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Kamal Mohamed was 10 years old, gazing out the window of his family’s new high-rise apartment in the East African immigrant enclave of Minneapolis’ Cedar Riverside neighborhood. He had never seen so many lights.
“I thought: ‘Truly anything and everything is possible.’”
What circumstances made Kamal’s parents leave Ethiopia to live in Minneapolis, a place where he and his four siblings wanted for nothing, and always felt that they lived abundantly?
“Some I can guess, some I might never know,” said Kamal, now 32.
His mother worked a myriad of jobs, up at 4 or 5 in the morning, “working with her hands,” he said. His father was an accountant for the city of Minneapolis, and also worked as a translator.
Kamal mostly knows that they arrived here for a better life. And the good life is what he cultivates, for himself and those around him. It’s his dream, and it won’t be deferred.
As he looks around his nearly year-old northeast Minneapolis restaurant, StepChld, opened during the height of the global pandemic, the awe he felt as a 10-year-old is still intact.
“This has exceeded my imagination,” he said of StepChld. “And I have a wild imagination.”
An excerpt from Langston Hughes’ poem “A Dream Deferred” is painted on the facade of the building, a poetic reminder for Kamal of the risk we take to pursue our dreams.
When approached by friends of friends to take over the space at 24 University Avenue NE. and make a restaurant, Kamal barely halted at the obvious challenge of doing something so seemingly imprudent. He had never worked in the restaurant industry before—and that may explain some of StepChld’s unique appeal.
Excelling in business school with dreams of working in corporate America, Kamal was flummoxed by his terrible luck landing a job upon graduation. He sent out thousands of resumes, but he simply could not get hired.
“The low-hanging fruit is it’s because I’m Black,” he said. “But I don’t want to go that route.”
One hiring manager at General Mills gave him this feedback:
“We’re the Navy, and you’re that man who wants to be on a fast boat.”
Kamal thinks that guy may have been right. The corporate giants that kept passing him over created a self-made man.
He masterminded the Uptown Food Truck Festival, eventually so wildly successful that he was able to sell the brand. So he decided to try his chops with the bigs in San Francisco, taking his senior project invention—JuiceBot, the world’s first robotic fresh juice dispenser—on the startup road.
His business partners shared a tiny studio apartment—Kamal slept in the closet—and took alternative sleep and Uber driving shifts around the clock, in hopes of getting JuiceBot launched.
In one of those fortuitous, only-in-the-movies moments, one of his partners picked up Twitter founder Jack Dorsey in his Uber and seized the opportunity to pitch the idea. Soon, a JuiceBot was in the cafeteria at Amazon.
But eventually, Kamal needed to be closer to family, and that meant moving back to Minnesota. He eventually was able to sell JuiceBot, and when the chance to open a restaurant arrived, he would not be deferred.
Restaurant promotes ‘flat hierarchy’
After arriving at the idea for JuiceBot with a “disruptive model” in mind—think of how RedBox disrupted Blockbuster, he said—Kamal believes he can apply the same principles to a restaurant.
StepChld runs on a “flat hierarchy.” There are no chefs—Kamal thinks of a dish, brings it to the entire team, and they collectively tweak it and work it out until they land on something. While he’s bringing stealthy Ethiopian stylings to the table—mitmita spiced aioli on the burger, beriberi in the birria, wagyu and sugo meatballs—everybody gets to chime in, until it’s right.
“No one owns a good idea,” Kamal said with conviction. “[Traditional] restaurants run like the Navy—you’re running a brigade system, but you’re running a brigade system with pirates. You have very eclectic personalities and you’re trying to conform them.
“But here, I don’t want to build a place. I want to build people. And the people are the investors, the electricians, all of the people.”
When Laney Dunn, a veteran server, started working at StepChld, she told Kamal that a lot of people in the restaurant industry can be toxic.
“He said, ‘They’re mean to each other? Why?’”
It’s a good question, and one that a younger generation of food and drink entrepreneurs is conscious of.
Kamal and his team aim to take such preconceived notions and invert them.
Upending restaurant traditions
Will it work?
At StepChld, the proof is in the positive attitude and good vibes, easily felt, in the bold, Ethiopian-around-the-edges menu, and in the diverse crowd it attracts.
“There is something very experimental about this restaurant,” Kamal said.
“Everyone should feel respected and heard,” he said. “If that’s not going to be the case, I don’t want a restaurant. I’d rather be doing something else.”
That’s the ethos from which everything else flows at StepChld, and so far, so very, very good.
A vibrant mural of beautiful Black and brown faces anchors the far wall, and like everything at StepChld, it tells a story. One face is that of a child blowing bubbles. “A kid represents the hopeful—rebirth, and thinking about the future,” Kamal said.
The music of Nina Simone and Erykah Badu, painted into the mural, provided Kamal with therapy during the difficult two years of the pandemic and global turmoil, he said. Both women “make you feel two things at the same time,” he said. “It’s powerful. Sober and soulful, but hopeful and kind.”
Can a restaurant be truly hopeful and kind, not just for the guest, but for everyone, including the electricians?
Kamal thinks yes. He thinks of StepChld itself as therapy—“as music you can eat.”
As when he was a child, he’s open to all possibilities
During my visit to StepChld, bar staff Dunn and Cliff Rhymes gushed that it’s the best place they’ve ever worked. Dunn said now that StepChld is reaching its year-open mark, she can stop waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’s yet to drop.
Brian Bogan, Kamal’s childhood mentor at the Brian Coyle Center, said in an interview that the young man was as much a mentor to him. He’s unsurprised at the sensibility of StepChild, he said, because, that’s just Kamal.
“When all the kids were acting up, Kamal was not,” he said. “In school he started a competition of who can get the highest grade. All of the things that are shitty about poverty, Kamal never got caught up in any of it. His heart is in the right place. The man is destined for greatness. I love him.”
Gushing mentors and staff aside, the restaurant tells its own story. There’s no “i” in the name, because no one person makes something good. But “Stepchld” also serves to remind the restaurant’s team and its diners that they should take nothing for granted when it comes to foodways.
“It’s never the origin you think it is,” Kamal said of his dishes, recalling a trip to Italy and seeing pasta with sugo on the menu.
“I said, ’How do you have sugo?’ And the man politely explained to me that his country almost colonized Ethiopia,” he said.
While he knows that such melding abounds in food culture, he remains inspired and energized by it.
“It’s familiar, but borrowed,” he said. “You have to respect where it came from, but the more adoption there is of something, the more it will live on. It’s like language. It’s important for survival.”
But the evolution of Kamal Mohamed, and of StepChld, feels like more than mere survival.