When life handed Kamal Mohamed lemons, he made root beer floats.

During his sophomore year at South High School in Minneapolis, Mohamed failed to make the varsity football team. So, after his JV games, he would walk to the nearby Cub Foods and pick up some groceries: vanilla ice cream, root beer, little Dixie cups.

He set up outside the entrance to the field — the school wouldn't let him do it inside — and shilled mini floats to the football parents who had come for the higher-stakes varsity games. They loved it.

At the time, Mohamed was driven to earn enough spending money to go out with friends on the weekends. Even half-price appetizers at Applebee's were out of reach to a kid from Cedar-Riverside with no allowance. Those root beer floats changed everything.

"That was the moment I was like, 'Oh, you can turn $10 into $50,'" Mohamed said.

It was his first food business. There were others: Kamal's Kitchen, late-night grilled cheese sandwiches warmed on hot plates in the basement of his University of St. Thomas dorm and sold to college students returning home from the bars. (The school put an end to that business.) And a robotic juice vending machine he devised with college friends, even moving to California to raise capital — from which the founders were edged out.

Failure bruised him, but made him try again.

Now, the 34-year-old self-taught chef counts among his food-world successes a family-run hot chicken mini-chain, a packaged gourmet sandwich that a major corporation tried to take down, a new organic cafe, and a high-end restaurant with flavors as bold as his ideas.

"I try to think of it from the perspective that we only have a little bit of time relative to everything else that's happening in the universe, so I want to try and execute as many ideas as I can, and then let the chips fall where they will," he said. "When you're taking this many shots, I know some of them will fail. So far, it's been working out."

Using his startup sensibilities, Mohamed is breaking conventions in the local food scene, bringing others into the fold, and staying relaxed while doing it.

"It's really easy to get behind him," said Bridgit Loeffelholz, the creative director of Dampfwerk Distillery in St. Louis Park and a collaborator on a new cocktail bar Mohamed is opening this spring. "He's incredibly levelheaded in this type of industry where so many cards are flying at you. He always comes at it with grace and understanding."

'You're gonna be a rich man'

Born in Derder, Ethiopia, and educated in Nairobi, Kenya, Mohamed immigrated to Minnesota with his family when he was 10. They arrived at night, and headed straight to Minneapolis' Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, where a dense cluster of residential buildings glowed.

"I remember looking out and going, 'I've never seen so many lights.' Seeing the towers lit up felt like truly anything was possible," he said. "Ever since then, I've been trying to hold onto that imagination of a 10-year-old."

The oldest of five kids, Mohamed grew up cooking almost daily in a household perfumed by peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic and Ethiopia's fiery berbere spice blend. He was so small, he had to stand on a chair. His parents, hard-toiling food truck operators, woke him at 6 a.m. to make tea and get his siblings ready for school.

Even then, the adults in his life saw a spark in him. Brian Bogan was the youth director at Brian Coyle Community Center in Mohamed's neighborhood, which serves primarily East African immigrants and where Mohamed was a regular. On a trip to the Boundary Waters, during a heart-to-heart, "I remember saying to Kamal, 'You're gonna be a rich man one day.' He took that and ran with it," Bogan said. "Some people just have that It Factor that you can't coach, you just know. And with all the things he overcame, Kamal has that."

Mohamed went to college with a plan to go into medicine. But after he entered a business competition and won first place, a professor told him, "You're in the wrong industry." He became a business major and didn't look back.

In those years, "he was as curious as ever," said LJ Stead, Mohamed's college roommate, classmate and eventual business partner. "He's just a very curious person about 'what is next.' He sees trends really well."

Mohamed, Stead and Eric Ploeger co-founded JuiceBot in a business class and took it to San Francisco and Los Angeles after college, living in studio apartments and driving Uber while trying to convince investors to give their robotic cold-pressed juice dispenser a chance.

"It felt like it was always a burning house and we were firefighters every day," Mohamed said of that time in his career.

The business wasn't going how he'd hoped, and after a few years, he found himself jobless on the West Coast.

"It was one of those moments where I was wanting to write off entrepreneurship and building things, as I was dealing with that pain," he said. He applied to jobs at every major company he could think of, but nothing panned out.

When the pandemic hit, he moved back to Minneapolis to help his family with their Mediterranean food truck, Alimama. The truck had been a staple of the downtown Minneapolis lunch rush, and when that foot traffic dried up, the family had to simplify the menu, and find a new audience. They found it in Nashville Coop.

In Los Angeles, Mohamed would sometimes wait in line two hours for Nashville-style hot chicken. When his brother, Arif, came to visit him in January 2020, they used their time in line wisely, strategizing how to bring this style of hot chicken to Minnesota, but with the spices they grew up tasting. The plan was to open a restaurant. Two months later, restaurants shut down to prevent the spread of COVID. But, they had a food truck.

"After several discussions, we went ahead full steam with the idea because we thought we had nothing to lose," Arif Mohamed said at the time.

