Silver Spring's Ethiopian food scene beginning to rival U Street
While many consider U Street in Washington, D.C., to be the go-to spot for Ethiopian food, Silver Spring is slowly building an alternative mecca for the African cuisine in Montgomery County.
The newest addition, Arat Kilo Market, is opening on the corner of Fenton and Easley Street in downtown Silver Spring, an area with a vibrant African community that is already rich with Ethiopian restaurants.
Highland Coffee and Restaurant just opened a dining section in early May and is serving full Ethiopian meals. Langano and Abyssinia Ethiopian restaurants are within a block of each other on Georgia Avenue. And Addis Ababa and Highland are practically across from each other on Fenton Street. Further north in Silver Spring, there is Bete Ethiopian Cuisine and Cafe and Abol Ethiopian Cuisine.
There are 1,680 Ethiopians in Silver Spring, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's Profile of General Demographic Characteristics from 2000. Ethiopians make up just one part of the larger community of 5,400 people of Subsaharan African ancestry in Silver Spring, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey from 2005 to 2009. Silver Spring is even hosting its first Ethiopian Festival on Ellsworth Drive June 25, with food, music and dance from the growing African community.
Ethiopian food is eaten by hand using a flat sourdough bread called Injera. The bread is ripped into pieces and used to pick up chunks of such favorite dishes as Wat, a thick, spicy stew made with chicken, lamb, beef or vegetables.
While Silver Spring has at least six Ethiopian restaurants, Takoma Park, Wheaton and Burtonsville each have only one each.
The number of options in the neighborhood helps make Silver Spring a destination for Ethiopian food, which helps increase business for everyone, rather than hinder it, restaurant owners said.
"Actually, it brings a lot of people in one place," said Birtukan Retta, owner of Abol Ethiopian Cuisine on Colesville Road. "Instead of going to different places, they have a choice. I think it's good for people to have a choice instead of just going to D.C. or Virginia."
Retta, who opened Abol four years ago, said she used to go to Washington, D.C., for Ethiopian food. Now, with the number of Ethiopian options in Silver Spring, she said there is no need to travel into the District for Ethiopian eats.
"Here there is good food, better food and best food," Retta said.
That is exactly why Aseged Yimer, owner of Arat Kilo Market, wanted to open an Ethiopian market in Silver Spring. He searched for a spot in the neighborhood for about a year before signing a lease on the space on Easley Street, he said.
Yimer said he plans to open July 1. The store will sell food and other goods shipped in from Ethiopia, like spices and Ethiopian bread, as well as more traditional convenience store items, like milk, eggs and coffee.
"I want to bring genuine Ethiopian food to the Silver Spring community, not just the Ethiopian community," Yimer said.
The idea, Yimer said, is to provide ingredients to people so they can make the Ethiopian food they love to eat in restaurants at home, saving money in the process.
"I think Ethiopian food has become a favorite food in the D.C. metro area," Yimer said. "People can buy food for themselves and cook it at a lesser expense."
Yimer is running the business with his wife, and they have been renting the space for three months already. They are waiting on an electrical permit and for the county to fix cracked sidewalks outside. Once they open, Yimer said, he hopes the already strong Ethiopian community is Silver Spring will help his business grow quickly.
"It is achievable, since there is a large Ethiopian community," Yimer said. "I am not expecting to make that much profit the first year, but definitely some profit in the coming years."
A community of customers has grown among the restaurants in Fenton Village, each of which has found their own niche.
Retta's restaurant, in downtown Silver Spring, is north of the most concentrated area of Ethiopian restaurants in Fenton Village. She said her client base stems from people coming from the AFI Silver Theater or the Ellsworth Drive area, putting her less in direct competition with Fenton Village restaurants.
"Our clients are the neighborhood clients, and the people come from AFI before a movie and after a movie," Retta said. "I don't know how [other restaurants] would benefit or hurt us."
Further south on Georgia Avenue, Solomon Abdella, owner of Abyssinia on Georgia Avenue, said additional Ethiopian restaurants in Silver Spring only help build the client base in the neighborhood.
"It helps a lot," Abdella said. "Some of the customers drive to Virginia or U Street. We want more restaurants in the area."
Abdella said Abyssinia, which opened in 2009, gets a lot of clients from nearby areas like University of Maryland college students and people from Takoma Park. He said the restaurant's proximity and its sports bar and televisions help draw in restaurant-goers.
"With the gas price going up like this, no one wants to drive far," Abdella said. "It helps a lot. We offer different things like soccer games."
And like Abyssinia, each Ethiopian restaurants offers something a little different, Addis Ababa owner Asfaw Made said. He said each restaurant offers unique menus and prices. He said his restaurant, which opened in 2004, sets itself apart because it has been open longer than most.
"Competition is good," Made said. "It's healthy. The problem is now, for the time being, it might hurt you. But in the long run, it's going to help."
Many of the restaurant owners said they stay connected and ask each other for advice and help sometimes.
"We function as a community," said Teru Fentike, owner of Bete on Roeder Road. "If one needs help, we are all there to support them. We exchange ideas in order to serve the community well."
East County Ethiopian Restaurants
-Bete Ethiopian Cuisine and Café,
811 Roeder Road
-Abol Ethiopian Cuisine, 8626 Colesville Road
-Highland Coffee and Restaurant,
8200 Fenton St.
-Langano Ethiopian Restaurant,
8305 Georgia Ave.
8233 Fenton St.
-Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant
8221 Georgia Ave.
-Walia Ethiopian Restaurant
6846 New Hampshire Ave.
2655 University Blvd.
-Soretti's Ethiopian Cuisine
15510 Old Columbia Pike