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Behind the business: Addis NOLA brings good vibes and a taste of Ethiopia to New Orleans

It’s no secret that New Orleans is one of the most popular destinations in the United States, made even more highly sought after by its food scene. Commonly known as “The Big Easy” for its laid-back, easy-going vibe, the city is represented by an energetic nightlife, vibrant music scene, and eclectic cuisine. A melting pot of French, African, and American cultures, the city’s restaurant scene reflects its rich history and cultural diversity, offering everything a foodie could ever want.

One of the newer additions to this famous culinary scene is Addis NOLA. Opened last spring, this Ethiopian restaurant’s name combines “Addis” for the capital city of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, and “NOLA” for New Orleans. Priding itself on offering an authentic, multi-sensory dining experience, Addis NOLA has one main goal: to connect its customers to the motherland through good vibes and delicious food. 

Rooted in some of the oldest cultural traditions in the world, Ethiopian cuisine is all about human connection. The ideology behind appreciating the food you’re eating as well as deepening the relationships with the people you’re dining with was a critical incorporation for founder Dr. Biruk Alemayehu when she opened the restaurant in 2019. Perhaps most important to Addis NOLA is a plate called injera—a sourdough-risen flatbread made from teff flour, originating from the Horn of Africa. It has a spongy texture and is eaten with your hands. Often used as both the serving platter and utensil for any meal, injera is considered the most important component of any Ethiopian meal and is made fresh every day in the Addis NOLA kitchen. 

We talked with Biruk’s son, Prince Lobo, to hear more of the story behind the restaurant, understand the importance of food to Ethiopian culture, and find out how—despite the hardships of 2020—Addis NOLA continues to contribute positive energy and authentic cuisine to New Orleans.

What was the inspiration behind Addis NOLA? 

Man, Addis NOLA. Even just saying the name brings me so much joy. It was essentially a conversation that me and my mother had about two years ago in 2018 of December. We were just sitting in her car. She was like, “I really want to see something in New Orleans change, as far as first, African representation and second, really good Ethiopian food.” Sometimes it’s a little harder in New Orleans. The conversation is, “What’s the possibility that we can make something like this happen in New Orleans?” 

At the time, my mom was a professor at Southern University at New Orleans, so it didn’t make any sense whatsoever for a professor, given their schedules, to try to attempt to build a successful small business, as far as a hospitality sense goes. She did it a week later. She kind of surprised me with it. When she first told me about it, I was like, “You should just do a little pop up, start to increase demand, let people start to see what’s going on with the food. Go to different places, and just bring some of the dishes that you put together.” And she was just like, “Yeah, okay. Okay.” 

Two weeks later, she calls me. She says, “Hey, I want you to visit this location.” She was doing real estate at the time. So we come here, the place that we’re at right now for a year. We’re in this space. We go and talk to the landlord, and she’s like, “So I was thinking of an Ethiopian restaurant.” I was looking at her like, “Are you serious? Are you joking? What’s going on?” Then she just made it happen from there. That day, I thought: This area—we could make it work. Tulane and Broad is pretty iconic. It has history. So from there it just took off. We didn’t stop. 

It was hard taking that leap of faith, but I think that she had been manifesting it for a very long time. From there it’s been nothing but hard work, being consistent, and being extremely persistent in the vision and the goal of bodies, NOLA, the brain, truly authentic Ethiopian cuisine, East African cuisine, culture, and the love and embracement of what that feels like to be in New Orleans. And there’s no better place than New Orleans, right? 

Why is this city a fitting spot for Addis NOLA?

Because it almost feels as if I’m describing New Orleans in that same sense. The love, the culture, the cuisine, the food, all of it. They have those similarities and those parallels. So why don’t these two lines intersect? Why isn’t there something strong and solidifying within the community where people can leave their home but at the same time feel at home within New Orleans but also take a short trip to the motherland—the place from which we all derive, in Ethiopia of course. The oldest trace of human bones in the world is in Ethiopia. When I tell people welcome home, you can see what I mean.

