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When she walked into Bolé, a St. Paul Ethiopian restaurant, on a bright morning a year ago, one of the first things Lelna Desta noticed was the hole in the ceiling that hadn’t been there 24 hours ago. The business consultant stared through it at a bright blue sky.
Co-owner Rekik Abineh found melted metal where the new stainless-steel kitchen appliances used to be. Stacks of plates set up for the servers had been smashed to pieces. “We were so busy two days ago,” Abineh recalled thinking to herself. “Now it’s gone.” It was clear Bolé would never again serve food in the building on University Avenue.
Last May 28, the building that housed Bolé was one of hundreds set on fire during the protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It was one of dozens destroyed. Although her partner, Solomon Hailie, doesn’t go quite so far, Rekik now calls the destruction of the old restaurant “a blessing.”
Bolé’s temporary loss gave Rekik and Solomon a break. The married couple spent time with their family after several years of constantly running a small business. Instead of renting space, they bought a building. And they raised over $150,000 to rebuild in a new location.
Now they’re open again pulling in more business than they thought possible. The story of Bolé is not simply one of another business reopening. It is a sign of perseverance.
The burn down
Last May, Rekik said the restaurant owners were launching Bolé Express, a faster way of dining to feed people during the pandemic. Solomon had gone to Target to pick up a new TV to display the menu. They brought in new kitchen appliances specifically to cater towards fast meals. Solomon and Rekik spent time and money preparing for a new Bolé that never saw the light of day.
On the afternoon of May 28, they got word that the protests over Floyd’s murder were getting closer. They closed, went home, and waited. During the night, the NAPA auto parts store next to Bolé was hit. The fire spread, and burned all night.
Solomon went down that evening to see the building on fire, but there was nothing to do. He went home and rode out the night with his family.
Small groups, couples and friends filed in and out of the ruined restaurant the next day. They helped clean up the shell of Bolé. They cried and reminisced about meals and happy times they’d had in the now-charred building. They offered any help they could to get the couple back on their feet. “[Bolé’s] footprint went far beyond a customer base,” Lelna said. “This was a safe space for many people.
Solomon, Rekik and Lelna still were in shock. As Black residents of Minnesota, they were processing what the murder of Floyd meant to them. On top of that, they had to figure out what to do with the small business they’d poured years of hard work into.
“We dreamed first,” Rekik said. Lelna said they gathered with whiteboards the night of May 29. They didn’t know what the future held, but they wanted to start planning. Rekik and Solomon talked about what they wanted in a future restaurant while Lelna wrote down every word.
People started reaching out on Facebook, asking if there was a Gofundme or another way to help. Lelna hadn’t even had a chance to think about the logistics of restarting Bolé, let alone asking for donations. But because so many people asked, she started one.
Over the summer, Bolé’s Gofundme raised more than $150,000 from 4,000 people. Rekik, Solomon and Lelna were stunned. As Ethiopian immigrants, they find refuge in the food and community. They knew others felt the same, but never realized how many people loved Bolé as much as they did.
A new neighborhood
The first, and most important step, was finding a new building. The reopening gave them a chance to do what they had always talked about: owning a property.
They landed on a building with an indoor area twice the size of their last place, a basement entertaining area, and a patio.
It also was in a new neighborhood. They moved Bolé from Midway to Como in St. Paul. Changing neighborhoods, they had to be creative on how they were going to make the business work. Since they were moving into a neighborhood with less exposure to Ethiopian food, they decided to change their strategy to fit the community around them.*
Lelna said they wanted to make eating at Bolé more of an event, giving people from the neighborhood who might not have had Ethiopian food before an authentic experience. Since they’ve opened, Lelna said many customers have commented on how much they enjoy the ambience of the new restaurant.
To introduce themselves, the Bolé team held a community get together in early March before reopening. They put up a sign outside their restaurant welcoming people to come in, try the food and meet the owners. Rekik said that more than 200 people showed up that day. “The neighborhood support levels were way more than we expected,” Solomon said.
The reopening, initially just for takeout, was crazy, Lelna said. In the first week, Bolé was so busy it twice ran out of injera, the Ethiopian sourdough that’s an essential element of the food.
“We’re so happy to see a nice restaurant, not one that sells hamburgers,” neighborhood member Maureen Kaiyalethe said at the beginning of April. “There’s a lot of excitement in the neighborhood.”
Lelna, Rekik and Solomon all described the first couple months as “overwhelming.” Bolé reopened for takeout mid-March and dine-in on April 1. They’ve since had to hire more staff to meet customer demand, Solomon said.
Their customer base has expanded. They have returning customers, new people from the neighborhood and those who recently started following their social media, Lelna said. It’s created a busier restaurant full of customers that want to see Bolé succeed. “To see this level of support, that is a blessing,” Solomon said.
On May 27, one day before the anniversary of the building burning down, Bolé held a grand reopening. In attendance were members of the African Economic Development Solutions, the Midway Chamber of Commerce and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter. It included a speech from Carter and an official ribbon cutting.
After losing everything, Bolé was able to survive because of community support. “A lot of people struggle throughout the lifetime, but for us this was a moment to listen to our supporters and customers and say, ‘This is our calling, so let’s serve,’” Solomon said.
Solomon said he doesn’t like to think now about what Bolé has gone through. He’s grateful for the new Bolé, but wishes he didn’t have to watch his business burn down to get there.
“We have two daughters… and for us at that point to show them, ‘Look, we just lost a business, but it’s okay. We’re gonna get up and you’re gonna see us succeed.’” Solomon said. “For us to be examples for our own children, means more than anything.”
*Clarification: This story has been changed to better reflect Bolé’s connection to a new neighborhood.