To Hamdi Omar, the saddest thing about shuttering her Gurey Deli for two months — and possibly losing it forever — wasn’t the hit to her bottom line. It was seeing rows of cars in the Shamrock Plaza parking lot, filled with customers hoping shop doors would reopen so the community could retain its gathering place.
“My hope was so low,” she said of the sewer and water repairs that threatened to permanently close a half-dozen immigrant-owned businesses in a strip mall on the border of Maplewood and the Highwood Hills neighborhood of St. Paul. “This is the heart of the community.”
Weeks of the mall owners’ inability to secure necessary repairs to worn out water and sewer lines forced St. Paul officials to condemn Shamrock Plaza, a move that threatened the future of the businesses that served the surrounding multicultural community, including a large enclave of low-income housing occupied by former refugees from Somalia. But round-the-clock work by city officials to help the businesses navigate the world of building codes, environmental regulations and obtaining contractors over the ensuing several weeks helped the mall reopen Nov. 1.
To Man Ying Ng-Lau and her husband Kwok Yu Ng, owners of Mei Mei Chinese Restaurant, that help saved the business they began building nearly 19 years ago at the corner of McKnight and Lower Afton roads.
“A long time — it’s everything I have. We have to keep it,” Ng-Lau said, rushing from the front counter to the dozen or so tables in the tiny restaurant over the lunch hour Monday. “Now we can.”
Mei Mei’s reopening was happy news Monday to David and Leeza Temple of Maplewood, who have been coming here for a dozen years.
“It’s homey. The food’s great, and they have great prices,” David said.
Said Leeza: “We just kept our fingers crossed that they would reopen.”
Jane Prince, the St. Paul City Council member who represents this southeast corner of the city, said officials didn’t want to condemn the property but did so after realizing the owners were struggling to navigate the regulatory process necessary to complete repairs and reopen. She credited several city staff members for helping coordinate with the mall owner, business owners and their contractors to keep the process moving forward. Richard Ekobena, sewer supervisor in Public Works, even pitched in on his own time on nights and weekends to help the businesses make sense of the process and secure contractors.
“He figured out there was a lack of understanding of how to work with contractors. He met with them over weekends, gave them his cell number,” Prince said. “Everyone realized this is their families’ livelihood. Losing business for that period of time was a real hardship for them and their families.”
On Sunday, the businesses held a grand reopening, complete with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a buffet. Prince, Mayor Melvin Carter and city employees, neighbors, business owners and their families were on hand. The hope, Prince said, is to get the word out that these small, independent businesses that scrape by mostly on neighborhood word of mouth will start to regain some of the business they lost by going dark for two months.
Mustafa Hassan, owner of the McKnight Superette/Halal Meat store, called the reopening of the mall “a miraculous situation.” Going without revenue for two months was hard on his family, said Hassan, a husband and father of two young children. “My brother was helping to pay the mortgage,” he said.
Makhan Singh, manager of Shamrock Plaza Liquors, said the time was stressful for his employers, a husband and wife who have owned the liquor store since 2000. Vendors went unpaid and, even when the mall reopened, vendors wouldn’t resupply the store until the owners reached into their savings to catch up on bills. Every time owners thought they were close to reopening “there were new issues all the time.”
Omar, a young woman who came to Minnesota from Somalia as a fourth-grader, later graduating from nearby Harding High School, started Gurey Deli in January 2018 mainly because she didn’t want to work for a boss. Over time, her small restaurant that specializes in Somali dishes and tea has gained patrons from outside the Somali community.
“We were starting to get people from all over, even people willing to try goat for the first time,” she said. “I wasn’t sure I could believe it when they told me we were going to reopen. It made me happy. … Now I hope I get the customers back.”