Cooking Up Community: An Ethiopian Restaurant Embraces Innovation While Honoring a Decades-old Past

Resilient Retail - Rosalind's

Deep in the heart of Los Angeles surrounded by mouth-watering spices and exotic accents is Little Ethiopia. And at the center of Little Ethiopia is Rosalind’s.

The very first Ethiopian restaurant in the area, Rosalind’s has been catering to both Ethiopian transplants and adventurous locals for over 30 years.

Meklit Gebre-Mariam’s father is the personable man who started it all. He’s the kind of well-connected guy who knows everyone, and goes about creating tight-knit community seemingly without trying.

The pandemic put a wrench in all of that. Solving the restaurant’s unique problems meant not just pivoting to online ordering, but pivoting away from a menu and a mindset that hadn’t changed since 1988.

An authentic community playbook

In the business world, creating community is extremely hard. But Rosalind’s has succeeded without following an official playbook. For Meklit’s father, it comes from a true sense of caring. That caring spills over into everything he does - and it’s the secret sauce that attracts repeat customers even more than the food itself. It comes down to the fact that Meklit’s father doesn’t see his customers as a revolving door of business transactions. If they’re local or Ethiopian, he’ll make an effort to truly get to know them, as an inspiring example illustrates.

“One time this woman was talking to me briefly and she was just like, yeah I come every year because it's really nice and nostalgic - she was she was in her 60s.

And she was saying that when she was a little girl, she had an Ethiopian exchange student stay with her. And she's like, I always wish I could connect with her, but like I don't know where I'd find her. You know, she must be like in her 70s somewhere. I was like, you know what? If anyone knows, it would be my dad. Because he knows everyone. Let me go introduce you.

And within five minutes, he was like, oh yeah. I think I have her number here. And they connected. And they were like, we can't wait to eat at the restaurant. After like what, 50 years? This connection just happened.

So it's like they're all these little stories and moments. People will bring their kids and whatnot, or people will meet and have their meet cute moments there. And it's so special to be part of it in some small way.

Meklit Gebre-Mariam, Art Director, Rosalind's Ethiopian Restaurant

Pivoting to a digital menu

A unique cultural trait of Ethiopian food is that it’s traditionally eaten with the hands using injera, an Ethiopian flatbread. Plates are shared with everyone at the table, and there is no silverware in sight. Among Ethiopians, It’s even customary to literally feed others, giving them a bite of food wrapped up in injera as an act of affection.

For some restaurants, transitioning to takeout was no big deal. But for an Ethiopian restaurant, it’s not so simple. For one, the food itself is more complicated. The menu is filled with foreign words and unique flavors that most non-Ethiopian customers aren’t familiar with. Meklit knew they had to find a way to make the menu more approachable in digital form.

“One thing I just want to touch on is just when you mentioned that in-person experience. It's really hard to replicate and bring on digital.

And so when I think about like, when someone who's never had Ethiopian food or even if they've had it like a few times, they still don't know how to order it properly, right. They don't know how to make the plate look really great and how to get a little bit of each portion. When they come to the restaurant, the waiter is there to recommend you, to ask you about what you like and you can have that in-person connection and support.

But during covid when you're just ordering takeout and you're looking at our menu online, you don't have that. And it can be really overwhelming. And like seeing the word Yedoro Wot, Awaze Tibs. And you're like, what do any of these words mean? And that's something that like I had never really thought about. And I think my family, because I also have just been growing up eating Ethiopian food right, I never look at the menu when I order.

“And so making that experience really seamless for your customer. And a big part of that is copy, right. Like educating your customer with the right kind of copy that clarifies things like what portion size is, who this fits best for, what this pairs well with, and so on. And right now we're actually redoing our menu to try to make this as easy as possible.”

Putting a creative spin on copy

In the quest to update the menu, Meklit started with a tiny experiment: renaming one dish to clarify that it was vegan. The results were startling; it quickly became the restaurant’s most popular dish. This led to a complete overhaul of the naming of dishes that had remained static for decades. Items like “Meat Combo One” were soon edited to be more descriptive and enticing to customers scanning the online menu.

“So copy has been a really huge push for us. Even like a few months ago I updated the menu online when we were doing QR codes and all that. And, you know, one of the small things is like our veggie combo is actually vegan. And we don't show that enough. Because if you’re vegan, you walk in, you think oh, maybe it’s just vegetarian. That's not what I came to eat.

And like, our names are really bland. Meat Combo One. Meat Combo Two. Meat Combo Three. And our Veggie Combo. And that's what they've been for over 30 years. And they worked before, and that was fine. You know, if it's not broken, don't fix it.

“And so I just made one small change. And this was I guess last year when we were doing the QR codes. I changed veggie combo to like Vegan Goodness. And my dad called me a few months ago and was like, this is our number one seller. Now he's like, can we have cool names for the other ones now? And I was like, yeah, definitely!”

“He's like, come up with good names, yeah. But it's just like one small change. And people understand it's vegan. Maybe it's more appetizing to you, whatever. And we say, you know, this pairs well with like this entree. And so like there's so much to do. And so like right now as we're updating the menu, we're going through this and thinking about all of these things.”

Embracing Ethiopian fusion

Rosalind’s didn’t stop at updating the menu copy, although that certainly helped. They also started to explore brand new dishes that pushed the envelope of tradition. Inspired by fusion menus in other cultures, Meklit rolled up her sleeves and got creative. She knew from personal experience that modern diners enjoyed light food with interesting flavors. Ethiopian food provided an incredible canvas for playful experimentation.

