A big red sign hanging over the entryway tells me I’ve reached my destination: Jodeem African Cuisine. The smell of homemade curry, slow-cooked chicken and fried plantains rolls out through the door. Inside, customers line up, eagerly waiting for their orders. My stomach growls as I eye the menu. How have I not heard of this place before?
Jodeem African Cuisine is an authentic Nigerian restaurant owned and operated by Chuks and Amaka Nonyerem at the Beltway Plaza Mall. The menu features a wide variety of traditional Nigerian dishes, including Nkwobi, Moi Moi and Egusi soup. Popular are the curry chicken and goat, as well as the Jollof rice—a staple of West African cuisine. The restaurant also caters, and normal business hours are 11:30pm to 10:00pm Monday through Saturday and 1:00pm to 9:00pm on Sunday.
Now with frequent customers and four and a half stars on Yelp and Google, it’s hard to imagine African Cuisine having trouble taking off. But as I sit down with Amaka, I learn about the restaurant’s turbulent start.
In 2014, Amaka and her husband entered the restaurant industry after developing a reputation among friends as excellent cooks. They began searching for locations, eventually stumbling across a small spot in Beltway Plaza Mall. But they’d heard about some businesses that had failed there within a couple years, so the Nonyerems crossed it off their list.
But a few weeks later, Amaka had an experience that reversed the decision entirely. “On my way to Restaurant Depot by Brightseat Road, I was just waiting for the lights to pass me, and I heard a voice in the car: ‘Go back to that place, go back to that place, go back to that place.’”
Amaka immediately called her husband: “Sunshine, The Lord wants us to go back. Can you call the guy and tell him that we are now interested?” Chuks had had second thoughts as well, so they contacted Beltway Plaza. Another business had applied to rent the space but Chuks and Amaka remained hopeful. In a couple weeks, the competing renter dropped out and the Nonyerems had found a home for their new restaurant.
Unfortunately, the challenges didn’t cease once the two found a location. As the parents of four children, Amaka and Chuks are constantly busy. Early in the morning, Amaka comes to the restaurant to begin preparing food—a process that takes around four hours each day. Meanwhile, Chuks takes the children to school before driving to Restaurant Depot to get supplies. In the afternoon, Amaka picks up the children and takes them home to help with their homework. Once finished, she drops them off at her mother-in-law’s and returns to the restaurant to help finish up and clean for the day. On some evenings, the Nonyerems don’t get home until 1:00 or 2:00am, only to repeat the process a few hours later.
That’s not to say that their efforts aren’t worthwhile. The restaurant has earned a positive reputation, and Amaka and Chuks both find great joy and inspiration in their children. In fact, the restaurant got its name from them: “Jo” for Joshua, “de” for Dedra and “em” for Emmanuel. Since the name was created before the Nonyerems’ youngest child was born, the acronym only includes three parts, but Amaka assures me that the youngest will be included sometime in the future.
The couple’s commitment to family also served as an inspiration for one of the restaurant’s founding principles: to bring back traditional food. When the Nonyerems first moved to the United States, they were shocked by the prevalence of processed foods and high fat/sugar diets. Wanting something healthier (and tastier) for their children, the two cooked traditional Nigerian recipes in place of fast food and school lunches.
“We came here crying, but now we are rejoicing” Amaka tells me emphatically. Jodeem African Cuisine has brought the family closer and created an opportunity to give back. “You have to look around and consider how to pay back to the community you benefited from.” In the future, the two wish to start a foundation to prevent world hunger and promote nutrition, but for now, Chuks and Amaka are paying it forward by creating healthy, traditional meals for Greenbelters.