Like many restaurateurs, Rekik Meratsion and Solomon Hailie planned to suspend all services during the COVID-19 spring closures. But demand from customers kept Bolé Ethiopian Cuisine open for to-go orders and delivery. “The neighborhood was asking if we were going to close and if we could stay open. We know some community members are in need of food for free, so we stayed open,” Meratsion says. The two, who are married, worked almost all of the hours themselves and averaged two to three free meals per day, as they usually do. “We always try to provide.”
The to-go business was going so well, in fact, that they decided to expand by turning a former Subway next door into a fast-casual Bolé Express. To market the new outpost, Meratsion and Hailie asked the community to nominate their favorite medical professionals working on the frontlines of the pandemic for free meals. “We were just working on the logistics of how we could prepare and deliver those meals. Everything was brand new and so exciting,” Meratsion says.
Elsewhere, across the Twin Cities, tensions were mounting. On May 25, former officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, killing him. Enraged by yet another death of a Black person at the hands of police, protestors took to the streets the following day, sparking what would become a growing unrest across the city and nation. By the night of May 27, protestors were routinely being met with tear gas, and riots erupted along Minneapolis’ East Lake Street.
By Thursday morning, as the Bolé team anticipated the upcoming expansion of their business, the unrest began to spread to their St. Paul Midway neighborhood.
It was at the Target on Hamline Avenue and University where St. Paul tensions first sparked. Like Minneapolis’ Lake Street, University Avenue is composed of many small, immigrant-owned businesses mixed with several larger big-box retailers, like Target. Looters attempted to take the store, leading to a standoff with police. From there, violence and vandalism slowly built along the thoroughfare, soon reaching Bole’s adjacent location just feet away.
That morning, Meratsion opened the restaurant. As customers trickled in, they began to tell her that something was going on and that it would be wise to close. When her husband joined her at 1:30 p.m., they made the decision to close together and locked up by 2:30 p.m. “It was already chaotic. There were a lot of police,” she recalls.
As the riots spread, Hailie went back to the restaurant to grab computers and other important documents around 4:30 p.m. By the time he arrived, the NAPA Auto Parts adjacent to their restaurant was on fire and their building was full of smoke.
The fire department worked for hours to put the blaze out, to no avail. “By 7:30 p.m., the fire fighters said that it was time to go home, that there was nothing they could do to save the place,” Meratsion says. “The next day, we said maybe the fire went out and something was saved. We went early Friday morning, and everything was burned to ashes.”
From friends to business consultants, several people suggested starting a GoFundMe to recoup their losses, but at first Meratsion and Hailie weren’t too keen on the idea. “People are losing their jobs and trying to make ends meet. We didn’t feel comfortable [doing it], but the community kept saying we should because everyone wants us to come back, so we gave it a chance,” said Meratsion. They let a friend set up the Rebuilding Bole Ethiopian Cuisine page on May 29.
Within two days, the $100,000 goal was met. Today the total donated stands at $152,274 thanks to 3,700 donors and 9,700 shares.
“We have reached our goal and we are overwhelmed and speechless by the amount of love and support you have shared with us!” wrote Lelna Desta, the organizer of the page. “We have read every comment, every post, and we know you have become a historical part of rebuilding the Bole you know and love. As we finish our campaign, we will redirect our efforts to other businesses that [have] been impacted in the Twin Cities.”
And that’s exactly what they did.
“There were other [businesses and friends] burning as well and we wanted to help them out. We took our share and said let’s help everyone out so they can meet their goal,” Meratsion says. That same day Hailie curated a list of donation pages for other local businesses that needed support as well and shared it on the restaurant’s Facebook page,
asking for their supporters to share the list with their network and inform them of other businesses to add to the list.
“My husband has been working with the Ethiopian community for a very long time. People know him and want him to succeed, so everyone was focusing on us, but we could see that others were hurting as well,” Meratsion says. “We put ourselves in their shoes and imagined if it was us on the other side. It’s only fair. How can you be satisfied with what you have when someone next to you is hurting?”
When it comes to the future, Meratsion and Hailie are already on the move. When interviewed on the phone as they pulled over on the side of the road while out scouting potential new Midway properties for the next generation of Bole. However, one thing is for sure: They’re not interested in going back to leasing. “Right now, we don’t know if we’re going to rebuild [in the same location]. We don’t know what the owner wants to do,” she says. If they find a place to buy, “The next time anything happens we can rebuild right away.”
Immediate next steps are focused on the fast-casual side of things considering how successful their COVID to-go adventure was, but they’re also driven by the desire to find a dine-in location that is just right for their community focused space.
“We are ready to work and want to get back in business,” Meratsion adds. “The community is waiting for us.”