The three women under this food tent each left Ethiopia at different times and for different reasons.
Tigist Anberber’s husband got a better job in the United States in 2001.
Genet Moraetes would pass by dead bodies lying in the street on her way to work; she worried about her safety if she stayed there.
“You just didn’t know what was going to happen the next day, so you had to get out,” Moraetes said. “It was a risk.”
For Saba Gebresilassie, who moved from her native country in 2011, “There was no peace ever.”
But here they are, wearing traditional dresses and serving food they grew up with, on a Saturday in Davenport.
On this morning, they don’t talk about the hard times. They put on Ethiopian music and continue filling plates for a steady stream of customers.
“And when we aren’t busy, we dance,” Moraetes said, turning the volume up on a nearby stereo. “This was our dream — and it’s here.”
They met a few years ago at a mutual friend’s house in the Quad-Cities and started sharing recipes with each other. They took traditional dishes to work parties and went home with empty containers.
“We all had the same dream to open a real Ethiopian restaurant here, and we didn’t know that about each other,” Moraetes said. “And then we talked about it.”
They contacted Quad-Cities SCORE, (previously known as the Service Corps of Retired Executives but now simply is SCORE), a nonprofit organization that provides free business mentoring services to entrepreneurs. Then they teamed up with the Quad-Cities Food Hub’s small-business incubator program. The food hub, which also has worked with Cinnamon-N-Sage and Friday’s Fresh Market, offers a community kitchen at an hourly rate and guidance for vendors just starting out.
“It teaches them what it takes to be a vendor at the farmers market and what it would take to be a small business with some support from us,” said Liz Hogan, the food hub’s operations manager. “The farmers market can be intimidating because it’s so big, so we help them figure it out. We’re that stepping stone.”
In May, the Taste of Ethiopia food tent opened on the food hub’s outdoor deck. The tent is open from about 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. Saturday near the Freight House Farmers Market, but it’s technically not a vendor there.
After a few months, Hogan said she’s confident Taste of Ethiopia will do well on its own.
“They’re very popular and already have a big customer base,” she said. “A lot of people want to know why they aren’t here more, and a lot of people are figuring out how much they like Ethiopian food for the first time.”
One of those customers is Rana Rand, 38, of Rock Island. She brings a few containers to fill with food each Saturday.
“I can’t get this anywhere else, so I buy in bulk to eat it at home whenever,” she said. “This will last me a week.”
Their best-seller is key wot, a sirloin beef stewed in sauce and spices served with injera, a flat and sponge-like bread, salad and sides such as spicy lentils, rice, split peas and greens.
“There are a lot of us here who like diversity in our food and like different flavors,” Rand said. “I think there’s a misconception about the Midwest having no diversity in the food, and it’s not true. This is as good Ethiopian food as you could get anywhere else.”
When she gets a break, Anberber walks down the deck and checks in with customers about their meals.
“What did you think of our food?” she asked Tim Faith, who moved to Chicago after he graduated from Augustana College, Rock Island, and was in town for the weekend.
“I think the Quad-Cities is ready for an Ethiopian restaurant, and this should be the place,” Faith said. “This is comparable to anything you’d find in Chicago, and I wish it would’ve been here when I was here.”
Anberber is a full-time nurse at Trinity Rock Island and wakes up around 4 a.m. Saturday to prepare food.
“I don’t even get tired when I’m here,” she said. “We get so much energy from the customers when they say they like our food.”
The three women didn’t know each other in Ethiopia, but they became fast friends in the Quad-Cities. They typically drive to Chicago every Sunday with their families for church and to pick up groceries at international stores.
“Ever since I came over, I bought my own food and cooked my own food,” Anberber said. “I have to get my spicy food in once a day.”
And, it seems now, so do their customers.
“We’re introducing our culture to the Quad-Cities,” she said. “We’re home here, but we say that we also bring part of our culture to you.”