The space in the Griggs Midway Building used to house Lucy’s. Then it was Snack Chat. It had been empty for about four years when Ian Oundo looked at it.
He had dreamed about opening a restaurant near Allianz Field to match up his love of food with soccer.
While working for African Economic Development Solutions inside the Griggs Midway Building, he realized there were no food options for the workers there. One morning in May 2022, he walked into the Progressive Management Investments office and asked, “What would it take to get a restaurant going here?” For the next 1.5 hours, Oundo looked at the 900-square-foot space and asked questions. They began working out the details and he said that he’d take the space.
It was a pivotal moment for Oundo, and one he returns to. “What if she had said, ‘Come back.’ Would I have come back? Something tells me no.” It is a moment that shows him what the power of connection can do.
Things have changed in the area over the last few years. There are still 260 tenants in the Griggs Midway set of buildings (1821 and 540). But now there are also many new apartment complexes along that stretch of University Avenue – a few can be seen from the expansive deck in front of the new Rafiki Coffee & Cafe at 540 Fairview Ave N Suite 101. (Parking is available in the lot on the north side of the 540 building, as well as the main lot near University.)
Rafiki is the Swahili word for friend, which ties into Oundo’s mission to build a more resilient, flourishing, and connected community one coffee cup and conversation at a time.
“You want to help yourself? Help community,” he said.
In addition to coffee, smoothies, tea, cider and hot chocolate, Rafiki offers muffins, bagels, East African sambusas and mandazi.
In response to customers asking, “Where is the food?” Rafiki added light lunch options in early May. They offer salads, soups, wraps, and sandwiches.
Oundo recommends trying the African Tea. The black tea is from Kenya and it is seasoned with the East African spices cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and cardamon.
“One thing that we do is celebrate our diversity and who we are,” said Oundo.
An area that comes out is the selection of music – and what is played is not a preselected lists like at chain coffee shops. It may be African music, reggaeton, Bollywood, or hits from the 1990s.
Oundo also seeks to empower his community by supporting other local businesses. The coffee at Rafiki comes from True Stone, located nearby on Prior Ave. with 15 employees. “That’s 15 families we’re supporting,” said Oundo. “I’m going to be intentional about where I spend my money.” He’s building a partnership with the Creative Enterprise Zone (CEZ), and plans to open up a wall in the cafe for local artists.
BLACK MEN CAN DO MORE THAN PLAY BASKETBALL
Oundo joins fellow BIPOC coffee shop owner Shaunie Grisby, who opened Flava Coffee at 623 University Ave. last summer. Seeing and supporting another BIPOC-owned business makes Oundo feel good. It shows that a Black woman can own a coffee shop. A Uganda-American like him can, too. Black men can do more than play basketball or football. They can own businesses and be doctors. “We can do this, too,” stated Oundo. “The subtle ways of breaking down barriers are so important.”
It is something he thinks about as he raises his children in a biracial family. “I’ve had so much joy in doing this because I’ve had the opportunity to show my sons a different side of me,” said Oundo.
Diversity and equity are important to him, as well as acknowledging changes that need to happen, are happening, and were brought into a larger public spotlight in 2020. “George Floyd is the culmination of decades that have eroded community,” he observed.
“George Floyd is another unfortunate example to say enough is enough.” He pointed to the land bridge proposed in nearby Rondo to reconnect a community broken apart by the construction of Interstate 94. “There has to be a collective effort and value that says we have to stand for what is right. We need to come together to fix the problems.”
EVERYTHING STARTS AND ENDS WITH COMMUNITY
Oundo’s father is from Uganda and his mother is from Kenya. He is the second oldest of nine children, and he grew up “very poor,” he recalled. He spent his childhood in Uganda and then moved to Wichita, Kan. in 2003 to attend college, staying with a family who had worked as missionaries in Uganda. “We are not millionaires, but we will give you something that can change your life,” Oundo recalls them saying. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business.
A Somali friend encouraged him to come to the Twin Cities, and offered him a room and help finding work.
Oundo is grateful for the opportunities others offered him. “I’ve been blessed,” he said.
His work life has included time at Delta Air Lines, corporate jobs, and public policy advocacy. He began working with African Economic Development Solutions, located in the Griggs Midway Building, to organize the Little Africa Festival held annually on the first Saturday of August.
Rafiki is a family affair – although only two of the six children from his blended family are old enough to officially work there. The youngest ones “volunteer” their time – which includes cleaning the aquarium on the weekends. They all feel ownership of the cafe. “This is our livelihood,” said Oundo. “There’s a sense of belonging here.” His daughter, Sydney, is 16 and has worked at other jobs, places where she wasn’t allowed to sit down between customers. She notices the difference being cultivated at Rafiki.
Oundo is already planning an expansion. A 750-square-foot room next door will become overflow and be used for meetings and gatherings.
“Everything starts and ends with community,” he stated, “whether you are empowering it or destroying it.”
More at www.rafikicoffeecafe.com.
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