Messeret Habeti, co-owner of the Ethiopian restaurant Assimba at MLK and Cherry, wants to build an east African business association bringing together restaurants, shops, and more from 12th Ave to MLK. After a 2013 e coli scare made “Ethiopian” synonymous with “unsafe” in the ears of some, she told CHS, business slumped. By banding together, Habeti hopes to emulate the success of immigrant businesses in the International District.
“That’s why I want to create the… business association,” she said. “If we have association, no one will be interrogated” or bullied by government or media. She said she has talked to dozens of local businesses, and hopes have a formal association established by June. “I’ve been just walking around with all the information, explaining [to local business owners] why we need this, why now,” she said. “I have explain that this is the time that we need to be gathering together.”
“If you are formally associated,” said her husband and business partner Messeret Ferede, “we have one voice. That is the plan, to benefit for ourself by being together all at the same time.”
Habeti’s colleague and friend Tsedalu used to own an Ethiopian restaurant that the King County Deptartment of Health closed in 2013. Tsedalu said that after that e coli scare (which she denies came from her restaurant), customers began snubbing Ethiopian restaurants in general.
The value of an east African business association would be beneficial to both the shops and restaurants and customers, Habeti said. Business owners would gain strength through numbers, while the city and neighborhood would gain civic infrastructure — a streamlined way for the government and others to communicate with the area’s tight-knit immigrant community. She said the latter benefit already exists via informal social networks. “We’ll let the neighborhood know all the new information,” she said. “For those people who don’t speak English or read English, I’ll explain to them what change is coming” from developers or city construction projects, for example.
This kind of civic-business organizing isn’t new for Habeti. In 2013, the city started work on fixing up 23rd Ave, one of the main north/south roads that runs through the Central District. With the repairs came a flurry of activity from other city departments, including the Department of Planning and Development and the Department of Neighborhoods, and Habeti became a liaison with the area’s Ethiopian businesses. “Messeret was kind of identified [as] kind of an outspoken leader for the east African and specifically Ethiopian business community,” said the Office of Economic Development’s Mikel Davila. With the help of DON’s Cherry Cayabyab, Habeti eventually hosted a convention of Ethiopian business owners from 23rd and 12th Avenues at her restaurant. This convention was the germ for her current organizing efforts.
“By the city convening [Habeti’s] group,” said Cayabyab “I think she was kind of inspired…and energized to continue those convenings, and continue to create a space and a table of those business owners on their own.”
In turn, civil servants like Davila and Cayabyab have advised Habeti on what projects will affect her neighborhood, how to access city resources, and how to proceed with her own organizing work. OED has been working to “link her up not only with east African businesses in the Central Area,” Davila said, “but also ones on 12th Avenue that have seen some displacement from the construction going on there.”
Habeti said her next step is to organize a big meeting in which business owners will hash out a broad outline of what the association will look like. After that, the nascent group will draft bylaws (in English and Amheric) and elect board members. That big meeting should happen sometime this week (stay tuned). UPDATE: The group will meet Tuesday, March 17th from 5 to 7 PM at Assimba.
“My job now is to get everybody together,” she said. “Once we start, there’s no way that anyone is going to be able to stop us.”