Sabrina’s Deli owner, Karima Omer
By C. Rick Jourdan and Sarah Kowal
To quote President Harry Truman, “America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.”
Karima Omer is the owner of Sabrina’s Café in St. Paul, an Ethiopian immigrant who truly embodies that spirit of American determination and perseverance. She is living proof that an infectious energy, unbridled willpower, and a determined spirit can overcome any business obstacle.
The new Sabrina’s Café is a small restaurant tucked in with other African businesses along the 500 block of Snelling Avenue. The café serves an East African breakfast, lunch, dinner, and desserts in the Halal tradition. But it as a struggle for Karima to get to this point.
When she arrived in the US from her native Ethiopia nearly 20 years ago, her dream was to open her own business in America. But lacking a formal education or any business experience, or the ability to speak or read English, didn’t stop her from pursuing her passion.
A Driving Desire to Succeed
From the moment Karima set foot in the US, she began pointing out storefronts and proclaiming, “that is a good location for a business.”
Her first business was a neighborhood deli that she passed by each day, looking into the store windows and fantasizing about ownership. After three months of “window dreaming,” the landlord approached her and learned of her desire. He told her that if she wanted the store and came back by 6 pm that evening with a signed lease and $20,000, the place was hers.
Karima ran home to sign the lease with her husband and then to her brother, begging him for the money. She then ran to the bank to get a cashier’s check, took the lease to her lawyer to review and made it back to the landlord with five minutes to spare!
She was in business!
Passion Overcomes Adversity
Being totally green, Karima got a crash-course in running a business firsthand and a little help from the Somali people in the neighborhood. They taught her how to cut meat, as well as giving her goods on consignment and lines of credit.
During the years she ran her first café and deli, Karima didn’t make a profit. So she succumbed to the landlord’s begging to sustain the neighboring daycare center next to her deli that finally paid her a salary.
Both businesses operated next to one another for four and a half years until a fire destroyed both operations. Even worse, Karima learned that a check for an insurance payment had been lost and she didn’t have any insurance coverage.
But that catastrophe didn’t dissuade her from her passion. So in 2015, she found another good location to re-open her new café and deli. Her dream was rekindled. But misfortune wasn’t through with her.
A local contractor told her he could have the new café up and running in two weeks. So she started paying rent. But it took three different contractors and a year and a half to get Sabrina’s Deli back up and running.
“One of the contractors even took my keys and never returned them,” Karima said. So the locks had to be changed. “My money was gone paying rent before the store ever opened. People thought I was crazy,” she commented.
Rising From the Ashes
The reborn Sabrina’s Café is now located at 518 Snelling Avenue in St. Paul. The restaurant serves the same menu as before. She has the opportunity to use her skills for cooking to entice customers.
Karima got her second business started at the Little Africa Fest before she opened her doors. She introduced her café by selling her food at a table at the event.
With the support of the African Economic Development Solutions (AEDS) in the Little Africa business and cultural district in St. Paul, she has managed to continue running her business. The mission of AEDS is to build wealth within the African immigrant communities.
She still doesn’t have a website and takes catering and deli orders on her cell phone. She said she sometimes is at the restaurant cleaning as late as 1 am.
“If the Little Africa community had not helped me, I would not be in business for sure,” Karima said.
Today Karima also works part-time as a housekeeper while caring for four children, ages 2-13. (Including the oldest—Sabrina—after whom the café is named.) She puts in countless hours running the café in the afternoon and evening. Her husband helps out in the store in the morning and is a full-time translator for a local hospital.
“I had to see it through,” Karima offered. “Whatever I start I have to finish see the results.
She sees her struggle as being worth the hardships. “I don’t like to think about the obstacles we had to overcome. I just want to go forward. Right now everybody seems to like the food and I am happy to serve them. Now the café is ready, thanks to God.”
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