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Repair, remodel and relocate: How three University Avenue businesses are still recovering from unrest

It only took one night for businesses along University Avenue to be looted, vandalized and set afire. It’s taking much longer for the business owners to come back from the damage.

Two months have passed since the initial damage was caused in late May during the unrest following the death of George Floyd. More than 1,000 businesses in the Twin Cities metro area reported property damage, and state officials estimated $500 million in damages statewide.

Facing everything from stolen merchandise, to damaged interiors, to buildings reduced to heaps of debris, many businesses are still on the road to recovery. Here are the stories of three of them on University in St. Paul:

IRREPLACEABLE INVENTORY

On the night of May 28, Ax-Man Surplus owner Jim Segal watched from his car as people broke into and looted his store. In the end, the looters and vandals caused an estimated $200,000 in damage including stolen inventory, smashed windows and a broken security system, he said.

Jim Segal, the owner of Ax-Man on University Avenue in St. Paul, was in his business when the store was broken into and looted earlier this year. He barricaded himself in the bathroom. His store has since reopened. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

Ax-Man Surplus had already been closed for over a month due to Gov. Tim Walz’s orders to shut down nonessential businesses during the pandemic. The store had reopened for less than two weeks before having to close for another six weeks to clean and repair.

So far, all the expenses of the physical damage are covered by insurance. But the insurance covering the stolen inventory is still in limbo, Segal said.

“The nature of our inventory makes it challenging, because surplus inventory is often not replaceable,” he said.

RELATED: Piles of charred rubble from riot remain. Clearing them no easy task.

Even if the insurance ends up covering the stolen goods, Segal will still be bracing for a financial blow. The store’s St. Paul location is open again, but business is slow. Annual sales are down 40 percent compared with last year due to the pandemic, he says.

“We were closed for 13 weeks, but my expenses didn’t stop,” Segal said. “2020 is going to be a tough year.”

THE RUSH TO REMODEL

About two miles down the street at 7-Mile Sportswear Hair Depot, store owner Jin Lim estimates he lost more than $1 million in inventory when his store was looted the same night. And that doesn’t even begin to cover the cost of the interior fire or water damage.

A customer looks over the merchandise at 7-Mile Sportswear at University Ave. and Dale St. on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

But when he temporarily closed the store on May 29, Lim received a wave of phone calls from loyal customers.

“I checked the voicemail later, and I had more than 900 phone calls asking when we would reopen the store,” he said.

With high demand for his business’s comeback, he started the rebuilding process almost immediately. Although the building structure was still intact, the entire interior had to be remodeled. And only 60 percent of the damage was covered by insurance, Lim says.

One month and $130,000 later, the wig and hair-extension store has new shelves and display cases. Unfortunately, only 70 percent of them were restocked when he reopened three weeks ago.

Dong Kyu Jeon adds labels to merchandise at 7-Mile Sportswear at University Ave. and Dale St. on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Luckily, having worked in the hair industry for the past 25 years has its perks. Since many of Lim’s distributor companies know him well, they struck a deal with him — they will send him free merchandise for now. He will pay them back later when he has the money, he says.

SEARCHING FOR A NEW LOCATION

This June would’ve marked the third anniversary since Solomon Hailie and Rekik Abaineh opened Bolé Ethiopian Cuisine on University Avenue.

This also would’ve been the year they opened Bolé Express, a new grab-and-go counter attached to their sit-down-style restaurant. After a fire destroyed both of their leased properties, the restaurant owners are back at square one.

Lelna Desta, a business consultant and friend of the Bolé’s co-founders, has been helping get the restaurant off the ground again. But as they try to get back in the game, they are realizing that the game looks different now, she says.

It’s unclear if the property owners of their original location on Syndicate Street are planning to rebuild, so they’ve started to look elsewhere in St. Paul to set up shop. But it’s a delicate balance to find a building that is both spacious and affordable, Desta says.

“In the back of our minds, we know the restaurant industry is struggling right now,” Desta said. “We don’t want to lease or buy the wrong property when we know the next six months are going to be a struggle.”

Not only do they have to rebuild their location, but they have to reimagine their business model. With the coronavirus pandemic changing the way people dine out, the original Bolé dining experience is no longer feasible or financially savvy, Desta notes.

“The original concept of Bolé was not just a meal,” Desta said. “People loved the ambiance, the music, the aromas, the coffee ceremony. You can’t pack that up in a to-go order.”

As the Bolé staff try to figure out how to rebuild during a pandemic and economic recession, they hope to be up and running again before this winter. Support from the community is a driving force for their comeback.

Over $100,000 in donations flooded to Bolé’s GoFundMe page in the days following the fire. Two months later, Desta and the Bolé staff still receive countless calls from community members expressing their support and asking when the restaurant will reopen.

The Bolé staff feel a sense of responsibility to those community members, says Desta. And the restaurant owners are itching to get back in the kitchen.

“It’s a really bad time to be in the restaurant business, but that’s part of being a small-business owner. There is no right time,” Desta said. “This is a family-owned restaurant, and their livelihood depends on this.”

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