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THE FOLKS AT BENETHIOPIA in Washington, D.C., have devised a unique business model for serving Ethiopian food at their restaurant: They don’t have one.
It’s a food truck, and it parks at a different place around the district every weekday. You have to visit a Twitter page in the morning to find out where they’ll be that day, and they never announce their destination the day before. The tweets, of course, are as imaginative as the enterprise itself, and they acknowledge Beltway culture: “Benethiopia bumping to berbere beats on a beautiful Monday. Franklin Park (13th & K) from 11:30 to 2ish. Fojol navigates the land of cubicles.”
Benethiopia is one of two traveling food trucks owned by a company that calls itself Fojol Bros. The other truck, Merlindia, serves Indian cuisine. The chef of Benethiopia, Lula Habte, is an Ethiopian woman married to Russell Bailey, a 32-year-old American who drives the truck and serves the food along with a few others employees. It’s trendy Ethiopian cuisine for the 21st Century, but the food is as good as enat used to make. (Here’s a promotional video for the truck.)
The truck’s name, properly pronounced to sound like “beneath-iopia,” has two meanings. “We import our spices from Ethiopia – my wife’s mother makes them – so the food is coming from beneath Ethiopia in the sense that a lot of it was grown there,” Bailey explains. “And in Amharic it would be the short form of be yine Ethiopia, meaning ‘of or by my Ethiopia,’ since my wife makes the food and my mother-in-law makes the spices.”
Bailey’s email handle is “ras,” an Amharic word that refers to a regional ruler or governor. Teferi Mekonnen was a ras before he became Emperor Haile Selassie, and Bailey says he chose the nickname for himself “because the truck is my little fiefdom.” He also noticed in Ethiopia that friends would sometimes enter him as “ras” in their cell phones as an abbreviation for “Russell.”
Fojol Bros. is the enterprise of four friends, and they’ve created an imaginative mythology to go with their expert cuisines. “The Fojol Bros. serve delicious and healthy meals with no preservatives from two distant lands, Merlindia and Benethiopia,” says their website. “In Merlindia, meals are served over basmati rice. Benethiopians eat with their hands, using injera, a teff-based bread, to pick up their vegetarian and meat stews.”
Bailey has known Justin Vitarello, one of the four Fojol Bros. partners, since high school, and when he learned about their Indian truck, he suggested that they add an Ethiopian one. He joined the group last year to start up and manage the Ethiopian truck, which launched in October 2010.
Needless to say, the company’s ideology – or “folosophy” – is progressive. Yes, they serve food in cardboard containers rather than on washable and reusable plates. But the containers are “disposable, biodegradable and compostable eating materials made from 100% bagasse – sugarcane fiber remaining after extraction of juice from the sugarcane,” the website explains. The napkins and sporks are also made of recycled material and are biodegradable, although who would dare use a spork to eat Benethiopian food?
Bailey got the Africa bug around the age of 3, when he had a Cameroonian teacher. From that time on, he dreamed of Africa, and he’s lived a busy and peripatetic international life for the past decade or so. He has an anthropology degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and a master’s in development studies from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. He taught in Ghana in 1999, went back there to study in 2002, and then went to Ethiopia for six months. After Boulder, he returned to Ethiopia for a few years, and while there, he tutored Koreans in English to make a living. “But what I was really doing,” he says, “was participant observations, also known as just living.”
During that time in Ethiopia, he met his wife, and they’ve been married now for five years. She taught him how to cook, but Bailey says they both come from “culinary-minded families.”
By around 9 or so each morning, the Fojol Bros.’ Twitter page announces Benethiopia’s location. They begin serving between 11:30 and noon, and they serve until they run out of food, usually by 2. A line begins to form soon after the truck arrives at its daily destination, and by noon it’s a dozen people long and stays that way until there’s nothing left to sell, at which time they tweet once more that they’re closed for the day. First-timers can ask questions while one of the friendly employees, some of whom speak a little Amharic (but just a little), sets things up.
The Benethiopia truck is accommodating: On the side is a napkin roll, a spigot with running water, and some liquid soap. Each meal comes with an anti-bacterial moist towelette. They even spread blankets on the adjacent parklet where they stop, and the blankets fill up quickly on sunny days with patrons eager to escape their cubicles for a sylvan city lunch.
