Hoyo’s Kitchen will hold its grand opening at North Market on Monday, August 12. Read below for the full scoop on the Somali restaurant.
The foreboding threat of heavy rain looms over downtown Columbus on a summer evening. But upstairs inside the cavernous, empty, and dimly-lit North Market, brothers A.B. and Mohamed Hassan describe the path they’ve walked as the founders and co-owners of Hoyo’s Kitchen, a fast casual Somali restaurant launched alongside their family back in November 2014.
Hoyo’s new North Market location has been met with a few delays, but to the Hassans, who have learned the business without any prior restaurant experience, setbacks are only a slight inconvenience—nothing compared to the uncertainty and stress they’ve been through since Hoyo’s first opened in an awkward strip mall corner on the corner of 161 and Cleveland Avenue in northeast Columbus.
“We wouldn’t have survived the first few years if it wasn’t just us, our sweat,” recalls Mohamed. “Restaurants are competitive in general, but Somali restaurants in Columbus? There’s one that comes up every year or every few months. And another one that shuts down every few months.”
The concept of a family restaurant was in the works long before Hoyo’s became reality, explains A.B. “We grew up eating good food, and I’d always tell our mom, ‘We’re gonna open up a restaurant to showcase your talent.’ ”
When an opportunity to occupy a space not far from the city’s buzzing international Morse Road corridor presented itself, A.B. knew it was worth the risk. Poise, purpose, and commitment to the mission carried the Hoyo’s team through a tense initial period, when a small and inexperienced staff and a lack of equipment threatened their vision for a fast casual model.
“I just was confident if we offer good food—even though the old adage is ‘location, location, location’—it wouldn’t apply to a business that offered good food.”
The Hassans eventually hit their stride, and along the way grew more comfortable moving away from the norms of Somali restaurants. Most notably, the initial plan to operate as a traditional sit-down restaurant was scrapped in favor of a quick service restaurant model in line with trends across the food service industry. As their comfort with large-scale food prep and customer service grew, Hoyo’s earned a reputation as a Somali restaurant unique for its accessibility to those new to the culture’s food.
“[The American community] realized you could go to Hoyo’s Kitchen and we’re all born and raised here, so we can communicate, we know how to converse with people in English. That worked to our advantage because many of the other restaurants, they’re New American-run. There’s a language barrier. So we broke that barrier down and people appreciated that,” says A.B.
Eventually, word reached North Market Executive Director Rick Harrison Wolfe, who surreptitiously visited Hoyo’s one day to see the buzz for himself.
“They came, and they loved it. They absolutely loved it. Rick offered me an opportunity to propose [the concept for a stall]. He asked me if I was interested and I was like, ‘What? Hell yeah man.’ I never thought North Market was attainable.”
“It was the break that we needed at the perfect time,” adds Mohamed.
It’s hard to tell what’s more impressive about the Hassans: the confidence necessary to start such a bold enterprise from scratch, or the calmness in the face of such a profound step up. Regardless, A.B. and Mohamed are eager to share their recipes with a diverse clientele fond of trying new recipes without reservation.
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“Nothing about our stall is subtle. I designed it to be eye-catching,” says A.B. “The food is not scary. It’s familiar, it’s just different. Everyone knows what rice is, our rice is different. People have had chicken before I’m sure, ours is just different.”
“The cool thing about it is everybody that’s here [at North Market] is willing to try something, so you’re not having to coax them or pull them by their ear,” echoes Mohamed, who frequented North Market as a high school senior new to Central Ohio.
“Whenever I would go out, I would come to the North Market. Or when cousins from out of town would come, I would take them to the North Market. This is kind of like a stamp of validation. They were pretty adamant about having a North Market that looks like the city, basically. There’s a huge Somali population in Columbus—the second largest in America—just behind Minnesota. So it’s pretty cool to see the Indian stall here, and then the Nepali stall here, and we’ll be the first African stall in the North Market in their history.”
The mission, first and foremost, is food. Yet A.B. has another tangential assignment in mind for Hoyo’s when their long-awaited debut finally arrives. The friendly fast casual environment is designed to expose customers to the delicacies of a culture with deep roots in the Ohio capital, roots that are here to stay.
“Food is part and parcel to the culture. It’s the gateway to the culture,” he explains. “We’re just doing our part to elevate the culture and the people, and the first way to do that is through the food. Some people don’t even know we have a cuisine. Media tells people we were starving—there was a famine in Somalia, of course, that came because of the lack of a central government. But Somali food is one of the best foods in the world.”
The process of normalizing and accepting a foreign culture may have never looked so natural and inevitable. Despite making history inside one of Columbus’ oldest institutions, the Hassans are calm, collected, and ready to proceed.
“The only pressure I have is to represent it right. I want to make sure I represent it right, because we’re gonna be the first ones to do it here, and we’ve got to make sure people leave thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll try another cuisine within the continent. Maybe I’ll check this out.’ … North Market]’s gonna be crazy but I feel like I’m not even stressed out. I’m really not. I’m just ready to do it.”
Hoyo’s Kitchen is located at The North Market on 59 Spruce St.
For more information on the restaurant, check out northmarket.com for the latest.