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A Q&A with downtown restaurant owners

Photo by Brady Lovig | Staff Photographer

Throughout this pandemic many restaurants have closed permanently or are struggling to keep the doors open. The restaurants around Drake University live in a symbiotic relationship where many alumni can trace back their college years to these community institutions that fed them during Relays week, cold nights and exam weeks.  How have restaurants near Drake university been surviving with fewer students on campus? 

I sat down with the owners/managers of China Palace, Fernando’s Mexican Grill, and Gursha Ethiopian Grill to find out how they’ve been staying afloat during the pandemic. 

  1. How long have you been open?

China Palace: We’ve been open for 15 years 

Fernando’s Mexican Grill: Fernando’s has been open for about 8 years. We’ve been open in this location for four and a half months. (Fernando’s moved up a block and Gursha Ethiopan Grill moved into their original location). 

Gursha Ethiopian Grill: We opened Jan.19 of this year.

  1. What made you start this restaurant? 

CP: My (Mr. and Mrs. Nguyen) parents decided to open a family restaurant as a way to support themselves and their family and have more income. To be able to have a family business where me and my brother can work. 

FMG: The owner (Kahed Abdalla) had a previous pizza business and the owner with Fernando decided that they wanted to open a Mexican grill. 

GEG: Me (Ali Nuri) and my family, we always wanted to be in the food business, so we had been looking around. An opportunity came to partner up with the Halal grocery store owners (Sala Sala) and Fernando’s was in this location before and we knew he was moving to a new location. So this place became open and it was just the right time and opportunity that we needed to go ahead and do it. 

  1. How was business before the pandemic? 

CP: The business before the pandemic was really good. We would get busy almost like every day, you know calling for pick-up, or dining in. Most people during lunch would come in for dine in and we would get busy. Just after the pandemic everything you know, went down hill.

FMG: Business was really good. Fernando’s was doing great before the pandemic. 

GEG: Since we opened up during COVID-19, business has been really good. We have the community’s support, and we’re one of the only Ethiopian restaurants here, and the demand for it is big. 

  1. How Important is Drake University to your restaurant? 

CP: Very important because we have students here who come here, and the locals who come here as well, who support us. And it’s easy for the students too because they can just walk here, and they don’t have to worry about transportation to get here and they can find a really good place to eat. 

FMG: It’s very important to us, we enjoy partnering up with the staff, students and the alumni. 

GEG: Oh man, it’s major, because we are in their neighborhood for one, and we get a lot of Drake students here, and just being around younger students who can try something new. A lot of the students come here and say they’re tired of eating burgers, and eating this and that. Many vegan students come here as we have vegan options, and it’s really exciting for a lot of the people in town. 

  1. How has having less than half the student population at Drake, affected your restaurant? 

CP: It has affected it a lot because without the open dine in, no student can come in to eat, and I understand Drake has been doing classes online. So we started to offer the option to use our website to be able to order online and we will deliver to your door or your house, making it safer for them. We aren’t in business with DoorDash or GrubHub but they asked if they could use our app and we said yes, because it will bring more business to our restaurant and help out the drivers when we’re not delivering. 

FMG: It has affected it a lot. Revenue has gone way down and it has been a significant loss for us. 

  1. Many restaurants across the country have closed due to the pandemic and many won’t reopen. What have you changed or done to avoid having to make that decision? 

CP: We have continued to open even though other businesses have chosen not to. We still see a little bit of profit. 

FMG: We’ve really tried to watch our costs, and we’ve been able to stay open because our restaurant is more of a pick up rather than dine in. It has hurt us not having dine in but it hasn’t affected us like other restaurants. 

GEG: As many businesses closed during COVID-19, many have opened up. It had it’s pros and cons, opening during COVID-19 was a little risky. It’s really the customers in town who have demanded an Ethiopian place in town. They always go to the Halal grocery store and buy the flatbread Injera. They can only buy the bread and none of the sides that typically go with it so it’s that demand that’s driving the business and keeping us open. 

  1. Are you looking forward to the Drake Relays? 

CP:  Yes, it always brings business into our restaurant. 

FMG: Absolutely, the relays are always good for us. 

GEG: Oh yes, we are so looking forward to it. Drake relays have always been one of my favorite times of the year. 

  1. Are you hopeful that business will be better by the end of the year? 

CP: Yeah, I hope so. Once everyone gets their vaccine, we will be able to open up and hopefully during the end of this year and the beginning of the next we will continue as normal again. That’s what I hope because I miss my customers and them coming in and saying hi. 

FMG: Yes, it’s coming back. I can tell the students have come back because more students are coming in. So I hope by the end of the year, when things go back to normal, business will be better. 

GEG: Oh yes, people are so ready to go back to normalcy. I think by the end of this year, once the vaccines go out and everybody gets permission by the CDC to go out and be free again, it will be better. 

With vaccine rollout ramping up, local restaurants are expecting increased business in the coming months. If you’re in the area on April 22-24, Gursha Ethiopian Grill will be having a smoothie giveaway all month long. Make sure to pick up a menu from China Palace as well and use their QR code to order online during the Relays, if you want to beat the crowds.


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