On the sidewalk outside the truck, there’s a sign with the day’s dishes: a meat and two or three veggie options. You can have a “dingo bite” snack for $2, two items for $7, or a feast of three items for $9. Portions are generous, and they’re served in the cardboard containers with injera underneath the entrées, and a stack of small square injera pieces to use for grabbing your food. A bottle of water costs $1 more.
I caught up with Benethiopia on a Friday in early June when it parked at 20th Street and Virginia Avenue in southwest D.C. I chose two items, siga wot and fosolia. The former, a beef dish, was tender, juicy and wonderfully spicy; the latter, excellent again, is a vegetable medley of green beans, carrots and jalapeños. I was quite full after the meal, although I do wish I’d chosen three dishes so I could taste their misir wot (spicy red lentils).
In the next year or so, when Lula gets her American citizenship, Bailey hopes that he and his wife can spend half of the year in Ethiopia and half of the year in the United States (during Ethiopia’s rainy season from about May to September). Before he leaves, he’ll train people to cook the food that his wife now cooks. In fact, when Lula becomes a citizen, her relatives can visit, and Bailey says they may recruit them to cook when they’re here. This is “not really a plan,” he says, “just sort of a vague ideas for the future.” And during the time he spends in Ethiopia, he wants to put his graduate degree to work and pursue non-profit-oriented business enterprises, “but with more development goals in mind as opposed to becoming a tycoon.”
A FOOTNOTE: Here’s a roundup of some other Ethiopian and Eritrean food trucks I’ve discovered out there. I’ll keep adding to this list as I find more. Some of these may have come and gone, of course, but the list still documents their existence, however brief it may have been. I welcome additions and corrections.
♦ Washington, D.C. The city how has several more Ethiopian food carts that park in various places around the District. They all have Twitter pages where they announce their locations each weekday morning. They are: Fasika, Lilypad on the Run, and Simple on Wheels. Fasika is owned by a relative of a long-time restaurant called Fasika in the district’s Adams Morgan neighborhood, but that place closed after a fire in 2005. The owners of the Fasika truck hope to open a new restaurant called Fasika in the U Street area, where there’s already a large concentration of Ethiopian restaurants.
♦ Bethesda, MD. Mesob on Wheels. The owners of this truck live in Silver Spring, Md., where there are a lot of Ethiopian restaurants, but they park their truck in Bethesda. You can find their daily locate at the truck’s Twitter site. They usually serve from noon until 2 p.m., unless they run out of food sooner. Video Visit in Amharic.
♦ Madison, WI. Buraka, the city’s only Ethiopian restaurant, has a cart on the mall outside the University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Library, just a few blocks from the restaurant. The cart predates the restaurant by many years.
♦ Portland, OR. Emame’s is a food cart located at SW 9th Avenue and SW Washington Street. It’s not affiliated with a restaurant. Video Visit.
♦ New Haven, CT. The popular local restaurant Lalibela operates a food cart from about 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. at the corner of Sachem and Prospect streets on the Yale University campus. For $5, you get three items plus injera – if you can get there before they run out of food.
♦ Minneapolis, MN. She Royal Coffee, a restaurant that serves Ethiopian cuisine along with other café-style foods, operates a cart at First Avenue and North Eighth Street. The owner is Ethiopian.
♦ Minneapolis, MN. The Cave Café describes its food as Afro-Italian, but the “African” part is Ethiopian. Teddy Negash, the chef/owner, was born in Ethiopia and raised in Eritrea, hence the Italian elements of his cuisine. Teddy also offers catering. Here’s the truck’s promotional video.
♦ New York, NY. An Eritrean man runs a food cart near City Hall in Manhattan, where finding a parking place is a big problem.
♦ San Francisco, CA. In November 2011, an Eritrean-American and an Irish-American launched Eire Trea, a food truck that sell Eritrean dishes, Irish dishes, and some meals that fuse the two.
♦ Baltimore, MD. Taitu Express offer Ethiopian and American food for breakfast and lunch. The truck has one location on Monday through Thursday and a different location for Friday and Saturday.
♦ London, England. If you ever cross the pond, stop by the Ethiopian food stall at the Sunday Upmarket in the Shoreditch neighborhood. It’s one of many places to eat there, but why would you want to choose any of the others?
University of Pittsburgh