahin.
Kahin earned the Small Business Administration’s pinnacle award in May for his work as the founder of Afro Deli & Grill, an African fusion restaurant. The award is largely symbolic, as the winner walks away with bragging rights. For the SBA, he’s a shining example of how the agency’s pandemic-era lending turned a struggling business into a winner.
“It’s news that I’ve always wished to hear,” Kahin tells Inc. “It’s huge. It’s like winning the Super Bowl: You can feel the emotion of when you win the Super Bowl, so it’s the equivalent of that magnitude.”
Kahin arrived in the United States from Somalia in 1996. Part of what drew him to the food industry, he says, is how food can be a bridge among different people.
And that’s just what his restaurant seeks to do: bring cultures together and introduce them to African cuisine. Afro Deli serves a menu of cuisine options ranging from sambusas (meat-filled pastries from Somalia) to chapati noodles and sweet plantains. Afro Deli opened 13 years ago in the Twin Cities and now has four locations across Minnesota.
While he admits he isn’t a cook, Kahin saw an opportunity after seeing so many Africans in America. “I managed another restaurant and began planning out my vision of an African fusion concept that could be as popular as Chipotle,” he says. “I realized the fusion concept was a great way to bring cultures together and introduce African cuisine to the mainstream.”
Kahin also believes in social entrepreneurship and making good food accessible. That’s why Afro Deli partnered with groups like Meals on Wheels to help address food insecurity within its community. The restaurant even secured a contract to deliver meals to vulnerable community members in the earlier days of the pandemic. Since March 2020, the restaurant has donated more than 1.2 million meals.
As many other entrepreneurs can attest, finding the right financing proved to be a challenge for Afro Deli. Kahin believes that doubts around the restaurant’s viability, plus a lack of understanding around African cuisine, fed into Afro Deli’s capital constraints. “Even after the success of our first location, traditional lenders would not finance our expansion into a busier downtown location because they thought we wouldn’t be successful outside of an immigrant-majority neighborhood,” Kahin shares.
Kahin credits the SBA with helping to solve his restaurant’s capital troubles, especially during the pandemic. Afro Deli was not immune to the problems the pandemic brought: Kahin was forced to lay off most of his employees and temporarily closed two of his locations.
But the company was able to stay afloat through seven PPP loans, totaling $554,073, which helped the company stay open until business normalized. The money kept 39 employees on board, plus more than 20 contract drivers for the home delivery food service program. Kahin also used the money to pay rent, utilities, and food costs.
And Kahin didn’t forget about EIDL loans. Afro Deli received $335,300 in 2020 and an additional loan in March 2022, for $464,400. A majority of these funds, Kahin says, will help the business expand as it prepares to open another location next year.
“We’re excited because it will be the first location we will own and is perfectly located in the heart of Minneapolis,” Kahin says.
The restaurant has recovered since the pandemic’s low points and is currently projecting $5.8 million in revenue across its four restaurants.
Moving forward, Kahin will keep seeking more capital as he plans to expand into other states. Two new restaurants are coming in 2025. And he hopes to keep leveraging resources from the SBA, such as training programs.
“Our success has allowed us to be able to access SBA loans and other financial resources that have helped us open more locations and expand our offerings,” Kahin says. “Now, we’re really excited about the opportunity to go national and become the first fast casual African concept.”