Martin Onuh moved to Philadelphia, Pa. on Aug. 30, 2001. The Nigeria native had dreamed of making America his permanent home ever since he was a young boy, raised as he was on a diet of Newsweek, Time, CNN, MTV, and the USA’s endless passion for his endless passion, sports.
“America was the dream, the goal, and back home it still is,” says Onuh, standing behind the counter of C&K Food & Fuel, the mom-and-pop-and-much-more gas station he owns on the corner of West 48th and Nicollet Avenue South. “We have a saying in Nigeria: ‘If you live your whole life and you don’t come to America, even just once to visit, you’ve missed out.’
“Some don’t, which is too bad. Nigeria’s still a developing country, and it’s really tough. I went to school in Nigeria, but it was difficult to get a job. So I had to leave to make things better for our extended family.”
The twin towers fell in New York two weeks after Martin landed in Philadelphia, marking the beginning of what has arguably been the most volatile 10 years in the history of this country. War, weather, religious zealotry, government and economic melodrama, technological and communication explosions, culture and class warfare — Onuh has been witness to it all in his first decade in the land of the free. No problem.
“That was unbelievable what happened in New York, just unbelievable, but coming to America is still the dream — maybe even more than before [9/11],” says Onuh, who believes his American citizenship status will be finalized soon. “It made me sympathize more. It made me identify more. Understand. I really identified with America when I was in Nigeria, even though I wasn’t American. I was really touched by what happened.”
Named by the former owners and purchased by Onuh eight months ago, C&K bills itself as “the unconventional convenience store.” The fact is, its Depression Era 1001 vision — hard work plus community ties plus good service and good products equals good business — is the same that has made corner stores, bars, diners and coffee shops the go-to communal touchstones for working stiffs since the beginning of hard times.
That is, you can get almost anything you want at C&K; pretty cheap, too, including gas, newspapers, ice cream, ATM cash, local CDs, videos and the sweetest “Trippin’ In Tangletown” T-shirt any hip young homie could want for. What’s more, C&K’s chef Fausto De Los Santos whips up what Onuh calls “a very distinct menu” with fresh, inexpensive, and delicious chicken tacos, barbeque chicken, French fries and roasted cactus leaves, onions and tomatoes.
Wash it down with an imported juice or soda like Boing, Malta Concita or Jarrito from the cooler and you’re on Eat Street South, what with neighbors and fellow cheap eats success stories Xin Won Chinese Restaurant, C&G’s Smoking Barbecue, and Sweets Bakeshop, all of which are tucked into the decidedly trend-free parking lot down the street from Washburn High School.
There’s more. Unlike the in-and-out drive-by experience of Super America and B&P a couple blocks away, C&K Food & Fuel has an old-school idea of how things can be in the neighborhood. To that end, if you want to play music in the parking lot as a busker or band, the way local art-rock dervishes Patches & Gretchen and friends have done a few memorable times this summer, Onuh and crew will welcome you with open DIY arms.
“I wanted it to be a neighborhood stop where you can come not just for gas, but where you can promote the neighborhood,” says the 41-year-old Onuh, simultaneously taking cash from patrons who buy their gas in mostly $5 and $10 increments. “That’s what I had in mind: a place to promote local artists and the neighborhood. I didn’t want it to be a normal gas station, but a place where people would come in and go, ‘Wow. This is different.’
“We want it to be a community spot. If you are an artist, a painter, whatever you do, we’ll give you an opportunity to display and sell your art, free of charge. Those are the things we want to do. We want to inspire the community. Promote the community.”
In 2007 Onuh moved from Philadelphia, where he worked in a parking ramp, to St. Paul, where he worked at a gas station and gained the experience he needed to buy and run C&K. His mother lives in Nigeria, his sister in Miami, Fla., his brother in Europe and Onuh is here to stay.
That much is clear when he comments to a regular about the Twins’ dismal season or the news of the day scrawling by on the flat-screen above the counter. Or when he completes a lotto ticket purchase with a parting “good luck” to a stranger. Or when he flashes a warm smile that makes you want to give the guy all the business he can handle, and also ask him how he has such strong ties to a place so many others take for granted.
“I was in Philadelphia for six years, and when I came to Minnesota I found myself identifying with Minnesotans,” he explains. “When I got here, it just felt good. It was just like, ‘This is my home now. Whatever I’m going to do is going to try to be part of the community.’ ”
Mission accomplished. American dream fulfilled. How’s business?
“We’re doing pretty good,” he says, squinting into the future. “Summer was slow, but [Washburn] is the bedrock of our business. The guys (students) come in on their break, get something to drink, and are crazy for the chicken and French fries. They’re the ones we made the ‘Trippin’ In Tanglewood’ T-shirts for. Something cool, something that promotes the neighborhood.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.