It’s New Orleans—they don’t play games with food out here. It’s not a joke. It is people’s livelihood. It is everything that’s built this place to be such a place that it is. People around the world have New Orleans as their top three places to visit in the entire world, and that’s for a reason.

So it’s no game. We can’t play. We can’t short stuff, and we don’t intend to. That’s where things like our Ethiopian coffee ceremony, paying a lot of attention to detail, making sure we have fresh produce, and immersing people in our culture… we have to make sure that we’re setting ourselves apart from the crowd and the immense renaissance of amazing restaurants in New Orleans. It’s unbelievable. 

What are some factors that make Addis NOLA unique and help it stand out amongst a very competitive restaurant scene?

The most important, essential part of Ethiopian cuisine—the injera. The bread itself. Whew, that’s everything! You don’t got no good injera? Baby, what are we talking for?! It takes three days to make. This is where you can see all of the love that we have as a family get distributed, across every sector that we operate in. The injera takes three days to prepare. Three entire days—72 hours—to prepare injera for our customers. 

That means on Wednesday we’re preparing already for Saturday. All those mixtures had to be put into account. The numbers and calculations have to be put into account to make sure whenever Saturday comes—which is a really busy day for us—everybody can get the love that we put into the food. 

That along with the Doro Wat—the national dish of Ethiopia. It takes at minimum eight hours to put the white sauce together. It’s a slow simmer to caramelize the onions and get those flavors and that spice of the Berbers out. That’s something extremely special. That’s a spiritual dish right there. In the morning of Christmas and New Years, the women go out and get the onions, chop the onions, break them down, and do the simmering. While they are doing this, the men go out and grab the chicken, the lamb, behead it, cut it, clean it, and skin it until it’s ready to create those conversion points. Once those things come together, they can create a special, spiritual, and nursing dish to celebrate any holiday. 

Our customers truly love that experience. I think I love it even more knowing just how much time it takes and understanding the depth of everything that happens in the back to make this product that people enjoy and experience the circle of the plate. Even the tables are circled. Everybody at the table together in unity, coming together, and just really strengthening their bonds while sitting at the table with no distractions. It’s hard to be on your phone with your hands filthy with injera. 

How has the pandemic affected the way your family works together?

That is an easy answer. This is the closest this family has ever been in a three months span. We really had to learn a lot about each other—our strengths, our weaknesses, and the best way to work with one another. There was a lot of toe stepping for the first month, but that just shows how much every individual person wants to make sure that what we’re doing is done the right way. It’s a good thing, but you just have to make sure it’s focused in the right direction and not at each other. 

Both of my parents are PhD professors. What we’re doing right now, if you were to look at it on paper, you would be like, what? Family, blood, and culture are the main things that bring us all together to do this. My father is relentless, it is unbelievable. It’s like clockwork, it just doesn’t stop. It’s in his biology. He’s just moving, just relentlessly unstoppable. It’s combining that with my mom. She puts a lot of love here. She’s really the back bone and a lot of where this all starts. From there, we just continue to push that out. My fire, his relentlessness, and my mom’s love. You put all that together and send it in the right direction, then it’s unstoppable. COVID can’t stop it. 

We’ve broken through every single boundary or barrier up against us in 2020. If there ever comes a time where we’re challenged, when we are put up against a test and we need to find a solution, we will every single time. Together we will be successful. If we have each other, there is nothing that we cannot do, and I truly in my heart believe that. 

What type of experience is Addis NOLA trying to deliver during a tough 2020?

Unity, coming together for a good cause. Especially with everything that’s happening right now, there’s no better message that needs to be portrayed. Throughout this entire 2020, our food is extremely important. It’s essential for us to continue to stay in business and grow and improve. While we’re here on Broad Street and Tulane, we want to experience what it really feels like. We don’t know where some people come before they get here. We don’t know what happens at home. We don’t know anything about that, but whenever they’re here in our space, it’s love. That’s it. 

