PHOTOS BY VICTORIA CAMPBELL / PORTRAIT BY JOHN HAYNES
The line outside of Seward Cafe stretched onto the next block as small groups of masked patrons excitedly chattered 6 feet apart. But this wasn’t a hip new taco joint opening up, or a trendy food cart. This was the line for Konbini Forever by The SHUI Project. What makes this pop-up different is that it is entirely donation-based. This means that there are no prices on food, and no money exchanges hands through the window. There is a “tip” donation jar, as well as a venmo handle, paired with suggested donation amounts (on average, 20 dollars for an entree and a starter).
Since its establishment in early 2019, SHUI has been creating a place where art, food and community intersect, and feeding communities including COVID-19 essential workers and protestors.
SHUI’s founder, Kenji Yee, started in the culinary industry as a dishwasher. He worked temp jobs around town after returning home to Minneapolis from UC-Berkeley with his philosophy degree. It was at a Plymouth Marriott where he was inspired to seriously begin pursuing cooking. On one particular dishwashing shift, he saw a chef artfully flick a saute pan’s worth of food into the air and catch it, and he was hooked.
Years later, after gaining experience at local staples including La Belle Vie, Unideli at United Noodles, Gold Nugget, Four Bells, and Kado No Mise, Yee started SHUI catering in January 2019. His goal was to focus on improving his skills as well as learning about where food he was working with came from. To do this, he worked with Sarah White and Ashley O’Neill Prado, who work in urban farming in and around the Minneapolis area.
“I wanted to know more about food than broccoli out of a box from Sysco was going to tell me,” Yee says. “I wanted to dig deeper. [That broccoli] may not tell you anything at face value, but if you find out where it came from, and why it looks the way it does, to be honest, then you slowly start to reveal the nature of the food chain and the food system in America, and probably broader.”
Through his connection to White and O’Neill Prado, SHUI catering was tasked with providing meals for events that both individuals were hosting one weekend in August of 2019. Not wanting the leftovers from the events to go to waste, Yee put out a call for the first of what would come to be known as “Family Meals,” which were pay-what-you-can donation-based meals that were served in his home kitchen. As Yee continued to host Family Meals, they transformed into a separate event, with menus created specifically for them and artists who would come and perform for the dinner.
This all changed with COVID-19. Yee had been burning the candle at both ends, so when the pandemic shut down the meals, he took a much-needed break. But, as the pandemic continued, he thought of how his cooking could help those who needed it most. So, he pivoted the family meal to the first iteration of The SHUI Project, called “Hand Out,” to feed frontline workers and others who were already at risk.
So, The SHUI Project began cooking meals in Yee’s Loring Park kitchen, and set up a contactless delivery option for pickup. Yee was still working in his apartment kitchen, so the space was limited. Even with the limited space options, Yee felt like he was providing quality meals to those that needed them.
“Throughout all of this, I have stuck to my belief that I make better food when it’s a smaller amount of people that I feed,” he says.
The SHUI project once again had to adjust after the killing of George Floyd. As protests against the MPD and the officers involved continued, “Hand Out” transformed to help feed those out protesting, keeping the same donation-based model, but now under the name “Konbini”.
“There are a lot of roles in the revolution,” says Yee. “I decided that my role was to be in the back of the house cooking for everybody.”
Konbini was created to help those working to protest or support the protests that were ongoing in Minneapolis. These meals were prioritizing BIPOC community members because they were the community members that were being affected most.
“Konbini was built to support the BIPOC folx that were protesting the murder of George Floyd,” says Yee. “With that, I made a statement that I was going to try to be on the right side of the fence. This was the right thing for the community, for my community.”
As word spread and the operation grew, Yee found himself running 5 mini-fridges in his kitchen just to keep up with demand. He had a menu board that featured prominently outside of his Loring Park apartment door, and a steady stream of orders being picked up.
Yee knew that this growing model run out of an apartment basement could only last so long. His hunch came true a month and a half into service, when the City of Minneapolis and his apartment complex issued a cease and desist order for Konbini to stop making food for sale. This complaint cited traffic on the lawn outside, and a landlord claimed there were noise complaints. So Konbini couldn’t serve out of Yee’s kitchen anymore, and needed a new solution.
Yee was looking for somewhere to continue the work that Konbini had started, without the restrictions of a brick-and-mortar. Seward Cafe had heard about Konbini and what they were doing, and offered an opportunity to continue preparing and serving food out of their kitchen.
After two days of prep, and another slight name change, “Konbini Forever” was open for orders and pickups at noon on July 29. Konbini Forever had prepared 300 entres and 300 appetizers, expecting to be open until 7pm. They were sold out of everything by 3pm.
That is how I found myself waiting in line outside of Seward Cafe on August 24. Even through all of the different changes and names that The SHUI Project has gone through, there is much that is still reminiscent of the apartment-based family meals. A dry-erase whiteboard menu that Yee regularly walked out to update, an optional donation jar with a Venmo handle above it, and the chatter of a socially-distanced community that had formed around Konbini. So I claimed my spot in line, admiring the local artists who had set up tents near the line and waiting for my turn to order.
The food proved to be worth the wait. I had the Onigiri, specially wrapped (with an Instagram tutorial on how to use the wrapped) to keep the seaweed delightfully crunchy and the rice perfectly chewy. Filled with umeboshi (a pickled ume fruit) and shiso (also known as beefsteak plant) the salty crunch of the outside was balanced well with the savory interior. The Kimchi rice bowl united sweet, sour, and spicy flavors, with kimchi in the lead supported ably by the rich, full taste of seared mushrooms. Finally, I tried the Chicken Bento box, which was the only thing that needed to be warmed up. The chicken was good, although I had to drive a ways before eating the box, so it was microwaved-warm and a bit dry. But the feature of the box was the Japanese potato salad. It captured the colorful spice profile without drowning the other components in mayonnaise. It was creamy without being overstated, and had an excellent freshness to compliment the inari sushi.
In the months to come, Yee hopes to continue to expand and provide services critical to the community, as well as bring on more volunteers (typically about 15-20 people help prepare Konbini, while 6 are actively helping during service) and permanent staff members. The core team of the SHUI project, besides Yee, includes Hercules GK (they / he) who is running social media and PR for the SHUI Project. Caiti Margo is a connection that Yee met at Four Bells, who does all of the art SHUI uses for Instagram and other postings. Natalie Yee helps with building the project’s web presence and graphic design, and Gary Yee does accounting work.
“Every event is a work of art in the sense that we’re shaping the material into a thing that feeds and delights, and we hope and pray it has healing vibes to the community, and on the flip side the community does the shaping,” says Yee. “The culture of SHUI, POC, artist, queer, all has shaped SHUI into what it is today. We basically keep on allowing it to reinvent itself through the focus of community and the values therein.”
You can find the next SHUI Project pop-up, and continue to view their community-focused action, by following them on Instagram.
This story was corrected Sep. 29, 2020 to fix the spellings of Konbini and Caiti Margo, the pronouns of Hercules, and the full composition of the SHUI team.