Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Eastside series.
Hassan Mateen has been cooking and serving fish for most of his adult life.
As an African American Muslim, he came to serving fish through his religion, which in the 1970s advocated self-reliance in all matters, including the procurement, preparation, and sale of food.
In the mid '70s, the Nation of Islam began a fish produce and restaurant movement that was designed to encourage African American Muslims to start their own businesses, stay in their urban communities, and help feed the impoverished by offering affordable food.
“The Nation of Islam was trying to teach us how to eat to live,” says Mateen, who with his wife Laila, live in the house attached to Lil Fish Dock, 1726 E. Main St. and are founding members of the Eastside’s Bilal Mosque, 1715 E. Main St.
In the '70s, then Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farakhan called these food businesses “survival stations,” designed to feed people an entire meal for under a dollar, according to a New York Times article
published in 1974.
Previously, Nation of Islam members had often run sandwich shops establishments with similar purposes, but in the '70s, beef became too expensive. Fish, imported from Peru at affordable prices, became the new beef.
What started as a way to distribute Mateen’s allotted portion of Nation of Islam fish in the '70s evolved over the years into a love of cooking and serving fish to his fellow Muslims and his neighbors.
From fish sandwiches in a coffee pot to two restaurants
Mateen, now 77, is still the main cook at Lil Fish Dock and has always taken great pride in the food he prepares, though his beginnings were modest.
“I actually started selling sandwiches on the street years ago as a fundraiser for the mosque,” says Mateen, who lived then on Kalamazoo’s Northside. “What I did was I converted an old coffee pot, a pretty large coffee pot, and I would make the sandwiches at home, put the sandwiches in the coffee pot and sell them down the street. “
Mateen’s fish sandwich, now known as the Seaboat (often spoken of with reverence by Eastside residents) and the most popular item on Lil Fish Dock’s menu, includes cheese, lettuce, onion, tomato, and mayonnaise. One Google reviewer calls the Seaboat “the BOMB,” and added, “The coleslaw is FIRE.”
“I had a lot of customers,” Mateen says of his first foray into selling fish. “People would be walking the street, and they were hungry, and they purchased a fish sandwich. When the coffee pot got cold, I would take (the sandwiches) back in, heat them up, and go back out on the street.”
As a member of the Nation of Islam, Mateen says he was required to sell a certain amount of fish each week. “That was one way to get rid of the portion that I had,” says Mateen, “and it became a business.”
After a while, Mateen, says he “got tired of walking the streets.”
“So I opened up a small, little place on Paterson.” As his business grew, he moved from Paterson to South Westnedge, then to East Main, to Portage Road, and then finally back to the Eastside where Lil Fish Dock has been at its current East Main location for the past 12 years.
“I do most of the cooking because I can’t find anybody to cook it like me,” says Mateen, who adds there’s not as much cooking as there used to be.
When the fish business was booming during the '80s, Mateen says he had two restaurants open at once. His former East Main location has now been converted into the Islamic Center across from the mosque.
Hassan Mateen, 77, is still the main cook at Lil Fish Dock.
Pat Taylor, Director of the Kalamazoo Eastside Neighborhood Association, says she appreciates the commitment the Mateens have to their mosque, restaurant, and the neighborhood.
“They are trying very hard to help make a difference in the neighborhood any way they can, either by being good neighbors or by running a business,” says Taylor.
And Taylor adds, “The chicken and the fish are very, very good,” and many people love their Bean Pie, she says, an African American Muslim traditional dessert made with pureed navy beans, custard, cinnamon, and ginger. Bean pies are often sold in African American Muslim fundraisers and were endorsed by the Nation of Islam as a healthier option to typically rich soul food.
Laila Mateen says she appreciates the ways in which the Lil Fish Dock has helped her meet her neighbors, especially as they live in the house attached to the restaurant.
“I was surprised I liked (the restaurant business) more than I thought I would. I enjoy meeting so many different people and being able to interact with people,” she says. “When they are coming to you, as a Muslim, for a service, you tend to be able to break down barriers.”
