PROVIDENCE – Sahr Josiah-Faeduwor got his start in the restaurant business 12 years ago when he opened up shop outside a Roxbury building and began serving roast beef to anyone who would pay. The customers lined up and he soon moved inside, opening Bintimani in Mr. G’s Plaza on Harrison Avenue.
Best known for its cassava leaves over rice, the West African restaurant became a hit for Josiah-Faeduwor, a 73-year-old immigrant from Sierra Leone with a background in engineering. But in 2019, a new owner bought the building that housed Bintimani, and it appeared as though the restaurant’s days were numbered.
Josiah-Faeduwor was given an extra year to move out because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the virus was devastating for restaurants, and he fell behind on rent. The Boston Real Estate Collaborative, which owns the building, moved to evict Bintimani, and on Thursday a judge gave Josiah-Faeduwor 30 days to vacate.
But he’s already found a new home — in Providence.
Bintimani is moving this summer to 326 Westminster St. — where Tom’s BaoBao used to be — in the heart of downtown, where Josiah-Faeduwor will have much more space and a larger menu to work with. He’s even planning to secure a liquor license and, just in case patrons would rather pick up and dine in, a takeout window.
It’s part of an arrangement with real estate development company Cornish Associates, and it came together on a whim earlier this year when Josiah-Faeduwor’s son, Aiyah, explained his father’s predicament to Arnold “Buff” Chace, the company’s owner. They quickly reached a deal, and the plan is to reopen in July.
“I thought it was a gold mine or something like that,” Josiah-Faeduwor joked, referring to when his son told him about the new location. He said Rhode Island has a large Liberian population and residents often traveled to Boston to visit his restaurant. He also said Brown University is home to many international students, so he thinks the business has a chance to thrive.
He predicted that the key to his success will be continuing to innovate with food and by working with other entrepreneurs.
“People like surprises,” Josiah-Faeduwor said.
Josiah-Faeduwor did not come to the United States to open a restaurant.
He moved to the US on a student visa Jan. 1, 1974, to study mechanical engineering at Clemson University. He ended up working as a teacher in Virginia and finding odd jobs as a software engineer while helping to raise five children. The family moved to Massachusetts in the early 2000s.
Josiah-Faeduwor tried several other lines of work — he opened a dollar store and tried teaching computer classes — but he found his calling cooking for others. Bintimani opened in 2009.
He said he was elated when Aiyah, his son, got in to Brown, but he wanted his son to study mechanical engineering. Kids will be kids, though, and Aiyah had a different plan.
“I wanted him to do mechanical engineering when he came to Brown, but he said, ‘Daddy, I want to be a people engineer,’” Josiah-Faeduwor said.
Now the father and son have found a way to team up. When it opens, Bintimani will be one of the few Black-owned restaurants in downtown, along with Kin Southern Table, which opens in March.
Aiyah, 29, has become something of a mover and shaker in Providence, and helped launched Millennial Rhode Island, a networking organization for 20- and 30-somethings. He also briefly served on the Providence School Board before getting into a dual master’s degree program at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and the Sloan School of Management.
Aiyah will complete his master’s degree at MIT in May, and he said he has spent a lot of time in recent years studying the question of how to make retail spaces more usable for small businesses. While his dad focuses on the restaurant, he envisions using the location to offer event space or a yoga studio at different times.
“We want it to be a platform for other entrepreneurs, other businesses,” Aiyah said.