Continental Commerce 

For some, African House offers a taste of home. For others, it's a place to gawk at the exotic. Owner Prince Yeboah built his business for them all.

The African Houses are hard to miss. The Grace Street store stands in the heart of the Virginia Commonwealth University shopping district. And wooden sculptures and drums stand outside the Broad Street store, which is striped bright red, green and yellow, and decorated with a neon outline of the African continent.

Prince Yeboah, a native of Ghana, is the ruler of this miniempire. Today, he's in a back kitchen, wearing gold chains and a jogging suit, measuring out clumps of damp incense from a blue plastic pail. One-fifth of a pound, the digital scale says, and he sweeps the stuff — a mixture from Senegal — into small bags for sale. It's not unusual to find Yeboah with his hands busy. "Oh yeah, I work all the time," he says with a grin. "I work all the time."

Yeboah moved to the United States in 1974 and spent his first years running a furniture store in New York City. But when he saw Richmond, he says, he realized it was time to move. "I came for a visit and fall in love with this city," he says. And New York? "I don't miss it a bit."

He opened African House on Grace Street about 13 years ago. It filled a niche in Richmond that had been empty before, Yeboah says.

His store offered things you couldn't buy elsewhere. Phone cards for calling faraway families. Authentic west African foods. Imported music, clothing and crafts — "a little bit of everything," he says.

"Maybe the first couple years it was tough," Yeboah recalls, but students proved to be his first faithful customers. Recently, a VCU survey listed African House as one of the top 12 stores students shop in, Yeboah states with pride.

Other stores have come along to sell African goods, like Ghana House on Harrison Street and HNH Accessories in Midlothian.

But African House had carved out its own niche and began to expand. Yeboah eventually opened two more stores, but decided to consolidate this fall. In October, he closed his Harrison Street location and on Nov. 1, moved its contents to the new Grace Street store. VCU bought the original Grace Street location and demolished it soon afterward.

Yeboah estimates his two stores do $350,000 in sales annually. His most popular items are incense, fragrant oils and CDs — especially reggae, African pop and drumming. It's all direct from Africa, he says. No imitations.

Many of his customers are African immigrants. The population is "huge," Yeboah says, with many people from Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan and Senegal. Most live in Chesterfield and Henrico, he says.

Cecelia Tako, who lives in South Side, is an immigrant from Cameroon who stops by the Grace Street location on a regular basis.

"I buy phone cards, I buy African clothes, I buy lotion," she says, pointing around the store. Not to mention the cooking staples — "I basically feed from this store," she says.

At the Broad Street store, Yeboah sells fresh meat along with the flour and canned goods. These aren't the same steaks you'll find at Ukrop's, but halal meat, approved for eating by Muslims. "What makes it halal — before they kill it they pray," he explains. Each animal is inspected "from the head to the toe" by FDA officials, hand-slaughtered in a Northern Virginia facility and delivered fresh to African House, he says.

Even if you're not Muslim, Yeboah says, "if you eat halal meat you will never eat meat from a grocery store. It's marvelous. It's so fresh." To demonstrate, he opens the walk-in refrigerator, where a goat carcass hangs next to a side of lamb, both stamped by the FDA. "A little more expensive — but it is worth it," he says with assurance.

African House supplies halal meat to local restaurants, like Ma-Musu's West African Cuisine on Broad Street. Owner Ida Ma-Musu says there may be other halal suppliers in the Richmond area, but Yeboah is her only source: "I just get it from him." And for home cooking, she says, she shops at African House.

Some of the packages on African House's shelves may baffle a casual browser, but Yeboah gladly gives a tour. One shelf holds nothing but boxes of fufu flour. Made from plantains, it's a staple nearly everywhere in Africa, he says. "This is a real popular food. Almost everyone in the whole continent eat it." Turning to another shelf, Yeboah points to other commonly found products, including palm-nut soup, palm juice and palm oil. "You almost use everything out of this seed," he says.

Africa is not a single country, he reminds, and cuisines vary widely. For example, Liberian food, Ma-Musu's specialty, is distinct from those of other countries. Still, "a lot of time, people think everyone in Africa's related" and that all the food there tastes the same, Ma-Musu says with some scorn. The regional specialities Yeboah stocks are as diverse as mayonnaise-y "salad sauce," burnt-sugar syrup, smoked whole fish and frozen jute leaves.

You'll find masks, instruments and sculptures in the back, all finely carved wood in animal and human shapes. Some bear a thin layer of dust. Their orange price stickers — the same on the boxes of fufu flour — seem incongruous with the marked prices: $139.99, $189.99. $275.95. Does anyone ever stop in to pick up groceries and end up buying a four-foot-high mask? Sure, Yeboah says.

Collectors walk in every now and then.

But, of course, most people come for the food. S


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