Holy Land Brand Inc. CEO Majdi Wadi furthered the commercial renaissance of Minneapolis' Central Avenue corridor and the Minnesota manufacturing economy last week when he opened the state's first hummus factory, a sparkling-new facility that produces 60,000 eight-ounce containers a month in what had been a crummy bar on 25th Avenue NE.
"We paid $1.25 million for the old Sully's Bar [in 2007], which was appraised at $950,000 by the bank," said Wadi. "We were shocked by the drugs and prostitution. But now, Holy Land has another business that is good for our neighborhood and city.
"Hennepin County rewards me by raising the property taxes. That's OK. Wells Fargo loaned me some money, and we're going to make a good business."
A few blocks away, Holy Land, which now employs 140 people in its store, deli, restaurant and other businesses, expanded its bakery in refurbished quarters that was another derelict building at 1617 Central Av. NE.
"The revitalization of Central Avenue is immigrant-based," said Paul Ostrow, the longtime City Council member from northeast Minneapolis. "Majdi has blazed the trail since he started making these investments more than a decade ago. He's global with his imports and exports. He's a success. And he also cares about Northeast."
In an interview in his cramped, nondescript office last month, Wadi, 44, a Palestinian immigrant, repeatedly expressed thanks to neighbors and America.
Maybe we should thank him.
Wadi, who arrived in 1994 to assist brothers Wajdi, 48, and Samer, 38, at a hole-in-the-wall, 6,000-square-foot deli, has borrowed or invested more than $10 million since then to buy and renovate 30,000 square feet of retail and production space, mostly on one block. The Holy Land restaurant, grocery store and bakery sells hummus, tabouli and bread at Lunds, Kowalski's, Cub and grocery stores and co-ops throughout the Midwest. Holy Land expects more than $10 million in sales this year, Wadi said.
Moreover, Wadi purchased and renovated several houses and rental properties, in which his parents, a brother and other Holy Land workers live. And Wadi, in concert with a developer, expects to start construction soon on a 32-unit, affordable-housing apartment building on the block.
"He's definitely the leading investor on Central Avenue," said John Vaughn, the longtime executive director of the Northeast Community Development Corp.
"By 2004, most of the 80 businesses on upper Central Avenue had turned over. They are gradually being replaced by immigrant, start-up businesses that stepped forward when Central reached bottom, and they have been a huge part of the comeback of Central in recent years."
Businesses started generations ago by Poles and Italians have given way to those started by immigrants from the Middle East, India, Asia and Afghanistan.
Majdi Wadi, the business leader, followed two brothers who had attended school in the United States. Majdi studied economics and finance at a private university in Jordan and worked for nearly a decade for the founder of Applied Science University in Amman. He rose from office boy to assistant to the general manager, working in finance and operations.
"But there were limits," he said. "New investors took over the company. I was a nobody. No money and I wasn't from a prominent tribe. There was corruption. It was time to leave. There was anger in my heart. But I was still young."
"My brother Wajdi had started Holy Land in 1987. I arrived in 1994. I had more rights in America with a [work] visa on the first day than I had ever had as a Palestinian in Kuwait or Jordan. I spent two years learning the business. And then we expanded. I'm a citizen. I owe everything to Northeast and this country."
Majdi Wadi was joined in Minneapolis by his wife, Saeda Wadi. The first of their three children was born in 1995.
Majdi Wadi has won immigrant-business awards; been hailed by neighborhood schools and churches for free food at events and fundraisers, part of Holy Land's tradition of donating 5 percent of pretax profits; been saluted for Holy Land's "spicy hummus" by celebrity chef Rachael Ray, and even headed the annual Northeast parade.
"The harder I worked and reached out to the community, the better I did," Wadi said. "Just this immigrant."
He thought the warm reception was over in September 2001 in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and an anticipated backlash on Muslims.
"I was fearful when I drove to work that day," said Wadi, recounting telephone threats. "But I got calls of support from the mayor and Gov. Jesse Ventura. And our customers and neighbors came with tons of flowers, business cards, buying products and to show support. I was embraced by Jews, Catholics, Muslims, everybody."
Holy Land, including the new hummus factory and an adjacent banquet hall, also has been good for the neighborhood. Street crime is down by a third in the area since 2007, further proof that commerce and customers scare off the bad guys.
"Holy Land is more than a small business in the Northeast community," Mayor R.T. Rybak said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony last week. "It is the heart and soul of Central Avenue. Holy Land has helped spur a remarkable revitalization."
Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • firstname.lastname@example.org