Nashville Coop launched as a food truck in the spring of 2020, and it will soon open its third brick-and-mortar location in the Twin Cities. At home in Minneapolis, starting a new business, Kamal Mohamed was happy.

"I went back to working on a food truck that was like 105 degrees inside, and I was having more fun than I did the last few years," Mohamed said. "The idea of watching customers come up to the front, just spending a little bit of time with each of them, talking to them, gave me sort of like that love that was missing."

New adventures await

With his fast-casual chicken joint becoming a sensation, Mohamed went in an unexpected direction for his next venture, opening StepChld in 2021. The northeast Minneapolis restaurant feels comfortable and approachable, but with upscale sensibilities.

"I went from a food truck to I don't know what I'm doing in fine dining, but it worked out better than I thought it was going to, and it became less and less about impostor syndrome," Mohamed said.

The menu has a number of crowd-pleasers (birria tacos, wings, a be-all-end-all burger), alongside short rib sugo over pasta, and shrimp in a knockout fermented chile sauce sprinkled with lavender.

Ethiopian berbere spice makes several appearances, even in the ganache of a chocolate cake. But the menu isn't defined as anything other than a travelogue of the places Mohamed has lived.

"It's Ethiopian based on how I grew up. When you look at San Francisco, it's a lot of Asian flavors. New York was kind of a hodgepodge. And then L.A., there's a lot of Latino influence," he said. "People ask me what the cuisine is, and I say, I don't know what to tell you, other than the fact that I like it."

The food is personal to Mohamed, and it shows. Take the sugo. Years ago, when he saw "sugo" on the menu of an Italian-American restaurant, he was confused why it featured an Ethiopian meat sauce he'd grown up eating. That's when he learned about Italy's attempt at colonizing Ethiopia in the 1930s. StepChld's version is an enormous helping of wide noodles with bits of short rib and dots of basil oil. It's rustic and homey.

There's no big-name chef in the kitchen, no brigade system and deferential power structure. Just Mohamed, his lieutenant Luis Pineda, pastry chef Yon Hailu, and a small crew of employees testing recipes and prepping food in the basement.

"We're not chasing the French style," Mohamed said. Flavor, he added, "is like art. It's very subjective."

He often hires people like himself: immigrants, people of color, chefs who have never set foot in a culinary school. "This is school," Hailu said, gesturing at the kitchen filled with the aromas of romesco sauce and almond cookies.

In the same basement, Mohamed started Gallant Tiger, a prepackaged, crustless peanut butter and jelly that famously drew the ire of Smuckers, makers of the seemingly similar Uncrustables. Smuckers eventually dropped the cease-and-desist order, and Mohamed ingeniously won free publicity for his company in the process.

Until now, the sandwiches have been made with a hand-operated contraption that smashes two pieces of sourdough together around a dollop of nut butter and locally made jam. It's about to scale up, the process becoming automated. The sandwiches have only been available in a handful of coffee shops, but Mohamed has bigger plans.

"He's the kind of guy who has a vision, but also the execution," said Charlie Hilligoss, another college friend who joined Mohamed in leading Gallant Tiger.

His most recent venture: Parcelle. The just-opened organic cafe, its sparse white walls punctuated by refrigerators filled with a rainbow of vegetables, is down the street from StepChld. And with WildChld, a new cocktail bar opening soon next door to StepChld, Mohamed has the makings of a small empire on one city block.

Tell that to the kid looking out at the lights in Cedar-Riverside, with so much promise and so many root beer floats to come.

"I feel very lucky and privileged that those that I grew up around were like, 'We know that you're going to be successful,' " Mohamed said of the family and teachers who encouraged him. "I think in that, it felt like I had the antidote to any virus. It's this undeniable confidence."

Where to find ...

Kamal Mohamed is the entrepreneur behind four Twin Cities businesses. That's why you might recognize the name — or, his onetime nom de plume, Kamal Minneapple. (It was a college nickname. "Why do only rappers have cool names?" he said.)

Nashville Coop: A family-run mini-chain of Nashville-style hot chicken restaurants and a food truck. 856 Washington Av. SE., Mpls.; 300 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul; nashvillecoop.com

StepChld: East African, Latin American and Asian flavors are on the menu at this cozy and upscale northeast Minneapolis restaurant. 24 University Av. NE., Mpls., StepChld.com

Parcelle: This organic cafe serves food all day, with burritos in freshly made tortillas, chicken curry, and loads of vegetables. There's also a Wesley Andrews coffee counter. 233 E. Hennepin Av., Mpls., parcelleorganics.com

Gallant Tiger: Find the crustless nut butter-and-jam sandwiches at Dogwood Coffee locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and Minneapolis coffee shops the Get Down Coffee Co., Wesley Andrews Coffee & Tea, and the Dripping Root.

Coming soon: WildChld: Sharing an entrance with StepChld, this neighboring cocktail bar will offer light bites and a drink menu from Dampfwerk Distilling's Bridgit Loeffelholz. 24 University Av. NE., Mpls.