Saturday May 15, 2021
By Naomi Tomky
Growing up, Honey Mohammed watched her mother, Marian Ahmed, start her own business and persevere with it through three cities and more than a half-dozen locations. Now, having gone to school for business, the 23-year-old shares ownership with her mom and has big dreams for how to improve Mama Sambusa Kitchen
There’s just one problem: their religious beliefs preclude them from taking a loan and they’ve struck out applying for grants. “I studied grant writing,” says Mohammed. “I’ve applied for every single grant from the Seattle Office of Economic Development, SBA, LOL…,” she laughs. “All of them.”
But their situation isn’t funny: The business, which Ahmed started in 2002, is currently a food truck and operates from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. “We’re two Black Muslim women working outside in the 30-degree weather,” Mohammed explains. “I don’t want to sugar coat it, but we’re a target.” They have amassed a huge community following, but their current location offers only two parking spots and little protection.“It hurts to have to tell people to wait in their cars and lock their doors,” says Mohammed. “It’s not the aesthetic that we’re going for.” With none of the grants coming through and sales slowing by almost half during Ramadan, they decided to put up an online fundraiser to move the business into a safer space.
Mama Sambusa Kitchen currently sits just off Rainier in South Seattle, but it was born in Austin, Texas. After emigrating from Somalia in 1996 while pregnant with Honey, Ahmed worked at a Marriott there. But the in-room dining program served pork and alcohol, both of which are forbidden by Islam. “At no point do we ever want to compromise our religion for any kind of profit,” explains Mohammed.
When Ahmed began saving up, she tried to invest in existing restaurants, but found the male-dominated world of Somali-owned restaurants unwelcoming – and only willing to employ her as a cook. She kept at it and eventually opened her own food truck in 2002. They moved first to Columbus, Ohio, opening the business there, then to Seattle in 2008, where they opened Mama Sambusa Kitchen once again, this time as a brick and mortar on Othello.
“My mom was by herself,” says Mohammed. She watched a familiar pattern play out over and over: her mom would get a lease on whatever run-down space she could afford, get it up to code and “all dolled up,” then, suddenly the landlord would find someone else to rent to - someone who could pay more for the now-improved space. Watching her immigrant mother taken advantage of and illegally pushed from leases without any resources to fight back inspired Mohammed to study business.
While in school, she worked in all facets of the restaurant industry, preparing to someday join her mom. Meanwhile, Ahmed had a plan to secure a restaurant nobody could take from her: in 2017, she went down to Portland to buy a custom food truck. She drew out her own configuration, exactly what she wanted, and purchased the truck they still operate today. By then, her daughter was 19 and ready to help shape the direction of Mama Sambusa Kitchen’s latest iteration.
“From 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., you can go sit at any restaurant,” says Mohammed. But after that, the spots that remained open fell into certain categories – lots of fast food, processed food, junk food. The service disappointed her. “Maybe they didn’t respect the Black dollar,” she says, but she knew she wanted to create something different – a place that welcomed everyone and served quality, freshly prepared full meals. She looked at what you couldn’t get in Seattle at all, and what you couldn’t find in Seattle at 3 a.m., and crafted a menu of organic, halal dishes that allowed them to support local, woman-owned suppliers. She called what they made “Somali Street Food.”
Asked to define what that means, Mohammed pauses – she knows the menu confuses people. “It’s food made on the street by Somali people, by us,” she says. Each day, she squeezes the lemons for the house-made lemonade while her mom makes fresh puff pastry, which she turns into sambusa, so that is Somali street food. She calls Mama Sambusa’s eponymous dish “the only love triangle you want to be a part of,” and they fill them with beef, chicken, salmon, or vegetables. Seattle-based food writer Ifrah Ahmed recently wrote about sambusas for the LA Times, describing them as “cousins of the samosa,” and the distinct local tradition of filling them with salmon as “a little Seattle but always Somali.”
The many pastas on the menu come from the period of Italian colonization, while the names of the dishes stem from beloved family members. “In Somalia people would line up around the block,” Mohammed says, standing patiently while her late aunt Sarah finished the six-hour process of cooking her spaghetti sauce. Now, Mama Sambusa customers can by the halal beef marinara without the wait. Other dishes have less of a story: “I woke up one day and realized we had no desserts,” Mohammed recalls. So she decided to make cheesecake. Now, they make their signature sweet fresh each day, topping it with traditional flavors like strawberry and creative ones like Fruity Pebbles cereal.When they first opened the truck, the late-night hours were the main draw – most of their business happened after 11 p.m. But as word spread of the good food and big portions, a wider array of customers came, with the calls starting as they open at 4 p.m. The orders begin with families looking for dinner, but around 8 p.m, the crowd changes to college kids, followed by people getting off work at nearby Westfield Southcenter Mall. By midnight, the final shift of customers trickles in – police officers, bus drivers, EMTs. And, since the pandemic began, says Mohammed, lots of creatives adjusting to less structure in their lives.
The mother-daughter duo thrives on the broad nocturnal community they’ve built, but Mohammed has bigger dreams. Armed with her financial and business education, she’s ready to bring the restaurant back inside, to a space that will keep the two of them safe and allow them to improve, without worrying about getting it pulled out from under them. Right now, making everything to order on the truck, she knows the wait time can be a deterrent to customers, but without space or funds, they can’t hire another employee. At the same time, their costs have gone up, with the recent chicken shortage and a dramatic increase in the price of gloves. But they try not to pass that onto guests. “We love our community,” says Mohammed, and she’s seen how job losses have affected it. “We know people can’t afford a mark-up.”
Faced with few options and what she called a “Willy Wonka factor” in her chance of landing a grant – thousands of applicants vying for only a handful of spots – Mohammed set up a GoFundMe for the shop. If they reach their goal, she says, they’ll look for a space where more than two cars can pull-up.
“We want a place that will create relationships,” rather than leave them reminding their customers to lock their car doors while they wait for food and leaves them constantly in a state of concern. “We love everyone,” she says, talking about how their hours and welcoming nature have created a community where she shares Ahmed’s maternal instinct with the late-night residents of South Seattle – young boys who didn’t grow up with a mom, dancers, sex workers. “If you come to our establishment, you are, unfortunately, my mom’s new child now,” she jokes. “and I’m like, damn, if we’re related, come wash the dishes.”