ETHIOPIAN TAKEOUT HAS BECOME a whole lot easier thanks to the enterprise of a young New York actor-turned-businessman. And if his fledgling company continues to grow, his products could show up in a market near you.
For now, you have to live in New York City and environs to taste the fresh creations of Hiyaw Gebreyohannes, who lives in Manhattan and owns Taste of Ethiopia, named for his mother’s two Detroit restaurants. The east coast wing of the family business cooks a variety of Ethiopian vegetable dishes and sells them in 10-ounce refrigerated packages. He makes injera, too, so all you have to do to enjoy an Ethiopian meal at home is drop by any of roughly a dozen markets in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Connecticut and New Jersey that stock his meals. His unique enterprise has even earned him a squib in The New York Times.
Taste of Ethiopia now makes only vegan dishes: tikil gomen (cabbage and carrots), misir wot (spicy red lentils), azifa (green lentils), kik alicha (yellows peas) and gomen (collard greens). Hiyaw soon plans to add fosolia (green beans and carrot), dinich wot (spicy potatoes) and shiro (spicy pea purée, an Ethiopian specialty). He may incorporate meat dishes some day, but that brings with it even more stringent government regulations. He also would want to use grass-fed beef with no antibiotics, so he’ll have to figure out how to make it profitable.
Hiyaw was born in 1981 in Djibouti, where his Ethiopian parents emigrated to get away from the oppression of the Derg, the Communist dictatorship ruling Ethiopia at the time. His mother and father made the 17-day journey on foot while his mother was pregnant with him. The family left African when Hiyaw was about 2, and he has no memory of his life there. They spent some time in Alberta before moving to Toronto, where his mother, Meskerem Assefa, came to own two restaurants. Hiyaw and his siblings moved to America when their father passed away and their mother married an Ethiopian man living in Detroit, where she returned to the restaurant business, and where she now owns two restaurants named Taste of Ethiopia.
A Canadian citizen now, Hiyaw grew up around his mother’s Toronto restaurants, and he knew he’d probably end up working with food some day. “I’ve never steered too far away from it,” he says. “I’ve always been inspired by food and this love of cooking and wanting to cook.”
But before he slipped into his apron, other adventures intervened. He studied political science briefly at York University, then left to become an actor, a quest that took him to New York City, where he performed for a while in commercials, plays and films (performing as Mike G. Yohannes). Soon he came to operate Zereoue, an African fusion restaurant, for a few years.
Then, in September 2010, looking for a fresh start, he spent a month in Ethiopia, and he returned with an idea about packaging fresh food. He went home to Michigan for five months and tested it there, and when he got a positive response, he thought, “If this is working in Michigan, it will take off in New York.”
So far, he seems to be right. Hiyaw makes Taste of Ethiopia’s dishes at La Marqueta, a city-owned kitchen incubator project in East Harlem, where he rents space and cooks the food himself, packaging as many as 3,000 units a week, then shipping them in refrigerated trucks to retail outlets, where they sell for $5.99 to $6.49 for 10 ounces of food. For now, the food isn’t vacuum sealed, and Hiyaw says it has a shelf life of about 10 days (it’s sold in refrigerated cases). He’s now meeting with food scientists to explore new ways to package the meals. He doesn’t have a website yet, but you can follow him on Twitter.
Hiyaw also makes pure teff injera (so it’s gluten free), breaking each large piece into four smaller rolled-up pieces, then selling the bread alongside the entrées. But he sells much less injera – it’s only in three stores – than he does of the dishes because, he says, “a lot of people don’t know it yet,” so they eat the dishes with rice, quinoa or pita bread.
The markets on the Upper West Side near Columbia that carry his food sell a lot of it to international students, while his Brooklyn outlets say their customers are younger people – vegans and hipsters. “A lot of the diaspora loves the food,” Hiyaw says, “and that shows in a couple of the stores. It’s nice to see them grabbing it and saying, ‘I love Ethiopian food.’”
And then there are his busy weekends. Hiyaw sells his food at Brooklyn Flea, an indoor event that closes in April, at which time he’ll switch to Smorgasburg, another weekend Brooklyn event that opens outdoors when the flea market closes. He’s done some “underground dinners,” where the participants pay about $70 each and don’t know the cuisine or the location until the day before. For these events, he hopes to attract food bloggers and chefs who can spread the word about his enterprise. He also does some catering for universities, corporate offices and cafeterias, and he’s exploring new places to market his cuisine.
And speaking of chefs: Hiyaw has even collaborated on one event with Marcus Samuelsson, the celebrity chef who was born in Ethiopia, raised by adoptive parents in Sweden, and has lately returned to his roots, writing and talking more about Ethiopian cuisine. Samuelsson hosted a charity event at his own home for which Hiyaw provided Ethiopian food, and he says that he remains good friends with Samuelsson’s wife, although he hasn’t talked with Samuelsson about Taste of Ethiopia. He’s waiting to grow a little before playing the Samuelsson card (so to speak).
In the meantime, he has enough to keep him busy. His does most of the cooking himself, with the help of his aunt and two more employees – one from Algeria, one from the Ivory Coast – and so far, he’s done enough business to make Taste of Ethiopia his sole means of employment. “I’ve had a lot of support from my friends and family,” he says, “and even just the moral support of people who tell me to keep going.”
Although he doesn’t know exactly who’s buying his food, “as an Ethiopian raised in north America,” he says, “I would buy this product. But as an Ethiopian who just moved here, you probably have your mom cooking, so why would I?”
The places that sell his food tell him that his customers are mixed – some Ethiopians, some not. And they’d have to be: New York City doesn’t have a large Ethiopian population, and it hasn’t had an Ethiopian market since 2006. Manhattan has about the same number of Ethiopian restaurants as Chicago, and they’re spread out all over the city. Brooklyn has two restaurants, both opened within the last few years.
As a kid growing up in Canada, Hiyaw confesses, he was a little ashamed at school to eat the Ethiopian food his mom packed, “and I just wanted to eat ham and bologna sandwiches.” But now he’s talking to some New York schools about serving Ethiopian food there, and he’s even approached people with First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign against childhood obesity.
Hiyaw biggest opportunity came this spring, when he made a deal to place his food with some Whole Foods Market outlets in New York: You can now find Taste of Ethiopia in the chain’s outlet at 97th Street and Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side, with plans to distribute in three more outlets in the coming months. He’s working with Dean & DeLuca to sell his food in some of their stores as well.
So when will Hiyaw’s enterprise have the capital to go nationwide, and when will his meals show up in a Whole Foods near you?
“There’s a lot of factors that come into play,” he says. “One of them is the right opportunity at the right place. At the rate that we’re going, I’ll have a better understanding of where to go and how the business is growing. I’m not sure if I’d want to do food frozen. I love fresh food and knowing it was fresh made. But who knows? This is all a fairly new project. We’ll see where it takes us.”
FOOTNOTES: Hiyaw got some national attention in June 2012 when he won a city competition that allowed him to compete nationally at the Fancy Food Show in Washington, D.C. It’s the sort of opportunity that could lead to wider distribution of his food.
And by the way, Hiyaw isn’t the first to do this: Rahel Woldmedhin, owner of the long-established Rahel Ethiopian Vegan Cuisine in Los Angeles’ Little Ethiopia, sells fresh packaged Ethiopian dishes at more than two dozen locations around the greater Los Angeles area, including many Whole Foods outlets. Rahel has been in the restaurant business for more than 25 years, but her packaged food hasn’t yet made its way to the east coast.
Hiyaw talks about his food line for a TV program:
Here’s Hiyaw at a New York food exhibition:
University of Pittsburgh