In the space of a couple of minutes, the bartender at Desoto Lounge serves up a craft kolsch, a Miller Lite, a dirty martini and a sangria. It's only 7:15, but the bar is already busy and the clientele as varied as the drinks they order. Tonight, everyone has come for the food: It's Ethiopian Tuesday.
Giant silver disks draped in injera — fermented flatbread — and piled with chicken, lentils and eggplant salad gleam along the bar. Occasionally, knife and fork click together above the rattle of underground rock music, but most of these diners enjoy their food fingers first in traditional Ethiopian fashion.
William Hatfield (the Miller Lite) and Ron Lambe (the sangria) are here to eat. They're an unconventional pair. The former, sporting a do-rag and horseshoe mustache, boasts that he is a real Hatfield, descended from the feuding clan of old,“the 100 percent original, son,” as he puts it. His companion, on the other hand, is silver-haired and soft-spoken. He is a locally renowned cellist. Despite their seeming differences, the two happily enjoy a dinner that originated (in concept) on the other side of the globe.
“I've had Ethiopian food in Washington, D.C., and I was delighted to find it here,” Lambe says. “It adds to our cosmopolitan atmosphere.”
Hatfield has only had Ethiopian once before, but he is committed to the cuisine on principle: “A person ought to have a choice, you know,” he says. “Mexican, Ethiopian, Honduran — it don't matter: a person needs a choice.”
But when it comes to African cuisine in Asheville, choice is limited. Despite consistent popular demand for Ethiopian food (it’s been voted No. 1 in the “restaurant Asheville needs” category in Xpress’ Best of WNC poll the past five years), it's served only on Tuesdays at Desoto. The food on offer here is a toned-down, American version of a complex international cuisine. The once-weekly prix fixe menu doesn't warrant the special ingredients and the lengthy preparation time required for traditional Ethiopian dishes.
“We got as close as we can to a lot of the spices,” says Desoto co-owner Sabrina White, who cooks the Ethiopian dinners. “We substitute a few things that we can't get.”
Making a space for global cuisine is more complicated than simple relationships of supply and demand. When it comes to international food, entrepreneurs have to make choices that balance the difficulties of procuring ingredients, negotiating American tastes and representing their culture. These decisions are their bread and butter — or their injera and niter kibbeh, as the case may be.
The restaurant industry was trepidatious territory even before the economic crash of 2008. A 2005 study published through Cornell University concluded that about 60 percent of independent restaurateurs fold in the first three years. The odds are worse for particular types of food. The study didn’t examine African food, but it noted that more than 85 percent of Mexican restaurants fail or change ownership in their initial three years.
Ethnic restaurants face more daunting hurdles than those serving American fare, agrees Bob Dunn, director of consulting at Mountain BizWorks, a local nonprofit designed to support small businesses. “It's a higher-risk piece of business,” he explains.
The key to successfully serving foreign food, he says, is to educate potential diners before the doors open. Entrepreneurs must cultivate a sense of community around their business, even if it has yet to take brick and mortar form. “You need to build a following, and that's the bottom line,” Dunn says. “Especially for global cuisine, especially for the ones that are not well-known. You need to do something in advance of your opening.”
So how do you educate the population? An ethnic community helps; many diners learn about new foods from their international friends and neighbors. Dunn himself recently became acquainted with Ethiopian specialties by sampling the dishes of an intern at Mountain BizWorks. But in Asheville, the Ethiopian community itself is small. If a restaurant is to succeed here, local support must be vigorous.
Harry Kloman is an Ethiopian food enthusiast and journalism instructor at the University of Pittsburgh. He says the staying power of Ethiopian ventures in small cities like Asheville is often limited by the amount of ethnic diversity. He traveled to hundreds of Ethiopian restaurants around the country to research the culture and cuisine for his 2010 book, Mesob Across America: Ethiopian Food in the U.S.A. He stopped in Asheville several years ago when Abaye Catering was hosting sporadic Ethiopain meals at gathering spots such as the Unitarian Church and the Greenlife Community Center. But those dinners no longer take place.
Kloman says the organizers, Judah Selassie and Getenesh Ketema, moved from Asheville to the New York Metropolitan Area. “[They] went back to an urban area where there's more [ethnic] community and more diversity, and that's pretty common,” he says. “If you're one of a very small number of people from a foreign culture in a community that doesn't have a lot of cultural diversity, you're going to feel a little out of place. You're not going to want to go there or stay there very long, so that's always the problem of small communities like that, and I think that's the problem Asheville faces.”
