Safari’s Concrete Jungle Journey

By Petra E. Lewis

When Maymuuna Birjeeb was asked why she and her husband, Shakib Farah, chose the name “Safari” for their Harlem-based Somali restaurant, she explained that it has a double meaning.

"I wanted something that when you see it, you think of Africa,” Birjeeb said of the Swahili term. “When you hear ‘safari,’ of course you're thinking about safari in Africa."

However, going one level deeper, she shared: In Swahili, "safari" means journey.

Birjeeb, who goes by the name Mona, grew up in Sweden and worked in finance at JPMorgan Chase prior to opening the restaurant. Her husband had been an engineer. Mona had always been passionate about food, particularly Somali food.

Since there are not that many Somalis in New York, she was often confused for being Ethiopian. When she worked at the bank, once people learned she was Somali, she recalls that she often found herself fielding questions about her heritage, particularly: “What’s Somali food like? What do you guys eat?”

Her husband, who is also Somali and the restaurant’s chef, is the youngest of ten children, and learned about cooking from his mother.

Mona elaborates that it was a combination of New Yorkers’ unfamiliarity with Somalia and the couple’s missing food from home that inspired their idea of “opening a Somali restaurant, and introducing Somali food and culture to New Yorkers.”

She says of her spouse, “He always had a passion about food, and when we met, we always had the same goal, same passion. I was like: Well, let’s come together and make our dream come true.”

Starting off, she and her husband bootstrapped their restaurant launch. “Literally,” she recalls of her job, “I quit. And I was like I’m going to follow my dream.” They used their savings and borrowed money from family. They also tried to get a loan in the midst of their launch and weren’t approved—it wouldn’t be the last time.

Because her personal credit was strong, Mona was surprised by the rejection. Starting out, they had a year’s worth of rent saved. Then she and her husband used their credit cards when they ran out of money.

Reflecting on the experience, she says, “It was kind of scary leaving your secure job to follow your dream and starting up a restaurant…you don’t know anything about.” She adds, “Everything you have passion about, there’s a risk behind it as an entrepreneur.”

She recalls lenders telling them, “The idea you have is great.” But… Even though her personal credit was good: They had never had a business. And restaurants are risky—many don’t survive. And people had never heard about Somali food, and bankers didn’t know how people would react. And, and, and…

“But that didn’t stop us,” she said firmly. “It was very challenging. I didn’t see it at the time. I was seeing what I was going to do, what it’s going to look like, and I can provide that food people are looking for.”

But as she and her husband became seasoned business owners (they opened their restaurant in May of 2015) they became wizened—and perhaps jaded—that race played a factor, too. “Especially when you’re black and you never did business,” says Mona, “there’s not that much funding for you out there.”

Still, she wished she hadn’t been so green starting out. “I didn’t know,” she says candidly. “I didn’t have that connection.” By this she means being in touch with more experienced entrepreneurs. “I didn’t know how hard it is,” she adds.

Having that peer connection with other restaurateurs would have helped the pair understand the potential difficulties and pitfalls of business ownership on the horizon, and better navigate complex and tricky topics, like obtaining funding. 

Then came the pandemic—and many cliffs and forks in the road they could never have foreseen. No one could.

The start of the pandemic was so sudden, she and her husband decided to shut the restaurant for two weeks—and get their bearings. She recalled, “We didn’t know what to do. We were like, let’s sit down and figure out what is going to happen.” Like many restaurants they pivoted to takeout and delivery. But in the midst of this, some of their employees became scared of contracting COVID-19 and left.

They didn’t have any cash reserves, so they sought loans again, applying for all the available funding. It was the same as their last loan attempt: Nothing. No Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) or Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) approvals. She remembered saying to her husband, “Let’s do it. You know we always do it ourselves.”

Many small business owners still have bumps, bruises, and bandages to show from their PPP application failures. However, Safari’s PPP odyssey has been particularly dizzying. It was an uphill climb for them, as it was for many, yet “I didn’t give up,” she said. “I kept sending them letter after letter.” PPP money dried up, but she kept reapplying. The frustration still thick in her voice she said, “Every time they made one mistake, it set me back four weeks to get an answer again.”

The couple actually was approved for a $50,000 loan in December 2020. They were happy for the money, she said, even though they should have been eligible for more. Then they experienced a snafu where they were told that they hadn’t submitted enough paperwork to prove they are the owners. So, the loan still has not been released.

Still exasperated, she said of that time, “I was like, they’re not going to destroy my Christmas over this mess.” So, they doubled down on the DIY path that has always kept them afloat and brainstormed inexpensive ways to innovate.

Pre-pandemic, their restaurant, located on 116th Street, was small, but mighty. But during the pandemic their operation’s diminutive size became a liability when it came to outdoor dining, which is based on a restaurant’s normal indoor capacity. During the warm months, their allotment outside was fewer than 12 chairs.