A hundred percent love, paying attention to detail, and just making sure that they’re catered to in every sense. It all comes from where we started in the motherland to coming to New Orleans. That accumulation builds up to what’s on people’s plate. It’s truly the best feeling. I can try my best to describe it in words but you just have to experience it and see what it feels like when they’re in our space. I think that’s what’s going to allow us to stay in New Orleans for a very long time. Our plan is to be here for as long as possible to really start building that community and everything that’s around us too. Addis NOLA, man. Addis NOLA. Addis Ababa and New Orleans coming together to a convergent land and culture and embracing people. I just love it. 

What other traditions do you have in place to educate your customers on Ethiopian culture?

On our menus, the first thing you’ll see is our Addis NOLA logo and then Amharic, our Fidäl alphabet. You’ll see the symbols which translate to the same thing that you’re seeing in English. It looks almost like Arabic because it is a Semitic language. 

[Below that are] two different sections. One side is Addis Dialect, a compass to guide people through the menu and deepen the experience that they’re getting and exposure they have to Ethiopian and East African culture. The other side has some terms and phrases that people can use. There’s one thing I like to do with people who come for the first time. I always challenge them to try and tell me “Thank you” after a water—but in Amharic only. It’s always a good thing to see people who are partaking in those types of things. That’s another way that a lot of people can deepen their experience when they come here. 

Another example is the Ethiopian coffee roasting ceremony. It’s our unique signature. We will fill this entire place with coffee smoke—engulfed with the aroma, the aromatic sense, the aromatic earthiness, and love with the coffee beans. The coffee bean started in Ethiopia, so it is an expression for them. Another expression for them is to show their appreciation for you.

An Ethiopian coffee ceremony is an important social occasion that holds a large cultural significance in Ethiopia. It is traditionally performed by the woman of a household as a sign of respect and friendship during gatherings and celebrations. During the coffee ceremony, the room is prepared for the spiritual ritual with incense, and raw coffee beans are roasted and processed into coffee.

How has the pandemic affected Addis NOLA given that human interaction is so critical to the overall dining experience?

There was definitely a disconnect with everything being takeout since we’re all about connection. There’s a really big piece of Ethiopian culture called Gursha. The act of Gursha is literally the act of feeding someone—like a close relative, a really great friend, or family member—food directly from your hand into their mouth. We started to see things that bring us together come to a close—large family gatherings, things that we can hope on, things that we can plan for next week or the week after that. And it’s okay. Health is first and foremost, but now, how do you really connect? 

It spans across the entire market of hospitality and entertainment. That’s where our website came into play. We had a solidified website where you could order before. But now, we share more stories. More of the things that we believe in we started sharing on our webpage and Instagram to try to connect through ways that we can’t in person. So people are ordering takeout and to-go, but at the same time, you can just look at our Instagram and you’ll feel maybe a fraction of comfort while you’re enjoying amazing Ethiopian food as you’re listening to either me or somebody else talk about the food. Or just yelling. I think I posted something on Instagram of me just yelling

How have you managed to stay positive, and how is this positive energy engrained in Addis NOLA?

Oh my goodness. I told you—that fire, baby. I’m on fire. I’m on fire all the time. I wake up, and I just roar. I like to say, just breathe. I do that every morning. Whenever we get here in the morning, we just breathe, like breathing exercises. Just appreciating being alive and appreciating life for what it is. Everything is an opportunity. Everything is a blessing. Appreciating the simplicity. I still don’t have the words for it—just simply being alive is like, “Wow.” Whenever I yell, “Let’s goooo,” it’s kind of like a wake up call. Like an alarm in the morning people are trying to turn off. “Wake up. Wake up, let’s go. AHHHH!” [Screams]. Then just breathe. Damn, that’s beautiful.

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