← Back to portfolio

'Home away from home': Ethiopic Restaurant creates community for DC’s Ethiopian population

There are close to 250,000 Ethiopians in the Washington, D.C., area, according to The Ethiopian Community Development Council. Some, like Meseret Bekele, have chosen to open a business to share a little piece of Ethiopia with the American public.

By Aidan McClain

Many people dream of getting away: taking a vacation to a far-off place to explore new surroundings, experience a different culture and enjoy a fresh cuisine.

Yet, many people don’t have the means to travel to a distant country — never-mind the roadblocks that the Covid-19 pandemic caused.

Enter: Ethiopic Restaurant.

Ethiopic’s co-owner, Meseret Bekele, describes the restaurant as a “little piece of home away from home” where people can come to eat traditional Ethiopian food without actually going to Ethiopia. Being from Ethiopia herself, Bekele understands that it’s about more than just the food: there’s a sense of community at play, too.

After all, the food itself is communal.

Most meals are served with injera, a sponge-like, circular flatbread that people tear off into pieces to pick up meat. It’s the pita of hummus, the tortilla of a taco.

The hands-on experience — literally, no utensils are used — forces people to bond, Bekele said. No matter if you’re family or friends, the act of eating Ethiopian food is a shared adventure.

Teaching newcomers how to eat the food isn’t just part of the job for Bekele: it’s what keeps her going every day, she said.

“Experiencing that moment with a first timer is my fuel for the day,” Bekele said.

But that in-person experience was put on pause with the pandemic. Ethiopic Restaurant was able to keep cooking, but it switched to a take-out order approach.

Bekele said that Ethiopic was one of the few restaurants that never momentarily ceased operations. While others tried to figure out what was going on, they kept pushing along.

“During the pandemic, the community also really stepped up, ordered every single day,” Bekele said. “Just to support … they didn’t want us to shut down.”

It wasn’t only that “lifeline to the community” that helped Ethiopic thrive despite times of uncertainty.

The Ethiopian Community Development Council, a non-profit community program created in 1983 that helps Ethiopians integrate into the United States, stepped in to make sure all paperwork was accounted for to get funding through the Small Business Administration and to offer assistance should any issues arise.

But Ethiopic’s relationship with ECDC started long before the pandemic — it was the organization that gave Bekele and her husband their first loan for the restaurant more than a decade ago.

When Bekele and her husband, Samuel Ergete, moved to the area about 15 years ago, they had a craving for Ethiopian food, but they had to venture to U Street or Adams Morgan.

Bekele recalls how much nicer it would be to have an Ethiopian restaurant nearby.

Then, the idea hit them both: “Why don’t we do it?”

But with no former restaurant experience, getting a loan from a bank was proving fruitless. That’s when ECDC and its sister company, Enterprise Development Group, came into the picture.

That, as Bekele says, is what made it all happen.

It was 2009 when Bekele and Ergete were given their starter loan from ECDC and EDG. The restaurant, located at 401 H St. NE, officially opened in March 2010 while Bekele was pregnant with her first son, she said.

EDG has since provided Bekele and Ergete with more loans over the years for the purpose of expanding their business. This, in part, allows them to employ people like Ephrem Zeleke, a manager at Ethiopic, to grow their community even further.

“Working with many fellow Ethiopians makes me feel at home. This is our little Ethiopia,” Zeleke said. “We speak the same language and celebrate Ethiopian holidays, discuss politics and current situations. We come together to help each other out and navigate the daily challenges together.”

Then, there’s people like Tigist Abebe, a server at the restaurant who works during the day as an accountant who likes to work at the restaurant to join in the communal atmosphere — and get her daily steps in.

“This is the place where I come to release stress from my day job, and where I connect with so many people from all over the place,” Abebe said. “I love to teach them a little about our culture and hear their stories as well.”

Ethiopic isn’t the only business that EDG has helped. In 2021, it issued 111 Paycheck Protection Program loans to business for a total of $1,255,795.62, according to Abnet Tessema, a Microloan Program Coordinator at EDG.

ECDC has given out loans since 1992, when Ethiopian immigrants would ask for financial assistance to open a business. Many had businesses of their own back in Ethiopia, and this was a way for them to start a business in America after coming here, Tessema said.

As the program grew, EDG became its own non-profit in 2001. This expansion created a new goal: help low- to middle-income individuals start or expand their business, Tessema said.

With a zero rejection policy, EDG works with these people to help them secure funding for their business endeavors. If someone’s credit score is too low, Tessema said, the non-profit offers them a training session on how to build credit.

But the relationship is much larger than money or a loan.

“It’s not about simply giving them the money … It creates job opportunities for other people. It’s the most gratifying part,” Tessema said.

Bekele laughs as she describes what ECDC’s support means to her: “Hopefully I have millions one day and I can donate to them,” Bekele said.

But her gratitude is earnest: “It’s really empowering. They’re out there really doing what they’re supposed to do.”

A restaurant, for Bekele, seemed to be just what she was supposed to do. She has a love for cooking as well as entertaining, she said.

They both may be because of her Ethiopian upbringing.

“Growing up in Ethiopia, whenever you visit a family member or friend, whenever you go to someone’s house, you have to eat before you leave,” Bekele said. “When some guests come, you always have to make sure that they eat, drink, have coffee and leave.”

Bekele carried that authenticity to the United States. All the ingredients at Ethiopic Restaurant come directly from Ethiopia on a daily direct cargo flight, Bekele said.

She added that the pandemic has “not truly affected” the supply chain and deliveries, but if a product is in short supply, she can find food or ingredients around the District.

“I love the fact that we’re building not just for the restaurant, but we’re creating jobs for others,” Bekele said. “Not because they work here, but because we’re getting whatever we need when we source out … it’s from the community.”

In that way, Bekele continues to strengthen her relationship with the greater Ethiopian community, both inside the walls of her restaurant and around the city.