Cup Foods has a past, but does it have a future?

Some neighbors want to shut down the store where George Floyd lived some of his final moments.

By: - August 21, 2020 6:00 am

Cup co-owner Mahmoud Abumayyaleh carries a gun for self-protection after getting death threats. George Floyd died in a police killing after an employee called 911 to report Floyd passed a fake $20 bill to buy cigarettes. Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer.

Days after reopening Cup Foods on Aug. 3, co-owner Mahmoud Abumayyaleh was back behind the store counter, talking to customers and his employees while outside, people milled about the makeshift memorial to George Floyd.

If you went into the store for a pack of cigarettes, a sandwich or cell phone minutes, you may have noticed the gun on Abumayyaleh’s hip. And, the new armed security guard. 

The retail routine goes on, but everything has changed. No longer just the neighborhood store where you can get that last-minute ingredient, Cup Foods’ name is now synonymous with Floyd’s death. A young clerk called 911 to report Floyd for buying cigarettes with a suspected fake $20 bill. Floyd paid with his life when police arrived, igniting protests, rage and riots that spread across the globe.

Cup Foods is a place of both ignominy but also reverence due to the iconic mural of George Floyd that adorns the external wall. Even that has not been without strife, however. The mural was defaced this week, the vandal caught with the help of Cup surveillance video. 

And now Cup is the target of an effort to shut it down. Some activists in the neighborhood near Chicago Avenue and 38th Street question whether Cup Foods should be open, or even exist anymore. 

They accuse the immigrant-owned store of exploiting the community for over 30 years and being a crime magnet.

“They are no longer wanted here,” a recent digital flier said. “Protest with your dollars.”

Some activists want to create a Black-owned corridor, and buy the Cup Foods building, making it the center of a newly vibrant “Black Southside.” 

“Cup Foods shouldn’t be open,” said Alfonzo Williams, a member of the Agape volunteer security force that has protected the area inside barricades to what they call George Floyd Square. He grew up in the area and still attends a church on the corner.

Jamar Nelson, who is an informal spokesman for Cup Foods, defended the business and the right of its family owners to earn a living. “I refuse to let the George Floyd situation wrongfully impact this business because of our weariness of police brutality,” Nelson said. “These people have been providers to the community and will continue to do that.”

Jamar Nelson grew up in the neighborhood near Cup Foods, and hung out there as a kid. Now he helps handle media requests for his childhood friends who own the store. Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer.

The city and Cup have sparred for decades

Cup Foods has been a fixture on the corner since Abumayyaleh’s Palestinian-American family opened it more than three decades ago. And for about as long, neighbors have complained about it. 

Not long after the store was licensed, the city began getting complaints about loitering and staying open longer than allowed by law. In 1993, the store owners agreed to report “unlawful drug peddling” to the Police Department, put up “no loitering” signs and hire off-duty police officers to do evening patrols, according to a city document.

In 1998, a special committee was formed to focus on Cup Foods. Police encouraged store employees to call 911 on people loitering or drug dealing. That same year, according to city documents, three gang members were shot near the store and police began surveilling it. 

In 2000, the Minneapolis City Council revoked all of Cup’s licenses, stayed on the condition that the store close for three months and take crime prevention measures before reopening. 

Mahmoud and his brother Samir own at least 15 commercial and residential properties around the Twin Cities, including the entire Cup Foods building, which also houses a barbershop, a mosque and laundromat. Samir has an extensive history in housing court for filing evictions against their tenants; Nelson said most are rented to Black and Latino people who don’t have great rental histories and couldn’t rent anywhere else.

The digital flier protesting Cup Foods also says, “The owner has even been named in sexual assault case” — a reference to Abumayyaleh’s 2014 conviction for a misdemeanor sex crime for assaulting a 15-year-old girl while showing her the basement of Cup Foods, which he had offered to pay her to clean. 

Nelson said he was not going to dignify the accusations. 

“That’s unfortunate that they feel that way,” he said. 

“Trying to strong-arm us out”

Nelson said the owners erred when they tried to reopen two weeks after Floyd’s death. They should’ve stayed closed 30 days, he said. 

But even after closing and reopening again on Aug. 3, neighbors converged on the corner to demand the store close. 

Nelson said it became borderline dangerous, with people “trying to strong-arm us out” and organize the neighborhood against the store. 

“There was some so-called community leaders trying to make it difficult for us to open,” co-owner Abumayyaleh said. “We ignored them and continued business and we tried to explain to them that they need to take their focus off of us and put it on the police or the civil authority.”

Marjaan Sirdar, whose father immigrated from Pakistan, said he’s spent thousands of dollars at the store over the years because it employs Black and brown people, but not anymore. He joined the rally against the store’s reopening. He noticed a lot of young people hired by Cup to secure the building, however. 

“In times of crisis like this we see what sort of control they have over our young people that they employ and we need our young people to see bigger than what Cup Foods can offer them,” he said. “We want young people to understand the other side of this is much bigger for all of us.”

