Faces of the International Marketplace: Meet Abraham Belachew
If you ask Abraham Belachew what he is most proud of, he will tell you it’s his restaurant, Abyssinia Ethiopian Restaurant.
“All of my customers, they are good friends, because I’ve known them a long time,” said Abraham.
Abraham and his wife, Bruye, opened the restaurant at West 38th St. and Moller Rd. in 2003. At the time, they had lived in the United States for 15 years.
Gondar, the historic city in northern Ethiopia where Abraham was born, has an agricultural foundation very similar to Indiana. Growing up, Abraham worked in his family’s traditional Ethiopian restaurant. Abraham decided early on that he one day wanted to operate his own restaurant.
“Back home, in our culture, as soon as we are five to six years [old], we start to work with the family,” said Abraham. “We join with them. We help in different ways.”
Abraham’s plans were put on hold when he and his wife, Bruye, fled civil war in Ethiopia with their infant daughter. The family received refugee status in the United States in 1988 and was sponsored by a family in Missouri. After living there for a few years and working as a taxi driver, they relocated to San Diego and had a second daughter.
Through challenging times, Abraham remembered his dream of opening a restaurant. Although he planned to move to Ohio, Abraham visited a friend in Indianapolis In 1996 and grew fond of the Hoosier state. He decided to stay.
“Why not spend my money here and start a business? Why am I not trying here?” Abraham said he thought to himself.
Until 2003, Abraham continued to drive taxis as a source of income. Finally, he and his wife leased a space and opened Abyssinia Ethiopian restaurant. It seemed unlikely that many Hoosiers were aware of Ethiopian culture and Abraham was eager to share the cuisine of his home country with his new city.
The first three years were filled with especially hard work. Ethiopian food is time-consuming to prepare and eat, a stark contrast from the fast-food Americans were used to.
“It was a struggle, working night and day,” Abraham recalled. “Our [Ethiopian] food is not like other food because we start everything from scratch.”
Abraham did not advertise and relied solely on word of mouth to publicize his restaurant. A steady stream of consistent customers helped promote Abyssinia and slowly grow its reputation. Abraham participated in the Taste the Difference Festival in the International Marketplace, which exposed more people to his food. The media paid attention, and food critics reviewed the restaurant in national publications.
Abraham and his wife pride themselves on the quality of their ingredients, which are sourced from local farms. They actually purchase cows to be butchered for their meat rather than buying from a distribution center.
This all-in approach to food preparation is lost to most American restaurants today, but to Abraham, it’s just what he knows.
“I learned from my family,” he said.
A treasured tradition of Abraham’s youth is sharing a meal with loved ones around the table. In Ethiopian culture, it is common to share one large plate instead of multiple individual ones. Abraham said this is an important part of building relationships with people, and he is proud to continue it in his restaurant.
“Most of our customers, when they come in, they like to see me,” said Abraham. “And I like to talk with them.”
Abraham and his wife feel the same sense of satisfaction operating Abyssinia today as the day it opened. They have built their business in Indianapolis and raised a family in the city as well. One of the couple’s daughters serves in the United States Navy stationed in San Francisco while the other is studying for her master’s degree at the University of San Diego. Abraham also said many of his family members live elsewhere in the country, joking that he could find a relative in every state.
Even though his family is widespread, however, Abraham loves his community in Indianapolis. His customers and community are also considered family.
Put simply: “It’s like my home.”