Washington (CNN) — A record shop blares the contagious thump-thump of Ethiopian music. The aroma of strong coffee fills the air. And thick spices tickle your nose virtually every half a block.
This is 9th and U Street in Washington, D.C. — the unofficially designated “Little Ethiopia”. Africans have a strong entrepreneurial spirit, and it’s clear here in the 25 shops and restaurants huddled together in one city block.
“You see within the Ethiopian community when you have someone start a business, that person becomes a role model for others,” explains Tsehaye Teferra, President of the Ethiopian Community Development Council. “So you are absolutely sure that you get three, four businesses the next day in the same location.”
It’s a phenomenon that began in the 1970s in Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood on 18th Street. But when the area became trendy, rent skyrocketed and the Ethiopians moved to less expensive ground.
Tefera Zewdie, owner of Dukem restaurant, credits himself as being one of the first to start the big move, when he opened a tiny grocery store in 1997 selling Ethiopian CDs, meat and spices. It grew to a sandwich take-out, then a small restaurant, to now a restaurant so popular, lines form out the door nearly every night.
“I remember it was if I’m not mistaken somewhere between 2000, 2001 it was something big for us to see one non-Ethiopian coming to the restaurant. If you turn around right now, we have 95 percent of them are non-Ethiopian,” says Zewdie.
It’s the food that has drawn Washingtonians and tourists to Little Ethiopia — the brave ones curious to try the family-style eating where utensils are not even a suggestion. Here, everyone eats with their hands from the same plate.
“You don’t find many Ethiopian restaurants elsewhere,” says a Dukem customer from Indianapolis, Indiana. “There was one in my hometown briefly and unfortunately it didn’t survive so I have to come back to D.C. to have Ethiopian food.”
The popularity of the food is evident in how many entrepreneurs have a restaurant as a second business. There’s the Tesfaye family, whose brothers together run a successful parking management business in and around D.C., and who opened Etete restaurant as a surprise for their mother.
“Her dream was always owning a restaurant,” says Yared Tesfaye. “She loves feeding people, she loves cooking.”
The brothers also bought the building next door to the restaurant, where their sister now has a salon.
And then there is Tutu Belay, who started a telephone directory of Ethiopian-owned and Ethiopian-friendly businesses 16 years ago. It’s grown from 80 pages to more than 900. She and her husband, Yehunie Belay, a famous Ethiopian singer, also own a restaurant downstairs from their offices called Little Ethiopia, where Yehunie performs.
Restaurants are in nearly every other building, and they’re not confined to Ethiopian. There is also an Ethiopian-owned Mexican and an Ethiopian-owned Italian restaurant.
The Ethiopian population in the Washington, D.C. metro area is the largest in the U.S. Tutu Belay, who has done extensive research on the population for her business, estimates it to be about 250,000 — though other estimates are much lower.
But it is large enough that there is even a second unofficial Little Ethiopia in Alexandria, Virginia — just over the Potomac River from D.C.
Proof that in the Ethiopian community, where there is one entrepreneur, dozens more will follow.