No room for mediocrity
While Dunn and Kloman may offer prudent business insight, restaurant owners contend that the life of their establishments springs from the kitchen. While ethnic restaurants might face certain hurdles involving ingredients, the consumer response will be as strong as the cuisine on offer.
Established Indian restauranteur Meherwan Irani, who owns Chai Pani and the soon-to-open MG Road (a late-night lounge and cocktail bar featuring small plates), says he's confident in the Asheville marketplace’s ability to support global cuisine, no matter the country of origin.
In his view, good food speaks for itself, whether the community of patrons is American or otherwise. “Especially in a town like Asheville, you've got a sophisticated consumer base that understands what a good palate is,” he says. “I just feel like good food shouldn't be an acquired taste. It doesn't matter what part of the country it's from, that if Indian food doesn't taste good to Americans, then it's not going to taste good to me, either.”
In fact, he adds, an ethnic community sometimes enables restauranteurs to slack off. “Some of the more mediocre Indian restaurants I've been to have been in areas where there are large Indian communities,” he says. “They're counting on their local community wanting to reconnect with their food and deal with it, even if it's mediocre.”
Some of his ingredients, such as spices, must be ordered specially from large Indian food wholesale distributors in Atlanta, he says, but he serves enough volume to order them in bulk. He orders these particulars once a month in 3,000 pound increments, which helps defray their expense.
Irani predicts that an Ethiopian restaurant will succeed in Asheville on the same grounds that any other restaurant succeeds: with quality food and a strong concept. “Open an Ethiopian restaurant in Asheville and make it the best Ethiopian restaurant in the country, and have the diners validate that,” he says.
Martha Kebede, who owns Enat Ethiopian Restaurant in Atlanta, has visited Asheville twice to gauge the market's potential. She’s been mulling over options for a year, but hasn’t found the right spot so far, she says. “I'm looking for the right place, right price, that's what it is,” she says. “When I find the right place, the right location and everything, it's going to be happening.”
She says she has no concerns about the lack of an Ethiopian community. She already feels supported by Asheville: So many visitors from here have dined at her Atlanta location that she offers a 10 percent discount to them. When she visited last fall, she stayed with customers (who continue to keep her informed about real estate). When the time is right, she feels sure Asheville will support her restaurant; she echoes Irani's belief in the power of the plate: “Food is universal,” she says.
It takes a village
Local business owners Neeraj Kebede (no relation to Martha) and his wife, Vicki Schomer, have weighed the pros and cons of bringing an Ethiopian restaurant to Asheville for six years, since they moved here from San Francisco. They're already experienced entrepreneurs. Together, they own Asheville Green Cottage, an environmentally conscious bed and breakfast near A-B Tech.
Although Kebede has worked in restaurants before, he said serving guests their morning meal is what made him realize restaurant ownership was right for him. “Just making breakfast for the people who stay here, and the joy of doing it, and doing it for many years now, made me feel like, ‘Wow, I would love to do a restaurant because I found out I enjoy serving,’” he says.
Of course, the lack of a restaurant hasn't stopped the couple from enjoying Kebede's national cuisine; they gather regularly with the other Ethiopians they know — a group of 10 or 12 — to enjoy the country's delicacies.
Now, they've gotten more serious about sharing.
He has been taking classes about the restaurant industry and seeks to secure financing, but the couple's big break came when Schomer decided to create a Facebook page for the nascent business. The online community responded immediately with strong support for their concept. Transplants to Asheville from New York and Washington, D.C., wrote dozens of positive comments about how much they miss the cuisine that is readily accessible in large metropolitan areas.
The online following is quite different from the support of a flesh-and-blood Ethiopian community, but Kebede is encouraged by the positive feedback. “Usually Ethiopian communities are kind of physical. They gather physically, and usually if they want to do something they would put their pennies together and go do it,” he says. “But people's response that they want something like that feels wonderful because it's not much of a gamble anymore. It's going to work. That's the feeling.”
Even with all their enthusiasm, Kebede and Schomer recognize that the success or failure of their new venture depends on the community's tastes. For now, they believe local appetites are responding favorably. “You know that expression: It takes a community to create something,” Schomer says. “It really feels in some very special way like Asheville's sort of wrapped this project around in its arms, and I think Asheville will help us get there and supply whatever we need. It's going to happen because it's the right time and Asheville is ready to help make it happen.”
With the right local support, Kebede hopes to open the restaurant before the year is out, probably in West Asheville. “I'm glad [the online response] happened because I feel like no return zone,” Kebede explains. “People are out there waiting, and the sooner the better.”
— Emily Patrick can be reached at email@example.com.