ILLUSTRATIONS BY LORA MARIE HLAVSA
Funding for the Heavy Table’s Lake Street Profiles series is provided by a grant from Peace Coffee and the Coffee Creates Community initiative. Lake Street Profiles is Heavy Table’s ongoing six-part series of conversations with culinary business owners on or near East Lake Street in Minneapolis.
When it comes to his vision for the future of his restaurant Moroccan Flavors, Hassan Ziadi gets right to the point: “It’s not a good idea to close your business, so I decide to never close.”
Any small restaurant owner knows this is far easier said than done, and requires a winning balance of high-quality food, near-constant hours, and oftentimes a stroke of luck. For Hassan and his wife Raja, they’ve kept their restaurant, located in the Midtown Global Market, successfully running amid pandemic and protests alike by keeping their staff as small as possible and putting in long hours seven days a week to make sure people have access to their food. “We are a small operation, a small business—we don’t have a lot of employees, so if we had a lot of employees we were going to suffer. So my wife and myself, we work every day and we try to take care of our family,” he says. “We live in the building, so it’s convenient for us to stay open. And also, we want anyone who comes through the market to find a place to eat.”
For Hassan, this drive to serve every need of their customers has been over three decades in the making. At the age of 17, he attended culinary school in his native Morocco, where he grew up in Rabat. Since then he’s worked in virtually every hospitality role in restaurants and hotels across Morocco, the Middle East, Europe, Washington D.C., and eventually Minneapolis, where he’s resided permanently since 2013. “I came to Minneapolis in November of 2013, and I just started working three to four jobs as a cook, as a sous chef, some places I worked even as a busboy and dishwasher,” he says. After working at fine dining establishments like Aquavit in the IDS Center and Cafe Un Deux Trois in the Foshay Tower, Hassan opened Moroccan Flavors in the Midtown Global Market in 2016. “At the time my wife and my daughter were in Morocco, so I had too many jobs just to save some money to pay the immigration lawyer, and to save some money to open the business.”
No stranger to hard work, he took an entrepreneurship course through the Neighborhood Development Center before coming up with a Moroccan restaurant concept and a business plan for the Midtown Global Market to consider. After his plan was approved, the Market walked him through the ins and outs of running a business, tasks that he’d never before had to handle himself. “I worked in a lot of hotels, [and] in hotels there is always somebody who does the accounting, somebody who does the marketing, human resources, but here I had to do everything.”
As the only restaurant in Minneapolis solely devoted to Moroccan cuisine, Hassan says that they’ve been fortunate to build a firmly loyal customer base who consistently come back for the marinated salads, sandwiches, and tagines. “I’ve learned something: if you have good quality of food and service, reasonable prices, and good location, you can be successful. That’s why I’m very happy with my customers—they always come back to you, and they’re always happy. They’re always happy with the quality and the service.”
Though he says that in Morocco, the typical cuisine is heavy on breads and red meat, he and Raja have reworked their menu to make it more “Americanized,” incorporating more fresh produce and vegan options for their regulars from Abbott Northwestern who regularly stop by the Market for lunch. “We have a lot of customers who are gluten-free or vegan, so we have a few options. And we’ll do anything to make our guests very happy and satisfied,” says Hassan. “The other part of the customers are just from the community—- from the neighborhood, from the hospitals—and a lot of people have never tried Moroccan food. Once they try it, they become regular customers.”
Although he primarily ate and worked with red meat in Morocco, Hassan says he likes to tie seafood into his regular specials as an ode to his experiences in Europe and in Swedish restaurant Aquavit in Minneapolis. “I used to work there a long time ago, and I learned a lot about fish there, so I like to do some specials once in a while,” he says. “And of course, we give it the Moroccan touch with the couscous or the marinated salad, or something a little Mediterranean.”
They make sure to balance the quality of their food with reasonable prices suitable for lunch, keeping the majority of their tagines and other entrees under $10. Over the last year when every restaurant was stretched to its limit—and especially those around Lake Street, who had to recover from extensive damages around the neighborhood resulting from protests following George Floyd’s murder—Hassan says they’ve just recently started seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. “We are a family business. It’s my wife and I and we have a few employees, so we’re doing our best. All the inventory and the produce is getting expensive, and [with] our prices, we try to stay at certain levels,” he says, noting that every order is made from scratch. He recalls several times when they were barely surviving as a business, as other vendors like Taco Cat, Jakeeno’s Pizza, and La Loma were closing down their stalls in the Market.
But with restaurants and businesses returning to a relatively normal pace and the Lake Street neighborhood feeling more secure, Hassan and Raja are looking forward to seeing the Market come back to life. In early May, the couple hosted their first Zoom cooking class where they made customer favorites like kofta tagine and marinated salad, and Hassan says they’re excited to host more in-person classes in the future. “It went perfect—all of the customers who got a ticket were our customers, so we got a lot of compliments about the class,” he says. “We were cooking at the same time and they were tasting—we were watching them and they were watching us, so it was perfect.”
Being open seven days a week with staff kept to a minimum, Hassan says he and Raja rarely have time or opportunities to return to see family in Morocco. But with two daughters and his mother-in-law in Minneapolis, the family is more than happy to explore everything Minnesota has to offer together. “We go to the cabin in Alexandria to Lake Reno, we go to neighbors, Minnehaha Falls, Powderhorn Park, just around our neighborhood,” he says. “My two daughters and mother like nature, and [it’s] just one of the best times in Minnesota when everything’s green.”
They may have suffered more than their fair share of battles, but fighting against all odds through sheer perseverance, Hassan and Raja have emerged from the other side of a pandemic with their restaurant intact. And lucky for all of us, they have no intention of leaving anytime soon. “We just want to stay here, especially now that we’ve built this nice reputation. We’re doing everything to stay in Midtown Global Market,” says Hassan. “We have some customers who drive an hour and a half, two hours, just to come here. So that’s why we don’t want to close. […] We’re doing our best to make them happy and to survive.”