Omar Anani can still picture the smile that spread across his sister’s face when he handed her the monstrosity of a cupcake he’d made with his mother as a child. Crusted indiscriminately with a thick layer of various candies, it was a child’s dessert daydream. In fact, the young Anani told his mother he couldn’t eat it — it was too pretty. Instead, he presented it to his older sister, with the words, “I love you.”
“That was the moment I connected food with life,” Anani says. “And I’ve carried that with me.”
Now the owner of acclaimed east side Moroccan restaurant Saffron De Twah, Anani exercises his community-centric food philosophy — with that food-life connection at its core — in all his culinary undertakings. But now more than ever, it’s plain to see that Anani puts his tagine where his mouth is.
Saffron De Twah began 2020 as Eater Detroit’s Restaurant of the Year, and that honor was swiftly followed by another, when the restaurant became a semifinalist for a James Beard Award in late February. Then COVID hit the U.S., and Anani limited operations to carryout only — two weeks before the governor declared such action mandatory. Widespread fear of the virus meant that, on top of losing its dine-in customers, the restaurant’s takeout sales slowed to a trickle, and the once-teeming space became nearly deserted. Saffron, still in its infancy, couldn’t subsist on the now-meager earnings — less than $80 per day in some instances — and was forced to close indefinitely.
It was a mighty fall, and it was especially biting for 39-year-old Anani, who has been working tirelessly in the food industry since age 13, when he began as a dishwasher at his parents’ restaurant. “To finally get some recognition just to have it taken away by a pandemic was very disheartening,” he says.
Despite the blow, Anani became determined to use his own misfortune to help his community weather the pandemic. “The city has blessed me with so much — all the opportunities and the accolades — and it was time to give back,” he says.
Thus was born Saffron Community Kitchen. Under their new moniker, Anani and his staff began preparing free meals for essential workers. But once Saffron’s charitable efforts had gained momentum, they couldn’t be contained. It wasn’t long before other organizations were knocking on Anani’s door, seeking food relief partnerships. Each time, he accepted.
In September, Saffron Community Kitchen partnered with the nonprofit Brilliant Detroit to provide meals for Detroiters in need. At the outset, the staff was supplying 25 to 30 meals per day, but the need was growing rapidly, and that number soon ballooned to 600. The team doubled that when it began delivering another 600 to residents of Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighborhood via its sibling food truck, Twisted Mitten. At its peak, Anani says, the kitchen provided 1,400 meals in a single day.
The kitchen is now working with the Detroit Food Policy Council to continue providing food relief for those in need. It’s also collaborating with local wish-granting nonprofit Rainbow Connection to provide meals for families with children battling cancer.
Despite the initial distress he experienced at his restaurant’s closure, it wasn’t long before Anani began feeling grateful for the opportunity to serve his community. In fact, he says, providing meal relief is the most rewarding work he’s done since opening Saffron De Twah. “It’s a very humbling experience,” he says. “For some people, that was their only meal that day. They were so grateful, and it completely changed my outlook on what hospitality is.”
Anani has every intention of reopening Saffron De Twah, though he’s not sure when that will be. But he’s also come to see Saffron Community Kitchen, which was created solely as a stop gap, not only continuing to operate, but also expanding long after the pandemic is over.