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Africa Lounge Connects to Congolese Heritage

September 2, 2020

When Africa Lounge, in Concourse A at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), first opened in 2005, owners Jerry Whitsett and Rod O’Neal were inspired by Redmond-based Mac & Jack's Brewery that produced the African Amber and Serengeti Wheat beers served in the tap room. The design motif  — leopard prints, hand-painted murals, and a custom-made elephant head — were developed for this theme. But the menu of  classic American fare like sandwiches, chicken wings, and Caesar salads didn’t quite align. 

This week, Africa Lounge introduces the first-ever menu of African foods in a U.S. airport.  It’s been a journey along the way. Here’s part of the story.   

Cultural connections  

Rod recently took a genealogy test and traced his ancestry to the Congo. “Knowing this, I feel pride in understanding my heritage and who I am,” he shared. “My family has a storied history of being the first Black persons to achieve feats — from my grandfather who was the first Black firefighter captain in St. Louis, to my uncle who was a Tuskegee Airman. Jerry and I are honored to be the first to offer African food in a U.S. airport, especially as Black business owners.” 

Jerry Whitsett and Rod O’Neal, owners of Africa Lounge 

While developing this menu, COVID-19 brought huge impacts to air travel and the passenger experience. “It is not about maximizing our profits during this time, it is about managing our losses,” noted Rod. “It is time to reinvent ourselves.” 

Africa Lounge now features Sambusa, a savory Central African fried pastry filled with spiced vegetables and meat, Congolese Jolloff rice, and fried plantains. You can look forward to African spices like Pilau Masala, bay leaves, and malagueta, plus twists like pairing sweet chili barbeque with the fried plantains. The drink menu features African coffee, wines, and cocktails (see the full menu below)

“Operating a business at SEA means serving the public,” said Rod. “We’re not just providing a meal; we’re creating an experience.” 

The new menu was created by Yves Maganya, the general manager of Africa Lounge. Originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he moved to the U.S. with his family as a child.  

He joined Africa Lounge three years ago after first noticing the diversity of the staff. Yves pursued an opening on the management team and connected with Jerry and Rod. Today, he really values working for a Black-owned business and the opportunity to share the flavors of his culture with you.  

Yves Maganya in the kitchen at Africa Lounge

“African food is filling and invites community,” shared Yves. “These dishes are an entry point to create a personal experience with African food. It helps to bridge the gap between cultures.”  

The recipes came from Yves' family and were adapted for Africa Lounge. When cooking at home, he does not measure ingredients, so it took several iterations to get it right for a restaurant setting where recipes must be quantified to ensure consistency. His whole family added their opinions — literally too many cooks in the kitchen — and Yves worked closely with his niece-in-law, Prisca, to get the flavors and texture just right.  

“We value Yves’ work to help drive this forward and love the communal experience it became as we did a great deal of taste testing with our staff,” said Rod.  

“I love food,” Yves said. “Growing up our parents were always cooking and included us in the kitchen as part of our Congolese culture. These dishes are true to taste.”  

Yves and niece in law
Yves and Prisca testing recipes at home

Reflecting and supporting the community 

Africa Lounge and its sister restaurant, Mountain Room Bar, are now successful minority-owned small businesses that employ over 50 people and contribute over $1 million to the local economy in living wages.  

Last year, over 350 companies employed 19,000 people at SEA, and the community of airport workers is multiethnic. You can find the cuisines of many cultures at the airport from Asian, Mexican, Italian, and Hawaiian to Pacific Northwest seafood. “There is a large African community here, and now there is food in the airport that represents us,” said Yves.  

Traditions come to life at SEA 

The menu debuting this week captures the range and diversity of African culture and reflects our  community. But it’s just the beginning, with more African dishes and desserts to come in the future.  

  • Sambusa — a Central African fried pastry filled with African-spiced  beef or vegetables  
  • Jolloff Rice — a rice dish popular in many African nations  seasoned with tomatoes, peppers, onions, and a spice mix  
  • Fried Plantains  
  • Entrées of Chicken, Salmon, or Sambusa  served with Joloff rice and fried plantains  

Congolese Jolloff rice

African Coffee, Wines, and Cocktails:  

  • Yirgacheffe from Cafe Avole, a local, African-owned small business with single origin and fair trade Ethiopian coffees 
  • Wines from the Western Cape’s Franschhoek Valley and Stellenbosch region:    
    • Western Cape Chardonnay, DeMorgenzon DMZ 
    • Stellenbosch DMZ Rose, DeMorgenzon DMZ 
    • Kadette Stellenbosch Cape Red Blend, Kanonkop Wine Estate  
    • Sauvignon Blanc, Porcupine Ridge Winery  
  • Capetown Mule — Tito’s Vodka, Disaronno Amaretto, ginger beer, and lime juice  
  • Malawai Shandy — Meyer’s Dark Rum, lemonade, ginger beer, and angostura bitters  
  • Dawa (Swahili for medicine) Cocktail — El Jimador Tequila, lime juice, honey, and brown sugar simple syrup 
  • Awassa Manhattan — an Ethiopian inspired cocktail with Jack Daniels Whiskey, St. George Nola Coffee Liqueur (grown in Ethiopia), and Angostura bitters  

Africa Lounge at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA)


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