“Indoor is hardest,” she said. “it’s 25% “And that’s not helping us.” She added, “The transition from dining in to takeout is really a struggle. It is hard, but we’re getting there. We’re learning every day.” Then winter came. Her husband had built the outdoor seating himself—with no funding.

When the wind blew too strongly, they were forced to take it down. And now, in the colder months, outdoor-heating became an additional expense, so they’ve eliminated their exterior seating for the winter. They’re trying to build a coffee bar outside instead. “I want to meet them there,” she says of customers, “since they cannot come in here.”

Despite their own personal setbacks, during the height of the pandemic, the couple donated food. They’re not the only restaurant to do so, but it’s meaningful that they were willing to help others, even as they were facing uncertainty.

Mona confides, “I’m from a culture where if you have five dollars, you share it. If you see someone who has less than you, and you have a bread or tea and you’re stronger, and that other person is dying, you give it—instead of eating it.” Their giving coincided with the couple’s celebrating Ramadan.

Mona continues, “Being in Harlem and seeing all those people with no food, it just broke my heart.” She remembered saying to her husband, “God will help us in another way.” For them, the experience of seeing other people, particularly those experiencing food insecurity, be able to eat was its own reward. “The least thing you can do is give them food,” she said, “if you can’t give them anything else. 

The sentiment she shared with her husband about divine providence taking care of their selfless giving came full circle, in a beautiful way.

Pre-pandemic, she had once had a visit from an eight-year-old boy, accompanied by his mother, who wanted to interview the couple for a school assignment. As he asked questions about how they had started their business, he became very inspired. Mona thought, “That was great.”

Even greater? Mona shared of the boy, “When COVID happened, his mom was the first customer reaching out—asking us how we’re doing?” Her husband was a doctor at NYU Langone Hospital, and the child’s parents collected donations from friends, then gave the money to Safari so they could feed first responders at that hospital.

The best way to describe where Safari is now is “parlay.” They’re parlaying past and present opportunities into larger ones as they try to strategize their post-pandemic future. 

Like most business owners, the pair is seeking ways to diversify their revenue streams. They’d been selling a bottled hot sauce for several years online, but that has slowed down with all they’re juggling during the pandemic. They have long-term plans to sell the hot sauce at retailers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. They’re also hoping to get a license to open a food truck. They had applied in 2018, but licensing for trucks had temporarily shut down. 

They’re also trying to roll out a plan to sell weekly meal plans online that customers can pre-order, and Safari can drop off. The menu would be different from what they offer at the restaurant. It will be lighter, she says, with more crepes and Somali-style food. She compares it to a Bento box. It’s for customers who don’t want to go out and eat, but want more diverse and healthy eating options. The pricing for a weekly plan would be less expensive than comparable daily takeout at the restaurant.

In addition to the meals they have donated, a year into the pandemic, the husband and wife continue to demonstrate their altruism in how they’ve restructured their product offerings. Specifically: Their new “family” meals. Since some who would like to patronize their business may now be financially unable to do so, this new offering can serve 5-6 people affordably, for only $40.

Mona speaks of the “family” in the meal plan as literally being the entire Harlem community. She shared, “A lot of people can eat, or they can buy it for other people who don’t have food.” She continued, “People don’t have any money, anyway. And there are so many [restaurant industry] restrictions. Still, we cannot pay our bills, but at least we can sell, so we can help the community, too. Money doesn’t mean anything anymore.”

Potential big breaks may have been derailed, but the couple remains undeterred. Whether it’s a penny, a speck of dust, or a stick, they’re determined to maximize whatever they have in their hand at any given moment—large or small.

What is Somali culture like? There’s an old saying for book writers and other creatives: Show—don’t tell. As mentioned, part of the couple’s mission in opening the restaurant was to teach New Yorkers about Somali culture. They’ve done so by simply being, by living it—as people who view the world not in terms of “I,” but “we.”

On a lighter note, when asked what one thing one thing the couple wants people to know about the restaurant—and each other—that most people don't, the husband, Shakib, talks logistics. He speaks of the many hats they wear: working both the front and the back ends of the business; executing the communications, administration, and emails; and soliciting new clients.” Then off he went, to deliver an order of wings for a customer’s Super Bowl party.

Given her turn, Mona said, “He thinks I’m stubborn, because I like things in a certain way. He’s more, like, laid back. He wants me to relax; I don’t know how to relax.” She begins to gesticulate with her hands, making a zapping sound, like that of dangerous, high voltage. “Crazy,” she says.” Then her answer heats up, spicy as pepper sauce. “They think it’s cute,” she says of people, “that we’re husband and wife working together. It’s not that cute. It’s really tough.” She laughs scandalously, in that knowing way of true love, one half of a pair—when a couple is committed, in sickness and in health, for the long haul.

The pandemic continues to bring new daily twists and turns.

But, just like in times past, the couple’s passion for their restaurant’s mission and sharing Somali food and culture will help them get through these tough times—and keep going, growing, and rising. The journey continues.

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