“I started thinking, when COVID, even after COVID leaves, like people are not necessarily going to want to share plates and eat with their hands with their friends all the time. And also just like the neighborhood demographic had been changing. Like millennials have a preference of how they like to eat things.”

“And we were looking at brands like Tocaya and Sweet Greens and their bowls. And it really got me thinking like, there is no Ethiopian fusion food, or even sort of like a contemporary twist on Ethiopian food at the moment. You'll see it a lot with like Korean and Indian food nowadays, Mexican food. And it's because those immigrants have been here longer than us.

And I was thinking at some point, like, someone's going to do it. Why can't we be the first ones? And if someone does do it, I prefer them to be Ethiopian, right. Because generally, like a lot of the food that's being innovated and these kind of like immigrant communities it’s not being done by them, which is really unfortunate.

And so we were like, let's start small. Because I was thinking already like, oh my God, you could have Ethiopian tacos. You could have like kimchi in there, it can be really awesome! But it was like, I need to take baby steps. Let’s proof the concept.”

The bowl that changed everything

One new dish truly took off: the Sheba Bowl. Originally the bowl was only sold online via the takeout menu. But soon, customers were clamoring for the Sheba Bowl when COVID restrictions eased up and they visited the restaurant in person. The light and delicious addition to the menu showed Meklit and her father that they were onto something. Customers were truly enjoying a fresh perspective on traditional Ethiopian fare.

“We finally came up with the Sheba Bowl. And it's like chicken, plantains, yams, cherry tomatoes, it's over a salad with our house dressing. It's really great, really filling, but still kind of like light. Versus injera I think is really great for like a night out.

And so this is something you could have like during lunch maybe, if you're on the run or you're going to work. But like, people didn't if they were coming from their office or whatnot, you know. It's just like working on the presentation of that. And then also just the presentation of how Ethiopian food can travel better in takeout and all that. And that was a really big process, but it was really great.

“First, we only put it online. We didn't put it on the menu in the restaurant. And people would come into the restaurant and ask for that and sit down, once we started opening up for patio dining. Because they'd seen it online, they were really excited about it. And then we were like, this could be bigger, right?”

Balancing authenticity and innovation

The success of the menu updates was intoxicating, but it was important for both Meklit and her father not to push things too far. After all, the restaurant’s entire purpose was to introduce customers to authentic Ethiopian cuisine. Today, Meklit and her father are constantly balancing business needs and new ideas with tradition. With her knowledge of social media and modern customers, Meklit is a good counterpart to her father’s steady values.

“It was a long process, right. Because we wanted to keep the food authentic. Our whole thing was we're selling authentic Ethiopian food. We're showing Angelenos the best food from Addis, right.”

“And like, giving up injera. Is that a sacrifice? Are we willing to? Like is that selling out? Like that's a core part of Ethiopian food. But I actually thought of it a different way. I was like Ethiopian food has so many amazing flavors, and the food is so rich. It's not just injera. Injera’s just what people know about it. But there’s Kek, it’s like yellow split peas. There's like this chicken stew with Berber. There's Awaze Tibs with beef. And it's all so delicious. And that tastes delicious without injera, you know. And I think there's other stuff we can do with injera. There's like there's a whole future fusion section maybe I'll come up with in like five years.”

Rosalind’s is now Legend-ary

When John Legend stopped by the restaurant recently, it was a surreal moment for Meklit and her family. But Meklit couldn’t stop kicking herself over a missed opportunity to make the moment even more memorable. She had been dragging her feet on adding a sticker with Rosalind’s Instagram to the takeout boxes. Now, she knows worth it to act quickly instead of perfectly.

“So last month, John Legend and Chrissy Teigen ordered from our restaurant. And they really loved the food. It was fantastic. They left us a really nice review - I mean, so Chrissy posted about us on her stories, and John—like I'm friends with them and use their first names...—so John did a really nice like in-feed post, and he called us out and he said Rosalind’s.”

“They were watching Coming 2 America, so they wanted food that would fit the theme. And they had a whole spread, and they did a really nice video and they showed all the food. But they didn’t tag us, OK. And so this makes me so sad because like their combined 40 million followers - I think our family's restaurant has I think like 200 followers right now, we might be closer to 250.

But what kills me is like right before it happened, I had been putting together stickers to put on our takeout boxes. And it was like a cute small sticker that says, like, thanks for ordering, website, phone number, and our IG. And really pushing for these stickers, but I also had been taking my sweet time designing them because I'm a perfectionist. And also again, 200 followers on Instagram.

So I'm not like, oh, we got to do these really quickly or else...and if we had the sticker on there, I'm sure they would have tagged us because they posted such a lovely thing about us. And so it was just (an example of) missed opportunities, and how it's just better to get things out the door quick and done.”

While many restaurants pivoted during the pandemic, the story of Rosalind’s strikes a deeper note. Traditional foods, customs, and values are revered for a reason. But the needs of modern diners and social distancing cannot be ignored.

Thanks to the push-and-pull of father and daughter, tradition and innovation, Rosalind’s has created a menu and approach that’s uniquely suited to the times. And in the face of adversity, they’ve found something special: a community that’s growing faster than ever.

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