As the pandemic caused Seattle-Tacoma International Airport vendors to contemplate closing shop, Jerry Whitsett and Rod O’Neal decided to pivot and introduce what they believe is the first menu of African dishes in a US airport.
When it opened in 2004, Africa Lounge at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) stood out from other airport eateries with a décor featuring leopard prints, hand-painted murals and a custom-made metal elephant head over the bar.
“We batted around different ideas and decided to do something a bit different and create an oasis. A lot of airports were pretty sterile environments back then and we were looking for a more colorful theme,” said Jerry Whitsett, who co-owns the restaurant with Rod O’Neal. The choice of décor paid off: In its first year, Africa Lounge received a “Most Innovative Concept” award from Airports Council International – North America.
While SEA’s Africa Lounge has remained a successful, calm oasis along an increasingly busy concourse, the classic American fare served – burgers, chicken wings, etc. – never really matched the surroundings. The only African menu items were the names of two beers – African Amber and Serengeti Wheat – brewed at Mac & Jack’s Brewery in Redmond, Washington.
When the pandemic began, business at Africa Lounge, like every other restaurant, bar and shop at the airport, just about ground to a halt. “It’s no secret that our business was down 95% at some point,” Whitsett said. “But we survived 9/11, we survived changes at the airport and we will survive this.”
Burgers, nachos, chicken wings and some standbys are still on the menu, but now passengers can order savory Central African fried pastries, called sambusas, filled with spicy beef or vegetables. The sides include fried plantains with tangy sauces and jollof rice, a West African staple made with tomatoes, peppers, onions and spices. The classic Seattle salmon platter now comes with fried plantains and jollof rice as well.
These and other African dishes still to be added to the menu are the brainchild of Yves Maganya, the general manager of Africa Lounge, who hails from Democratic Republic of Congo. The recipes are adapted from meals Maganya and his family make and eat at home.
The African influence at SEA’s Africa Lounge now extends to the bar. Mac & Jack’s African Amber is still on draft, but now the drink menu includes an unusual selection of South African wines and African-inspired cocktails, including a Capetown Mule; a Malawai Shandy; an Awassa Manhattan made with whiskey, bitters, and Ethiopian coffee liquor; and a Dawa (which means ‘medicine’ in Swahili) made with tequila, lime honey and brown sugar. And in a nod to caffeine-crazy Seattle, the Africa Lounge now also serves coffee from a local African-owned small business that sources single origin and fair-trade Ethiopian coffees.
“We wanted to add an experience that was unique to this airport and to any US airport,” said Africa Lounge operations manager Tate Knutsen, who notes that, in addition to the African dishes, the South African wines, the Ethiopian coffee and the African-inspired cocktails, the lounge now has an African music soundtrack as well.
Africa Lounge co-owner Jerry Whitsett says passengers returning to the airport are slowly discovering the new menu. But he says airport employees, including those from Seattle’s large African community, embraced it right away.