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Azhar Abdusebur had his hands full on the first Saturday in June, when his food startup, Red Wolf Chai, set up a stand at the Fulton Farmers Market.
A line had formed for the items on Azhar’s short menu: iced chai; and warm flaky chapatis, offered plain or rolled up with sweet stuff like honey or a less-traditional nutella spread. Azhar, 28, seemed boundlessly pleased to be there. When the market started to wind down for the evening, he bartered with the other vendors at the market—exchanging his fresh iced chai for goods like raspberry jam and radishes.
Acquiring a spot at the farmers market had been Azhar’s dream for a while. He applied twice for a stall at the Mill City Farmers market, starting in 2019, and got rejected both times. His luck changed this year, however, when Azhar applied successfully to Neighborhood Roots, which runs multiple farmers markets, including the Nokomis and Fulton markets.
Founded by Azhar, his brother Mayzer Muhammad, and a friend, Mowafag Mohamed, Red Wolf Chai offers its chai on ice, with an aftertaste of clove and spice. The chai has honey and brown sugar as a subtle sweetener, and customers can choose between oat or whole milk for a creamy blend.
Red Wolf Chai is a side line for Azhar, a University of Minnesota alum who works a day job in IT. It’s been a success so far, though, he said, partly because of the support that he’s felt from friends and family, many from the East African community.
“It’s been amazing,” he said. At the first market, he added, “We sold out halfway through the market, just because so many of our friends kept showing up and people that we knew.”
The brothers teamed up with Mowafag, after learning that he, too, had plans to start a coffee or chai shop. He also describes the new venture as a success.
“The first time we were kind of scared, and then it went really well,” Mowafag said. “And then the second time it went really well, too, and we liked it.”
‘I could make better chai’
Azhar sources many of his chai and chapati ingredients from local businesses. The black tea often comes from Peace Market, a Middle Eastern grocer a few miles north of Minneapolis. The Red Wolf crew brew it over 11 hours, starting a few days before the market, adding cardamom and cinnamon along the way.
The food prep takes place in Red Wolf Chai’s kitchen, which is based in the Seward neighborhood. As with the tea, the chapati-making process begins a few days before the market.
“Out of the three of us, I’m the one who kind of has the recipe for the chapatis,” Mayzer said. “I learned it directly from my mom, and I’ve been in charge of making sure all the parties are good to go.”
The recipes for the chai and the chapati take their inspiration from Azhar and Mayzer’s mother, who is Oromo, and moved to Minnesota from Ethiopia in the 1990s. Azhar and Mayzer’s father came to the United States in 1981 after fleeing violence in the region.
Azhar said that his family’s cultural ties have had an influence on his business, and described chai as a part of his childhood. After school, his mother would make him and his siblings dabo shahee, a dish that includes fresh bread dipped in chai. His siblings would sit on the living room floor to eat the dish together.
“It was something that we loved as kids,” he said. “What kid doesn’t love sugar and milk, right?”
The name of the business also has ties to Azhar and Mayzer’s family history in Ethiopia: It refers to the endangered Ethiopian Wolf, an animal with a red coat and white underbelly. He was inspired to use the name after a trip five years ago, when he and his father visited a national park in Ethiopia.
Azhar said he founded the business because he wanted to be able to share his love of food and drinks from Ethiopia.
“I’ve tried chai across different places, and the chai wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be,” he said. “I thought I could make better chai.”
Coming to a coffee shop near you?
So far, the shop relies on sales from the Fultons and Nokomis farmers markets.
The Neighborhood Roots farmers market was excited to host Red Wolf Chai because of the personal connection Azhar has with his products, according to Emily Lund, the executive director of Neighborhood Roots.
“He had a line the whole time at both markets, and you can tell that he also did a lot of his own networking and promoting his business,” she said. “He has such a great energy.”
Neighborhood Roots, which officially launched in 2008, is an “incubation” space for small businesses, Lund said. Once a new business finds a spot at a market, owners can focus on their own mission without worrying about the logistics, like electricity and the securing the space.
But Red Wolf Chai is already thinking about expanding. “I do have goals of eventually, hopefully being able to sell chai to stores or coffee shops,” Azhar said. “And then, you know, five to 10 years down the line, hopefully it’ll make sense to open up a place.”