Leonardo Williams and Zwelibanzi Moyo-Williams (Zweli) are restaurant owners in Durham, North Carolina. The couple owns Zweli’s Kitchen & Catering, which is said to be America’s first Zimbabwean restaurant.
Prior to opening the restaurant, the couple wanted guidance from people operating restaurants. In the process, they found restaurants being operated by Nigerians and Ethiopians but none from southern Africa.
“We surveyed for about two months to seek examples of how other restaurants of our type were marketing,” Williams told Durham Voice. “We couldn’t find any others. We then searched Visitor’s Bureaus and bloggers of African foods, restaurant publications, the National Restaurant Association and did not found anything about there being another Zimbabwean restaurant.”
The couple charted their own path to operationalize their vision after being denied bank loans and with no model to follow. Their business has since become a model for the small Zimbabwean diaspora in the U.S.
The Williamses first met in Durham 20 years ago when they were studying at NC Central University. They fell in love and lost each other but their love for food would reunite them. Leonardo became a public school teacher while Zweli worked at a variety of restaurants and food-service departments until they met to start their restaurant business. In fact, it was Zweli’s idea.
She told Eater Carolinas that opening a business has always been her dream. According to her, she comes from a very entrepreneurial family. In addition, she had a passion for food and the desire to work for herself.
“I’ve always loved cooking and sharing with people,” she said.
According to her, when she told Leonardo about starting a restaurant, he jumped on board. Zweli quit her job while Leornard dissolved his retirement to make it happen. The restaurant relies on dishes and cooking techniques drawn from Zweli’s family members, her grandmother and her heritage in Zimbabwe.
The couple found a space off Highway 15-501 in southwest Durham, sandwiched between a Joann Fabrics and El Chapin Guatemalan Grill to operate their restaurant. According to Durham Voice, every wooden item in the restaurant was made by the couple — the island that wraps around the kitchen and the wooden tables all over the restaurant.
Also, certain items on the menu can only be found at Zweli’s unless one travels to Southern Africa. “Everything that you’ll see on the menu is what she ate at home, but she’s modernized some things,” Leonardo told Eater Carolinas.
“For example, papaya and greens are common ingredients in Zimbabwe, but Zweli pits and carves out the papaya, mixing it with her black bean and roasted corn salad before serving it in the rind.”
The couple has now innovated to include online cooking classes. The two have also expanded takeout, delivery, and curbside options.
When the pandemic struck, their business was among many Black-owned businesses to be affected. They were even a special guest of then-presidential candidate Joe Biden for the presidential debate in Nashville, Tennessee in October 2020.
“The couple has been active in the Biden campaign and were invited because they were an example of small business owners hurt by the coronavirus pandemic, according to the campaign,” Spectrum News reported.
“We were there to represent our state,” said Leonardo. “It was an honor, it really was.”