Ethiopian Restaurants in the Metropolitan Area

In the metropolitan area, ethnic identities manifest themselves through the stores, restaurants and other commercial attractions. Ethiopian restaurants, in particular, are physical representations of their owners and many–although not all–of their customers’ heritage. Most Ethiopian restaurants are decorated with bright orange, yellow and green walls; curtains (which represent their flag), colorful mesobs (traditional straw serving plate in which the food is presented), and beautiful artwork decorate the space. Ethiopian restaurants also do not shy away from using the traditional names of dishes and names of their restaurants; in Alexandria, there are Enat, Hawwi, and Meda. These restaurants go beyond mere sustenance and play a vital cultural and social role in Ethiopian immigrant communities where people gather around and provide relief from these stresses of American life by offering validation, comradery, and economic opportunity.

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(Image courtesy of Tripadvisor.com, Addis Red Sea Ethiopian Restaurant )

Restaurants are not merely about food; they are a form of cultural expression. When the first wave of Ethiopian immigrants came to the United States in the mid-1970s, racial politics in the United States meant that incoming Ethiopians had to deal with centuries of baggage related to skin color. Ethiopian immigrants also wanted to be recognized for their ethnic and national heritage, which was distinct from that of native-born African Americans. This was especially important to Ethiopian Americans with children, since they had never known their parents’ home country,  and it would be easier for them to lose their ethnic and national identity. Kassahun Kebede, cultural anthropologist from Syracuse University, explains that Ethiopian immigrants “were able to create vibrant social institutions, including churches and cultural centers and ethnic restaurants that have become the center of gravity for most second generation Ethiopians.”[1] It was because of these strong symbols of cultural individuality, such as restaurants, that subsequent generations of Ethiopians could affirm their ethnic identity and help to resist being classified simply because of the color of their skins. These establishments not only provided cultural support, but also an economic opportunity for Ethiopian immigrants.

 

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(Image courtesy of Tripadvisor.com, Interior of the Caboose Cafe, Alexandria)
One such example is Rhoda Worku, who runs Caboose Cafe in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria. Worku immigrated to the United States in the around 1980, and before she started her own restaurant, she worked for other immigrants at a regional bakery chain, Bread and Chocolate.[2] She opened her own restaurant in 2004 where she offers a broad array of American dishes plus Ethiopian food (evenings only) to a mostly non-Ethiopian clientele.  Last year, her restaurant was voted the Heart of Delray in a contest of whom best represents the heart and soul of the community.[3] She explains how the connection between her and her employees is like family and how in the kitchen, she is no one’s boss.[4] Rhoda’s story shows how these restaurants not only provide opportunities for Ethiopian immigrants to become their own bosses, but it also serves as a second family for those who work and patronize them.

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(Image courtesy of matadornetwork.com, Little Ethiopia Restaurant)
Some have questioned whether there are too many Ethiopian restaurants in the area, and if they will be able to support themselves in the expensive market. Reporter  Jeff Pruzan from the Financial Times in his piece on the historic Ethiopian immigrant community at 9th and U Streets in Washington, DC claimed that, as property values continue to rise in D.C., restaurants may consider relocating somewhere cheaper.[5] Worku also experiences the difficulties of higher property values in 2015 and its effect on the cost of living saying, “It’s very hard to find an employee, really hard, especially in Alexandria. Alexandria’s getting very expensive. I don’t blame them [for leaving].”[6] Property value increases show how Ethiopians took a downtrodden neighborhood and revitalized it with new economic opportunity and made it valuable real estate in only a few decades.

It seems that despite the pressures of racial conformity that has been placed on Ethiopians and the challenge of becoming economical stable in a foreign country, they have been able to maintain their strong cultural heritage. Through these hardships, Ethiopian Americans have created a new ethnic community across the metropolitan area that has enriched the area both culturally and monetarily. The commercial space, such as grocery stores, music shops and  restaurants, in these communities serve a vital role in cementing ethnic identity, being around one’s own culture and people. Restaurants, in particular, are one of the most accessible to non-Ethiopians as a way to connect, support, and understand the proud heritage of Ethiopian Americans. It is this ability to outwardly reinforce Ethiopian cultural individuality that makes restaurants such an important part of integration into American culture, not through conforming or assimilating, but by making one’s own identity known and respected as valuable.

 

[1] Kassahun Kebede, Buechler, Hans C., Carty, Linda, Getahun, Solomon, Kelleher, William, and Schwarz, Maureen. Double Engagements: The Transnational Experiences of Ethiopian Immigrants in the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Area, 2012, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 287.

[2] “Interview with Rhoda Worku.” Interview by Krystyn Moon. May 20, 2015. Accessed October 27, 2016. https://www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/historic/info/Immigration/WorkuRhoda1.pdf, 7.

[3] Mary Ann Barton, “Caboose Cafe Wins Annual Heart of Del Ray Award.” Del Ray, VA Patch. February 17, 2016. Accessed November 06, 2016. http://patch.com/virginia/delray/caboose-cafe-wins-annual-heart-del-ray-award.

[4] “Interview with Rhoda Worku.” Interview by Krystyn Moon. May 20, 2015. Accessed October 27, 2016. https://www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/historic/info/Immigration/WorkuRhoda2.pdf, 10.

[5] Jeff Pruzan, “Ethiopians Feast from Melting Pot Can a Single Block in Washington DC Really Support Nine Ethiopian Restaurants? Jeff Pruzan Reports,” Financial Times (London (UK)), February 26, 2005.

[6] “Interview with Rhoda Worku.” Interview by Krystyn Moon. May 20, 2015. Accessed October 27, 2016. https://www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/historic/info/Immigration/WorkuRhoda2.pdf, 10.

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