Like so many entrepreneurs throughout the city, Yahya Noor, 36, works out of a microscopic space alongside his family. East Boston’s Tawakal Halal Café — hailed by the Globe and by Bon Appétit as one of the best restaurants in the country — serves Somali food in the shadow of Logan Airport: flaky wrappers stuffed with fragrant ground beef, garlicky hummus, chickpea and spinach stew. Now he also cooks for his neighbors in Chelsea, where he lives with his four children.
Now it’s Ramadan, fasting from sunrise to sunset, so we decided to open from 5 to 9 p.m. We’re getting customers, but it’s literally worse than it was at the beginning. One of the biggest things, the reason why we’re open, is that I have my family there to support me. And one big factor is the community wanting to help out; it’s more important than anything else. This is the time of giving; it’s not just getting.
So far, throughout the past few weeks, we have partnered up with Eastie Farm. They’ve started a Mutual Aid group, neighbors offering support and services to each other and helping out small businesses. They got a grant from the Boston Resiliency Fund to basically feed the needy. We’ve been supporting that, offering food. We’re not looking to make money, just to support the need in the community. We use the grant to buy supplies. A group of individuals come to volunteer; they’re delivery drivers. There are a list of people who request help, who lost their jobs, who are struggling. We’re cooking for those families, and it’s free.
Will your restaurant survive?
Honestly, one of the biggest factors is that we’re in a lease. I know our rent will increase soon. You know, we’re not sure. We’re hoping to sustain. If things change, things change. I have never really wanted to even think that way. We’re going day by day and seeing what happens. It’s one of those things that comes into my mind: What’s going to happen? But let’s not think that way. Let’s stay positive. We’ve applied for so many loans and grants, and it’s like crickets.
We partnered up with the CommonWealth Kitchen of Boston; they have launched an initiative called CommonTable, similar to Mutual Aid in East Boston. We’re starting today. They asked if we could serve families. I live in Chelsea, and there’s a big need [there], so we have also partnered up with the Salvation Army. . . . We’re serving 200 people.
Has your clientele changed since this started?
We have customers who used to come from all over the world to dine in. We’re so close to the airport. Now, because of the radius we’re in, takeout comes from East Boston and closer. When this pandemic happened, it was wonderful to see so many faces to come and buy gift cards. Or we’ll get social media messages: “How are you doing? We’d like to support you.” That is really what’s keeping us smiling all the time, just that support.
Who’s helping run the restaurant?
My mom and my sisters help run it. I have seven sisters. I’m the only son! They’re all in school, but since there is no school, they have been helping out as cashiers or in the kitchen. It’s a family-run business. There are good times and bad times.
I had to let employees go; we weren’t able to pay them. I would love to rehire them back, if we’re making enough money. We’re not here to become rich out of this; we love cooking and we love seeing people.
When life returns to normal, what’s the first thing you’re going to do?
The biggest thing for me right now, when this is over, when businesses start to open, is thinking how we have to protect ourselves and protect our customers. How can we change the setup of the restaurant? Our space is 600 square feet. It’s that tiny, from the dining area to the kitchen. Just [managing] a flow of customers is our biggest thing. The weather might help us, as it’s starting to warm up.
What do you miss most about Boston?
Being out and about! I have young kids. I’m really cooped in the house with the kids. I’m their father, their teacher, what else? Everything and anything. The biggest thing is being able to take the kids out and to have them go see family, and even bringing my kids to the restaurant. You’d think they’d want to go somewhere else, but they want to go to the restaurant. I love to talk, as you can see, and I really miss having customers sit and having a conversation.
What are people ordering?
A lot of sambusas, and also the vegetarian dishes we have: chickpeas and spinach with rice. But things are getting too expensive out there. Prices have doubled. We don’t want to disappoint our customers, and nobody ever wants to pay more money than what they are used to.
What are you doing when you’re not working?
I have four young kids at home. There is no such thing as downtime. When the weather is nice, we go in the backyard. We run around to get my mind off things; we built a treehouse.
What are you snacking on?
With all the stress, I don’t even think about snacking. One thing I cannot be without is the simplest, though: sambusas. I am also fasting from sunrise to sunset, so one thing is, we break fast with dates, sambusas, and have some kind of vegetarian soup and rice. But you can’t eat much. If you’ve been hungry all this time, your stomach shrinks.
How can the community support you?
I had a friend call me yesterday, saying, “I want to feed the nurses and the doctors. I have some money I took out of my retirement.” She feels she’s not doing anything to help. We would hope that there are a lot of people like that out there who will continue to support us and keep coming back, not support us once and leave. I hope they continue to put their dollar into the small businesses. To see the same people come back? We would love that.
Is there any reason to be optimistic right now?
We have to, right? We’re already coming together in the community. Not just Chelsea alone: You see people helping each other regardless of what cities they come from. That in itself is something to look forward to. We need to continue this path without religion or politics — not just during Ramadan, but every day.