Helping north Minneapolis rebuild — and putting businesses on more solid ground

A man behind a store counter.
Ousman Camara stands behind the counter of his shop, K's Grocery and Deli in north Minneapolis on Wednesday. Camara said he spent every day and night in the store for the entire month of June to protect his shop from the uprising following the May 25 killing of George Floyd.
Melissa Townsend | MPR News

Customers hungry for takeout are once again streaming into Yuan Yuan Chinese Restaurant, which has been serving up its popular peanut butter chicken on West Broadway Avenue for nearly 20 years.

The business is open — owner Chang Zheng wants everybody to know that — even though his windows are still covered in plywood. They were smashed along with the front door. Inside the store, the freezer, soda cooler, security camera, cash register and wok were all damaged. 

Zheng has submitted his insurance claim and says it’s under review. So far, Zheng hasn’t received any financial relief from government or outside sources for COVID-19 or damage from the unrest. 

A broken window in a restaurant.
A broken window is covered in plywood, seen from the inside of Yuan Yuan restaurant in north Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Store manager Allen Ni said the paperwork is difficult for Zheng, who is a native Mandarin speaker and needs help with translation.

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“It’s a lot of work for him — a lot of paperwork to fill out,” Ni said. “He needs a lot of help to finish the process.”

North Minneapolis was hit hard in the uprising following the police killing of George Floyd in May. The destruction spread to more than 100 businesses. Many of them, like Yuan Yuan, are locally owned shops that were already flat on their backs from the economic fallout from COVID-19. And there are significant barriers to some businesses getting back on their feet.

A restaurant with plywood on the front.
Yuan Yuan restaurant and other businesses in north Minneapolis, seen here on Tuesday, are covered in plywood after riots broke windows in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd.
Evan Frost | MPR News

But a fund is coming that could offer help. The West Broadway Business and Area Coalition is working with Northside Economic Opportunity Network, Black Women’s Wealth Alliance, the Northside Funders Group and others to distribute more than $2 million to local businesses. 

Felicia Perry, executive director of the coalition, said the money will be available Aug. 1 for north side business owners like Zheng who are struggling with the impact of the pandemic and damage from the unrest.

Perry said the money was unexpected. It started pouring in when local residents were sweeping up the mess left in the wake of the ransacking and damage along Broadway Avenue.

“I was out here on the corridor, cleaning up and managing like 30 volunteers who had showed up, and people wanted to support and said, ‘Where can we donate?’ ” she recalled.

The Northside Funders Group offered a link to accept donations, and since then, thousands of people have donated. 

Taking the long view

Yet Perry’s vision goes beyond repairing shattered windows. She said it’s time to shore up what’s been broken, but also take action to build more sustainable local enterprises in the long term. 

After talking to business owners and organizations in the area, she realized there was a need to rebuild businesses on more solid footing. 

“People’s attention is on — ‘Fix up this messy thing really quick so we can get back to where we were,’ ” she said. “There’s a worry that we’ll be invisible again.”

Now she’s aiming to leverage the attention focused on north Minneapolis businesses to create something bigger: She’s negotiating with foundations and corporations to leverage the $2 million already in hand and create a forgivable loan program that would help business owners buy their properties rather than rent them. 

Such an arrangement could put business owners more in control of their own livelihoods. In St. Paul, some business owners whose storefronts were damaged in the unrest after Floyd’s killing learned just how tenuous their situation was after their landlord decided to terminate their leases.  

K's Grocery & Deli at 1021 West Broadway Avenue in north Minneapolis.
The door at K's Grocery and Deli, seen here Wednesday, was damaged earlier this month in a break-in attempt that was thwarted by an employee who is in the store all night, every night since the unrest.
Melissa Townsend | MPR News

The concept of helping north side small business owners purchase real estate intrigues Ousman Camara. His K’s Grocery and Deli is just across the street from Yuan Yuan restaurant. The day after Floyd was killed, at around 4 a.m., Camara got a message on his phone alerting him to people breaking into neighboring businesses along Broadway Avenue. 

“When I woke up to pray, and I saw that text, I said ‘OK, OK, I’m going to the store,’ ” he recalled. 

He hopped into the car immediately and spent every day and night for the next month in his store. It was the only thing he could think of to protect his business.

That first week after Floyd’s death, nighttime was rough. Young people from the neighborhood patrolled the streets. The gunfire was so intense, Camara saw one man hiding — laying flat on the ground behind his parked car in front of the store.

“Lots of gunshots. I was hearing people from different neighborhoods in pickup trucks. I’m telling you, over a hundred rounds,” Camara said. 

Camara grew up in Sierra Leone, but his family fled when war broke out in the early 1990s. And those nights of unrest — with the shooting and lawlessness — reminded him of the war.

“It brought back that ’92 memory in my head when you see the rebels were coming in town you see the army running away,” Camara said. “And I’m standing here thinking, ‘Oh man, not again.’ ”

Camara said he’s sacrificed everything over the past 10 years for his business. And he’s keen on buying a building in the community. 

He said he was forced out of his previous location when a Dollar Tree wanted the space. At the time, he said his then-landlord was suspicious of his business savvy and was eager to lease to a national chain instead of a local black man.

A man helps a customer at his store.
Ousman Camara helps a customer at his store, K's Grocery and Deli in north Minneapolis.
Melissa Townsend | MPR News

Camara said he doesn’t want to go through that again. He didn’t spend the last decade building this business, and a month sleeping in his store, just to lose it when the lease is up. What north side business owners like him want, he said, is power over their own future.

If he owns his building, he said, won’t have to deal with racist landlords — or be forced out of his location. 

”If I want to be here for the next 20 or 30 years, nobody can kick me out,” he said. “It’s mine.”