Three East Siders give back
One of the Twin Cities’ newest soul food spots is looking to make a lasting impression that goes beyond a great plate of food. Momma’s Kitchen opened September 2018 to great fanfare for its three co-owners and friends: Hamza Muridi, Wintana Melekin and celebrity chef DeMarco Cavil who has cooked for the likes of the Minnesota Wild, Magic Johnson, and Bill Clinton.
Their menu covers everything that is quintessential to Southern cuisine, from southern fried wings and cajun catfish to rice bowls, lamb chops and sambusas.
The MSR caught up with Melekin, who has gone from community organizing and public policy reform to economic development, to find out how these three got connected and their goal of investing in the community.
MSR: Tell us about Momma’s Kitchen.
Wintana Melekin: [Our] business is a soul food restaurant in partnership between three people — me, Hamza Muridi, and head chef DeMarco Cavill. Demarco is an amazing chef. He was a chef for Minnesota Timberwolves and other stadiums across the country and he always wanted to build something in Minnesota on the East Side [of St. Paul], which is where he’s from.
MSR: What would you consider your top seller on the menu?
WM: The number-one seller is our Mac Bowl. It’s a bowl of macaroni and cheese topped with seasonal vegetables and a choice of chicken, steak or shrimp, spicy or non-spicy.
MSR: How did you pick your location?
WM: It was really important for us to have a business on the East Side of St. Paul — where all three of us are from. The business is literally five blocks from where I grew up, and I’ve lived there since I moved to the United States [from Eritrea].
MSR: In what ways do you see your business impacting the community?
WM: You get to see three young Black leaders from the East Side of St. Paul investing on the East Side of St. Paul. We wanted to invest in the community that raised us and made us. I wouldn’t be where I am today without all of the community leaders on the East Side, and I wanted to be a community leader myself. My other two partners are also from the East Side, and they feel the exact same way.
MSR: How else are you impacting the community?
We prioritize hiring people with criminal backgrounds, and we prioritize in hiring people from the East Side of St. Paul. Every time you invest in us, you don’t just invest in the owners — you invest in the community.
MSR: Why is it important for you to invest in where you live?
With the rampant gentrification that’s happening across this country, specifically in the Twin Cities, I knew it was important for me to help prevent that by creating a business that I knew could stay for a lifetime that would be led by folks that live in that neighborhood.
MSR: What’s been your biggest challenge you’ve had in owning your own business?
WM: I moved to the United States in 1989 [FROM]. I’ve seen businesses come and go, especially trendy ideas. What I haven’t seen is a long-term investment in businesses of color, so it was important for me to invest in my community and prioritize the communities of color that live there.
MW: I think the biggest challenge in owning a business is that there are very few [resources] for members of communities of color to own their own businesses. There are very few grants and loans that are specifically centered around communities of color, and often they want you to be a business with five to 10 years’ track record of [experience in order to access].
That’s just not going to happen in communities of color. With this massive disinvestment that this country has done into communities of color, you’re just not going to see us automatically have everything in perfect formation. Even though you have three ambitious entrepreneurs in this business, we will never technically be good enough because of how the systems works. So there’s always that challenge.
We’ve worked very hard to lift ourselves above every hurdle to make sure we reach our goals, and we’ve been very successful in a very short amount of time.
MSR: What’s been the most rewarding part of owning a business?
MW: When young people approach us and are excited to hear about our stories. When they’re impressed with how young we are, how ambitious we are, and how well we’re doing.
I didn’t have that opportunity as a young person to see lots of community leaders own their own businesses, so for young people to come ask me for advice, ask me for a job, or internships, and for me to be able to say, “Yes, I can help you” — there’s nothing more rewarding than that.
MSR: What are the future plans for your business?
MW: We’d like to expand [and] have multiple locations all across the Twin Cities and continue to expand our menu. Demarco is one of the best menu creators I’ve ever met in my life, and I’m really excited to see what he designs for our future locations.
MSR: What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
MW: Don’t run to get things open. Take your time, write your plan, do your research, do your target marketing, figure out who your clientele base is. In the culture of social media, it looks like everybody has got things down really easily and really fast.
Take a step back and do the math, do the writing, do the research, and then launch. Spend that extra time doing that due-diligence, and then launch your product. It’ll be a huge step up for you in the future. The amount of effort we put into doing the pre-opening made sure we were successful.
MSR:What special deals could readers take advantage of?
MW: Every Sunday, we have our Soul Food Sundays. It is a special combo only on Sunday. We serve oxtail, chicken wings, smothered chicken — those are just some entree samples. Then you get two sides. Some options are greens, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, cornbread dressing. Then you get a choice between a muffin and a biscuit, and we also have dessert options.
Momma’s Kitchen is located at 1058 E. Maryland Ave. in St. Paul. For more info, visit mommaskitchenmn.com.