A yellow, red and green sign hangs outside chef-owner Ida Mamusu’s Africanne on Main that reads, “We’re Open.” After shutting the downtown eatery’s doors for two months in response to the pandemic, the by-the-pound lunch spot known for akara bean cakes and West African cuisine recently reopened. We talked with the Liberian native about how she has adapted and how over her 25-year stay in Richmond, Virginia, she has adopted the role of chef, mother, friend and mentor for the community.
When did you first come to Richmond?
I’ve been in business since 1995. I was on Broad Street first for 11 years. I’m 65 and came here after the war broke out in my country in 1980. I was fleeing for my life and ended up in Richmond. It was about 10 years before I could get my children and family. I started off braiding hair and cooking in my home; I had a small hair salon in my basement. They [customers] would be in there for a 10-hour setting getting their hair done, so I would feed them and they would eat there. They said, “Ida, since we’re here, can you feed my family?” Then they would call me before and ask me to make them food. [laughs] Then it started growing and people would call just for the food, I was up to 50 orders a day.
What would you say is a personal mantra or philosophy you follow?
My philosophy is consistency, cleanliness, respect for the customers and sense of humor. Treating people with respect when they walk in. Sometimes I have bad days and sometimes they have bad days. I’m an herbalist too. People will tell me their health problems and I’ll tell them, “Get the ginger beer,” or “Get the detox.” I form these really personal connections with customers. They will walk in and walk out different — especially if they aren’t feeling well. I listen to them, maybe this is a gift I have. It’s the energy I put out, they know me. If I’m not smiling, they ask why. I shut the restaurant down for a week for vacation and gave them a month notice and they were not having it. [laughs] They were ordering food for a week and asking what they were going to do when I wasn’t there. Some of these people have been following me for 15-plus years.
I know you host a cooking school for young girls, what made you want to start that program?
Over 300 students, all girls , have graduated from my cooking school. I focus a lot on hygiene. Most are overweight, don’t drink water or don’t know about water. We’ve had whole classes on learning different spices. I teach them about not using salt, and not buying canned fruits with syrup. I’ll teach them about reading ingredients and things they’ve never thought about. That age between 11-16 years old, they aren’t adolescents and aren’t really adults. They are confused and it is a crucial age group that you can mold
How did customers react to Africanne on Main’s by-the-pound model when you first opened?
People weren’t buying it a first because they didn’t understand the concept of buying food by the pound. I had to educate them. When you go to the grocery store and buy meat or apples, it’s all by the pound. You don’t have to eat a lot and once I started explaining the concept, they understood it. When you have something really good you want to preserve it and crave it all the time and break the door down. The only time I do fried chicken is Wednesdays, you can’t get in the door then because the people line up. I always have half the buffet that is vegetarian.
What was your reaction when the pandemic flipped the dining community upside down?
I thought, “We gotta do what we gotta do, we’re in this for the long haul. We have to figure out how to revamp the restaurants all over.” It’s kind of hard for me because I don’t know how to do carryout. I had to shut Africanne on Main down and think about it. We have a carryout website now. I’m from Africa and we’re used to revamping and dealing with stuff like this all the time, so we know how to handle these things. In Africa you always have things happening where you have to readjust your lifestyle. Malaria, smallpox, measles cholera, ebola, all of that we went through so we kind of know how to deal with these things when they happen. We don’t panic and fall apart. I personally didn’t know it was going to be this bad. I mean it’s devastating.
What safety measures have you enacted at the Africanne on Main since reopening?
If you do not have on a mask or glove, you do not get service. I’m a seamstress so I made my own disposable face masks. I made them with paper towel and rubber bands. I decided to make something because a lot of people are still coming in with no mask or gloves and we’re not going to have that. So, I decided instead of losing customers, I’ll make Chef Mamusu disposable masks for Africanne on Main. It took like five minutes and I made over 200 and it cost less than $10. No face mask, no gloves, no service. I have a greeter at the door and makes sure you are covered and have masks and gloves. Only three people are allowed in at a time. Once you place your order, you go back outside and wait and then we call your name and you come and get the food.