In 2020, when restaurants were shut down, chef Omar Anani, the owner of Moroccan-inspired bistro Saffron De Twah, wanted to call it quits. After reading the latest in a series of recent one-star reviews, including some knocking the restaurant for not really being Moroccan and others presented without comment, he called his wife and told her he was done with the restaurant business.
That night, a man walked by his east-side Detroit restaurant looking for work. Anani told the man he couldn’t have anyone in the restaurant because of COVID-19 safety protocols but invited him to have a meal. He set up a table outside, and they sat down to eat. The man started to cry, Anani recalls. He asked him what was wrong.
The man replied, “I just got out of prison. And I’ve been up and down Gratiot trying to just find a job. And you are the first person that hasn’t kicked me out of their place or treated me like I wasn’t a human.”
That’s the moment Anani decided he had to keep going — one-star Google reviews be damned.
The pandemic taught Anani a new way of thinking about hospitality. When COVID-19 shut down restaurants in 2020, Anani and his team started putting together meal kits for industry workers who were suddenly out of a job. That evolved into serving hospital staff, firefighters, and police officers.
While he was serving frontline workers, the nonprofit Brilliant Detroit approached Anani to partner with them and provide meals to people in need. At its peak in the early months of the pandemic, the Saffron Community Kitchen served about 1,400 community meals.
Now that Saffron De Twah has reopened as a restaurant serving diners in search of his tagines, harissa potatoes, and falafel bocadillos (his food garnered him a James Beard Award nod this year), the nonprofit side of the restaurant has wound down. The restaurant will still partner with nonprofits to offer meals to those in need, but serving hundreds of community meals on a regular basis requires infrastructure, he says.
While running a community kitchen is something he would like to do, Anani has set his sights on another ambitious goal: turning Saffron De Twah into an employee-owned restaurant. He’s created a curriculum teaching his team of six (he’d like to hire four more) how to own and run a restaurant.
One of the biggest challenges facing the restaurant industry is the labor shortage.
“And it’s not because people are lazy and they don’t want to work,” Anani says. “It’s because they don’t want to work in an industry where they’re being taken advantage of. So I think what you’re going to see is places offering health benefits.”
He says Saffron De Twah is already instituting some of these practices that offer workers a better quality of life, such as providing paid maternity leave as well as a starting wage of at least $15 an hour. “I think we’re leading the pack in that regard. People will send me screenshots of another restaurant doing something that we do, like, ‘Look, they copied you.’ I’m like, ‘Good.’ … We’re not competing with anyone else. We’re competing with ourselves and just being better at what we do.”