He wants Black-owned businesses in the neighborhood and now sees Cup as part of the problem.

“They have to leave. This is bigger than Cup Foods,” he said. “This is about Black folks taking over all of 38th Street, including 38th and Chicago.”

Prior to the day Floyd’s neck was pressed into the pavement by now-fired Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, there was already a movement to convert the block into a Black-owned business corridor. Offers have been made to Cup’s owners to buy the building.

Asked by the Reformer if he would consider selling the property, Abumayyaleh said, “If it’s a positive idea, yes we’re interested.”

Sirdar said Black people still grieve the tight-knit community torn apart when Interstate 35W divided the “Black Southside,” and Central High School was bulldozed in 1982. Gang activity picked up in the 1990s, he said, before the Great Recession displaced Black families.

“We know there are pissed off people in this community and outside this community who’ve threatened to burn down Cup Foods,” Sirdar said. “We know there are people who are pissed off about the reopening of the street. So the city allowing Cup Foods to reopen, the city mandating a phased reopening beginning on 38th but eventually Chicago, they know it’s gonna inflame a peaceful community.”

But Abumayyaleh said most of regular his customers have been supportive of reopening.

Cup co-owner Mahmoud Abumayyaleh is flanked by his nephew T.J. Abumayyaleh and son Ubayola. The store has been run by the Palestinian-American family for more than 30 years. Photo by Will Jacott/Minnesota Reformer.

“The only opinions that we take into consideration are the people who have been shopping with us and that we’ve been serving before the George Floyd scenario,” he said. “People are coming out of nowhere with ideas and opinions that don’t really matter because either they’re not from the community or they don’t shop with us.”

‘They’ll build bigger and better’ 

When the streets of Minneapolis exploded in protest, Abumayyaleh called his childhood friend Jamar Nelson to handle a flood of interview requests. 

Nelson says he’s an “unapologetic Black man” who bears a scar from 13 stitches after being beaten by police in 2000 during a raid while he was sleeping on a couch.

He grew up near Cup Foods and fondly remembers the way Abumayyaleh’s father, “Pops,” ran the place. If you got crossways with him, he’d ask “Where’s your mom?” or call your parents.

While talking in the Cup deli, Nelson acknowledged a young man hanging out in the store with “Thirties” scrawled across his T-shirt in red was likely a member of the “Rollin’ Thirties.” At least that’s what they called them when he was young, and joined the “Shorty Bloods” gang. 

“I grew up extremely middle class but you know I wanted to be cool,” he said. “I wanted to be accepted.”

It wasn’t as dangerous back then as it is now, he said. Gang leaders frowned upon “Shorty Bloods” — younger gang members — skipping school, and they had to show their report cards to leaders.  

“This is the only thing we really had,” he said of Cup. “It was a party” hanging out by the store.

People in the neighborhood say the Bloods began patrolling the neighborhood after the police stepped back after Floyd’s killing. Nelson said that’s been happening for years in Black communities, and is “somewhat normal.”

“I think most areas are protected by gang members, as well they should be,” he said. “You should protect your community, you should make sure that the elements that are coming in that try to infiltrate our area to kill you, to harm you, shouldn’t come in to wreak havoc on your community members. It’s just the way things are.”

Nelson said gang activity increased in the area when it became clear police were staying away. Rival gang members moved in to settle scores. 

Some people in the neighborhood whisper that the Bloods are protecting Cup Foods.  Nelson’s response to a question about it was oblique. “This is a community store: Sometimes you encounter some (expletive),” he said. “Because we’re a traumatized community, so sometimes it’s reflected in the people that come in.”

“Survival looks different depending on who you are,” he said. “And the one thing Black folks are good at is surviving.”

People should work with Cup Foods instead of threatening to burn it down, he said.

“They’ll build bigger and better if you burn it down,” he said. “Stop encouraging that negative behavior and work with these people on what you can do to help us heal. What can you do going forward to help the community? And they’re all for it.”

Cup Foods plans to get more involved in the community and be more visible about their community action, with a backpack drive, cultural sensitivity training for employees and help for other nearby businesses, Nelson said.

“We don’t have all the right answers,” he said. “We’re absolutely open to community ideas.”

The family has taken a huge financial hit, he said, but they don’t talk about it because it’s less important than justice for Floyd. 

Nelson said they support a monument or roundabout to memorialize Floyd. But they don’t plan to give their building away.

“To think that they would give this building to someone simply because they’re Black… isn’t that what we’re mad at white folks for? Taking? So you wanna take this immigrant’s business simply because of an execution of another Black man that’s not a part of this business? It’s absurd to even suggest those things.”  

He said Cup Foods is going to focus on what heals the community.

“It’s not about Cup,” he said. “It’s about this community, and what we do going forward.”

Williams, the security member of Agape, is the rare person who is torn about what should be done at Cup Foods.

“It’s not my call, it’s the community’s call,” he said. “But I’m saying either way, something good needs to come out of this.”

Aviva Waldman contributed to this story.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.