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Ethiopian-owned businesses enliven Baltimore neighborhoods

Hiywot “Didi” Kassa of Cafe Jovial
Hiywot “Didi” Kassa of Cafe Jovial - Amanda Nolan
Wander along the 300 block of Park Avenue, which once was the heart of Baltimore City's Chinatown district, and you will find that a few of its vestiges remain open, such as an Asian grocery store and Zhongshan Restaurant.
But the neighborhood in West Baltimore, about a block from the main branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, is sprouting businesses from another immigrant community.
Ethiopians own several shops and restaurants in the area. These include Tabor Ethiopian and Gojo restaurants; Kana Mart, which sells a myriad of spices, injera and other food products; and hookah bar Lucy Sports Café. About a dozen blocks away in Pigtown, wine store Espiritas, Cafe Jovial and Ebenezer Ethiopian Restaurant, all thrive under the auspices of Ethiopian-born entrepreneurs.
Though the Ethiopian community has had a presence in Baltimore for decades, these businesses are relatively new. They have opened within the last two years, providing economic activity in neighborhoods that have previously struggled to attract shops.The cluster of shops owned by these immigrants is reminiscent of Washington, D.C.,'s Adams Morgan neighborhood, albeit on a smaller scale. Indeed, some of these immigrants have moved from D.C. to Baltimore, and some restaurant owners say they can readily get their food supplies thanks to the daily Ethiopian Airlines flight from Dulles International Airport.
In Pigtown, also known as Washington Village, Espiritas has been gathering a crowd at its monthly wine tastings since opening in January. And Café Jovial, open seven days a week, offers the community a gathering spot, says Ben Hyman, executive director of Pigtown Main Street.

“We’re trying to create and foster a Main Street feel. All of those businesses contribute to that,” Hyman says. “Pigtown is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Baltimore. Our diversity is our strength. That certainly applies to the immigrant community. They’re huge assets to us.”

Yeshitila Araya, who serves as the unofficial leader of this community, estimates that there are about 75,000 Ethiopians in Maryland. About 30,000 to 50,000 reside in Greater Baltimore. It is a population that makes a living working as cab drivers, beauticians, medical technicians and small business owners.
Many of these entrepreneurs came to the U.S. following the overthrow in 1974 of the government of Haile Selassie and the subsequent political turmoil.
Hiywot “Didi” Kassa, the owner of Café Jovial, came to the U.S. as a teenager when her family moved from Addis Ababa to New York. She lived in Dallas and Washington, D.C., before settling in Baltimore.
She opened Café Jovial in October 2011, when she heard from Ethiopian friends that there was a vacant coffee shop in Baltimore’s Pigtown neighborhood. Kassa is pretty much a one-woman operation, working seven days a week. The bright, charming exposed-brick spot features changing artwork on the walls. She rents the building and the equipment, and financed the shop herself.
Tezera Zebrie and his wife, Haimanot, came to the U.S. in 2006 in search of better job opportunities. After driving a cab for a while, Zebrie and his wife took the plunge and opened Tabor Ethiopian this year, a place that has a reputation among his fellow Ethiopians as being the “most authentic,” but that is also patronized by the wider community.

“My father was a merchant who imported food, clothing and other items from rural areas in Ethiopia to the market in Addis Ababa,” he says. “As a child I grew up working in his store.”

He opted to open Tabor on Park Avenue as it was relatively close to the downtown business district, the rent was reasonable and there were other Ethiopian-owned establishments there.

Items on his menu include alicha wot, a mildly spicy lamb dish served atop injera, a spongy and sour-tasting flatbread; gomen be-sega, a mixture of seasoned beef and greens; and, tips, sautéed tender beef with spices. Zebrie purchases items from a supplier in Virginia or friends and family bring him what he may need when they visit.

“It is a challenge working by myself and trying to establish a business,” Zebrie says. He financed the restaurant with his money and loans from the Ethiopian community. The restaurant employs five but Zebrie hopes to hire more, add more tables and upgrade his appliances if he gets an U.S. Small Business Administration loan.

Mary Medland is a Baltimore writer who has written for the American Bar Association Journal, Baltimore magazine, Christian Science Monitor and Chronicle of Philanthropy. She is a former editor at the Daily Record and Where magazine. 

Photos by Amanda Nolan

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