Skip to main content

Pandemic Profile: How A City Heights Restaurant Owner Found Success During COVID-19

Pandemic Profiles is an ongoing KPBS series, highlighting San Diegans coping with COVID-19.

Chicken's on the menu at Ali's Chicken and Waffles in City Heights in this un...

Credit: Genemo Ali

Above: Chicken's on the menu at Ali's Chicken and Waffles in City Heights in this undated photo.

Listen to this story by Max Rivlin-Nadler.

Genemo Ali, 27, immigrated to City Heights from Ethiopia when he was 11. Since then, he’s been rooted in the community, attending local schools and studying marketing at San Diego State University.

When he began looking into opening his own restaurant last year, he knew he wanted it to serve the neighborhood he’s long called home.

“I feel like my home, which is City Heights, deserves better," Ali said. "Deserves some options. So I put everything I knew about food to this menu.”

The plan was to combine Ethiopian, Thai, and American menus. Ali had extensive experience working with a Thai chef and had long dreamed of opening a restaurant that served his favorite meal — breakfast.

The pandemic, however, put a damper on his dreams of opening a restaurant this year, so Ali began experimenting with recipes at home.

“I started posting the food I made on Instagram and from there people really liked my food," he said. "I started selling out and stuff. That’s when I noticed I got to take this to the next level.”

RELATED: City Heights Restaurant Owner Tries To Find Success Amid Restrictions And Dwindling Funds

Soon, Ali had come up with what he called the “ghost restaurant” idea. For six months, he rented a kitchen, got the necessary permits, and operated a restaurant specifically geared towards the pandemic.

Business was good but stuck at his apartment on Fairmount Avenue, Ali began looking across the street and dreaming bigger. He had noticed that the Donut Star on the other side of Fairmount Avenue had unused kitchen space.

Special Feature Pandemic Profiles

In an ongoing series, KPBS takes a look at how San Diegans are coping during the coronavirus pandemic.

After months of negotiating with Donut Star’s owners, Ali’s Chicken and Waffles opened on Oct. 17.

“I invited just friends and family to come through, but we sold out on the first day,” he recalled.

With other restaurants closing, business for Ali has been good. But he still hopes to open a dine-in brunch destination, whenever it’s safe to do.

San Diego News Now podcast branding

As coronavirus cases surge, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer officially leaves office Thursday. KPBS spoke with Faulconer about his nearly seven years in office and his potential run for governor ... Read more →

Aired: December 9, 2020 | Transcript

  • Need help keeping up with the news that matters most? Get the day's top news — ranging from local to international — straight to your inbox each weekday morning.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.