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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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 in 2022 Meanwhile, state health officials warn about a dangerous spike in coronavirus cases and broad transmission of the virus. As local counties and cities try to grapple with the stay-at-home orders, it’s led to a patchwork of restrictions across the state.