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Business entrepreneur Kehm Rai is proud of his new store, Karen and Nepali Foods in St. Paul, which opened on Saturday, May 13.
As Rai, 23, walks through the store, he points out spices, candy and more candy, savory treats and some gamer headphones with bunny rabbit ears. Rai is a former YouTube gamer who had subscribers in the thousands. But, he said, he has forgotten that time of his life for the most part.
“That was a very, very, very good time,” said Rai, who immigrated to the United States from Nepal when he was 14. “I think I just wanted to work. Full time work. I got busier. I just wanted to work and do something like this first.”
Work he got. Over an eight month period, Rai and his business partners turned what some neighbors called a public nuisance into a community resource. The property used to be the Lamplighter Lounge strip club, the site of multiple police visits and constant crimes including at least two murders.
One of the homicide victims, Nia Black, 23, was killed in the parking lot outside the club in 2020. Her death inspired her mother, Latanya Black, to start the group, Mothers Against Community Gun Violence. The organization, which offers support to victims’ families, often held protests at the Lamplighter to demand that the place be shut down.
June 13 will mark the third anniversary of Nia’s killing. Black took part in the grocery store’s grand opening, which turned out to be an emotional day for her.
“It was three years of emotions, just a lot of hard work that went into trying to make that community safe,” Black said.
“This is what happens when the community comes together,” she said of the grand opening day. “It didn’t matter that I was African American or they were Nepali or Karen. It was just love in a community.”
Kim O’Brien is the executive director of the Rice and Larpenteur Alliance, a neighborhood group that has worked with Mothers Against Community Gun Violence. She said the alliance has worked with local residents and businesses “to transform this neighborhood into something positive for the people who live here.”
Karen and Nepali Foods “represents so much hope and progress for us so we couldn’t be happier,” O’Brien said.
‘A lot of work’
Rai said he signed the rental lease back in September after looking at a few other locations. He and his partners pooled their savings to invest in the business. Then they had to invest a ton of sweat into reviving the property, which was not up to code.
The cleanup was not easy.
“It was very nasty, you know, the place, the floor and the stuff. They weren’t even cleaning that properly,” Rai said. “It took a lot of work.”
Besides the deep clean, Rai and his partners’ labor also included ripping carpet off the walls and painting them afterwards. They had to hire an architect and a plumber. The city told them they had to tear down one wall and build a new one so that the store would be wheelchair accessible.
It’s a far cry from what the lounge was.
“Arson, sex trafficking, you name it,” Black said. “This has been a space of violence in our community for decades. The world is bad enough, we don’t need to add to it.”
The area also needed an ethnic market to serve members of the community, Rai said. Many Nepali and Karen seniors live in the neighborhood, near Larpenteur Avenue and Albemarle Street. Rai said most don’t drive and store employees will help customers get their purchases home.
“Sometimes they have to walk all the way down, cross the street,” he said. “It’s not easy for them. So we try to make it easiest for them.”
Rai appears to have made it easier for other neighbors in other ways. Latanya Black recalls those days when she stood outside the strip club to protest. There was one woman who let her opinion be known.
“The woman said, ‘I can’t even sit on my balcony with my grandkids, I have bullet holes in my walls from all the violence from that place.’ As we was cutting the ribbon, she was standing on her balcony with her grandkids, waving down at us.’”