Bilal Mosque: a small community reaches out to its Eastside neighbors
As one of the Bilal Mosque’s founders, Hassan says that many of the 20 plus remaining members are aging now. In 1985, the mosque moved to the Eastside, but didn’t have a permanent location until 1996. In 2008 the mosque opened its doors on East Main Street, where it remains today.
Committed to the neighborhood, Bilal hosts a number of programs that support Eastside residents. On the last Wednesday of each month at 6 p.m., around prayer time, they host a free and open community dinner. They also typically host a large community program each summer, he says.
This summer, the Bilal Mosque is hosting a program that will feature Warith Deen Mohammed,
an Imam from Chicago whose grandfather Elijah Muhammad was a powerful force in guiding the Nation of Islam towards orthodox Islam. Warith Deen Mohammed, unlike his grandfather, promotes a more inclusive religion, one that inspires racial, political and spiritual progress both separately and all together.
“That should be a very nice program for the community,” says Mateen, who says he is excited about the prospect about the well-known Imam’s visit to Kalamazoo. Dates and times are still being formalized.
In addition to hosting dinners and summer events, Bilal has started a “model community,” Mateen says. The mosque purchased property to rehabilitate into affordable housing. Currently, Bilal owns some apartments and two houses on the Eastside, and it is in the process of purchasing another house.
“We try to get different people” for the rental units, Mateen says, who are “in the mosque and outside of the mosque.”
Bilal purchased the units, Hassan says, to help with what they see as a growing homeless problem in the community. “You see so many people living outdoors and having no place to live, lying in those tents and it’s 40 below our there,” he says. “We try to help so that some people can have a few places.”
Still, activities at Bilal have slowed down over the last few years, the Mateens agree.
“Things have changed,” says Mateen. “People have gotten a little older. But we haven’t given up. We still try to create a space for the community.”
Lil Fish Dock to open summer concession stand
Mateen doesn’t purchase his fish anymore from the Nation of Islam, a practice that ended years ago. Nowadays, he purchases supplies from Gordon Foods Services for his delivery and take-out business. But that hasn’t changed the popularity of his Seaboat Sandwich. Other items on the Lil Fish Dock menu include chicken, shrimp, macaroni and cheese, smoked catfish, onions rings and fried dill pickles.
While Hassan Mateen has some help in his restaurant, he still does most of the cooking himself.
Over the last several years, Mateen says business at his restaurant has unfortunately slowed. People used to come from miles around, including Benton Harbor and Battle Creek, for a Catfish Seaboat Sandwich or a slice of his Bean Pie, he says, but mostly now it’s just folks from the neighborhood. He’s shortened his hours to 6 to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. During the day, he’s often away as he volunteers to deliver medicine for hospice patients.
“We used to have a party store that sat in front of the Fish Dock,” says Mateen. “When that closed, business slowed.”
As one of the only well-lit buildings on that usually dark stretch of East Main, the restaurant might not be drawing crowds, but the Lil Fish Doc is a friendly site that speaks of neighborhood investment, comfort food, and tenacity.
“I’m just trying to hang in there until things get better,” he says. In the summer, he says, he plans to open a concession stand in the back, harkening back to his early fish-serving days.
Originally, the Mateens and their African American Muslim community chose the Eastside because it was a neighborhood that seemed underserved, and they hoped to do their part to make things better. Over the years, they have come to call the Eastside home.
Mateen and his wife Laila say they appreciate living on the Eastside close to their mosque and the people they’ve come to know. “I love living on the Eastside. A lot of good people live here,” says Mateen.
“I’m accustomed to it now,” says Laila of living on the Eastside. “I raised my children on the Northside. That’s where my heart was for a long time. But the Eastside has my heart now, too.”
Mateen says he hopes to continue cooking and serving fish for a long time.
“I’ve always loved the restaurant business,” he says. “Meeting people, talking to people, and trying to make the best dinner they’ve ever eaten. I love helping people by putting it all into whatever I do. I love what I cook.”
Photos by Eric Hennig, VAGUE photography