The journey that led to what would become Okra African Grill is hard to imagine for those who consistently have food in their bellies and who have only known nations free of modern-day, civil wars and recurring threats of violence.
Nina Sodji is introducing an increasing number of Omahans to Togolese cuisine and a rich tapestry of related cuisines and flavors. While the dishes are firmly rooted in the West African country, the restaurant in the Aksarben Village area is 6,200 miles away and seemingly worlds apart from Sodji’s native Togo.
Her grandmother, Agnes, awakened the family every Saturday at 7 a.m. with lunch-style meals. Grandma would also pick up grocery items for herself.
“It was my favorite time of the week, hanging out with her,” Sodji recalled. “I later found out that all the groceries were to feed the children of her neighborhood.”
Sodji’s mother picked up the torch after her grandma passed away, offering meals to anyone who needed them. Sodji pitched in by helping to put the meals together.
Later on, Sodji moved to the United States and began a career in nursing.
“There was a civil war that broke out in 1990,” she explained. “My sister and her husband had moved to the U.S by then with her first son. He was born into my arms and, as the only aunt, I doted on him.
“He was six months old when they left Togo. He started to develop some health issues that a prominent doctor told us were OK.”
When she joined the family almost four years later, her nephew had developed cerebral palsy due to jaundice contracted in the womb.
“All the doctor needed to do to save him was a simple blood transfusion,” Sodji said, noting that the child’s brother had experienced similar health challenges. He was born healthy in Omaha.
Sodji was drawn to midwifery.
“Just like nursing,” she said, “I’m more fulfilled by serving and filling a need in the community.”
Made with Heart
Sodji continued to cook on the weekends as a “side hobby.” There was a surge of Togolese students in Omaha who didn’t have the cooking skills, nor did they know where to find products to make meals or places to find the familiar foods that they loved.
“I was born into the hands of an entrepreneur queen,” Sodji further explained. “My mom owned her own tobacco shop, properties and lands in Togo.”
So, perhaps, it wasn’t as much of a leap for Sodji to parlay her unique combination of caring, cooking prowess and community-mindedness into a grocery, Goyi Store, in 2004.
There was a need, according to Sodji, for foods and flavors that reflected Togo’s complicated history of colonization, invasion and political instability. One can taste the presence of France, Spain, Germany, India in Togolese meals, not to mention the influence of neighboring countries such as Ghana, Benin and Burkina Faso.
She also referenced demand for ready-made sauces and items that, until then, had been catered from her house.
“Right away, I put a hood system in the back of the grocery and opened a small café there,” Sodji said. “It spread like wildfire.”
Sodji has applied lessons learned from her earliest ventures toward present-day Okra African Grill. Namely, she took away the need for training and skill as a “culinarian” and in business management. She balanced culinary school at Metropolitan Community College with rearing two young children. Sodji also alluded to firsthand experience in understanding the importance of “location, location, location” and described the quick service, casual dining set-up as a “game-changer.”
A Winning Recipe
Adaptation and innovation is seemingly baked into the restaurant; it first opened at the onset of the pandemic.
“Opening Okra African Grill during COVID-19 in 2020 really taught me the flexibility of an entrepreneur,” Sodji said. “There were so many ups and downs and turns … it forces you to ‘ride the waves,’ to be spontaneous and very adaptable.”
The pandemic also informed the development of Okra’s menu and specialties.
“My menu is not all Togolese,” she explained. “I came up with the vegan items from a request … it also helped me build a better online presence with DoorDash, Uber Eats and Grubhub.”
Furthermore, Sodji said Okra merges her African cooking skills and culinary skills.
“The education piece was the most important and crucial, because I discovered that people ‘eat with their eyes,’” she added. “People don’t eat what they don’t know, but creating an easy, transparent set-up, makes it more approachable. All the ingredients are readily available in the U.S. The combination of ingredients is what’s not familiar.”
Additionally, she characterized the ease of introducing a vegan and gluten-free menu, due to the abundance of corn, beans and vegetables in Okra’s dishes.
Since Okra reopened this summer in what Sodji called a “to-die-for” location at 608 South 72nd St., business has been heating up quickly. Okra’s status as the 2022 winner of the Midlands African Chamber’s Pitch Black business competition award has further shown Sodji that the restaurant is needed, valued, and tells other black-owned small businesses “it’s possible to rise to the top.”
“The win,” she continued, “brought an awareness of our presence in the community.”
She said to expect big things from Okra African Grill.
“Our vision is to become an international brand that educates the world on gourmet African cuisine by capturing the deep history and meaning behind the ingredients of a traditional meal,” Sodji stated.