Obituaries

Mountains, Molehills and St. Paul’s Flamingo Restaurant

Frewoini Haile, left, Shegitu Kebede, Right (Pioneer Press: Jean Pieri)By Frederick Melo

Shegitu Kebede has suffered through war and relocation and learned to keep her head up. Kebede, who grew up in an Ethiopian orphanage, has won awards for her community work with East African women and children in Minneapolis, and she’s published three books. She’s even survived an abusive relationship. She is, in every way, a survivor. None of that, however, quite prepared her for the saga of the rapidly melting freezer — or the generosity of customers.

In January, Kebede and restaurateur Frewoini Haile opened the Flamingo Restaurant near the corner of St. Paul’s University Avenue and Syndicate Street. Tucked behind a Subway sandwich shop, the cozy one-room restaurant serves a mixture of Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali food in generous portions of gyro meat and vegetable stews over traditional injera flatbread.

Their business model was simple. The women, both single mothers, would be the owners and sole employees. They’d work seven days a week, 11 hours a day every day, except one. On Sundays, they’d only put in eight hours.

The restaurant, gained a modest following among non-Africans and Africans alike. Then came disaster. On the afternoon of July 8, an Xcel Energy transformer failed down the street. When the power suddenly returned, the electrical surge overloaded the restaurant’s air conditioning, its kitchen ventilation hood, the freezer and all the other electrical appliances in the shop. For four days, the Flamingo remained closed while electricians traipsed through the building. It wasn’t until the following Monday that the co-owners realized their freezer had failed, and some $700 to $1,000 worth of food and cooking ingredients were spoiled.

Xcel Energy refused to cover the repair costs, calling the power surge “an act of God,” said Haile. “We handle getting the service to the customer site, whether it’s a home or a business,” said Tom Hoen, an Xcel spokesman. “After that, it is up to the customer to basically ensure they have the proper appliance or safety measures regarding their equipment, surge protectors or whatever they may have.” Kebede and Haile said they were astonished to learn that power surges are not covered by their insurance, and their insurer wouldn’t reimburse them for even a fraction of the spoiled food.

All in all, it’s been a difficult two months. he women wondered how they would keep the Flamingo afloat. Then came the e-mail chain letters, the phone calls, the checks from good Samaritans the two have never met. Kebede’s friends and former co-workers have told anyone who will listen: “Eat at this restaurant.” “When one door closes, God opens another door,” said Haile, who has been working with the University Avenue Business Preparation Collaborative on a website and other technical services. “We’re both Christians, and we’re very, very grateful. … It touched our hearts.”

One customer drove from Wisconsin. Another man ordered three meals for himself, though it was clear he’d barely be able to finish one. When Kebede describes the sight, she has to laugh — and then bursts into grateful tears.

Ful Story : Pioneer Press – Mountains, molehills and a St. Paul restaurant called the Flamingo

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