Gourmets who judge a community by the diversity of its restaurants marked the opening of Abyssinia restaurant on Wickenden Street in Providence last spring as the moment the capital city finally got its first Ethiopian eatery.
Broadening the city’s tastes is a source of pride at Abyssinia, but only part of the goal at the restaurant, which was conceived by native Rhode Islander Ben Phorp with an East African friend to help Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees in the Ocean State get on their feet.
A few months shy of its first year in business, Phorp has now learned how difficult the notoriously unforgiving restaurant industry really is, especially for those not only short on business experience, but experience with American language and culture.
“When we first opened everyone was excited and there was a line out the door – we were full every night,” Phorp said while seated in one of the red banquettes in the dining room before a recent weeknight dinner service. “But at the end of the night we were [still] losing money. It was very stressful.”
After a few months of long work weeks and no profits, the Eritrean couple Phorp and his wife first started the restaurant with went back to the stability of their jobs at the Ocean State Job Lot distribution center in North Kingstown.
Overcoming the language barrier and getting used to the fast pace and demands of the American service sector have proven more difficult than anticipated for the refugees Abyssinia has hired, many of them with only a year or so in the country.
“At an American restaurant, it’s so intense and exhausting that at the end of the night everyone goes out and gets [drunk],” Phorp said. “But here everything is slower and everyone is happier,” but the result is it takes more staff to handle the workload.
Phorp said his labor costs, around 50 percent of his total expenses, are much higher than other restaurants and the current business model does not appear sustainable without bringing in Western staff or sacrificing the quality of the food.
Ethiopian and Eritrean food, which is essentially the same, as the two countries were one until recently, is famous for being eaten with sourdough bread instead of utensils. But it also features a lot of fresh vegetables and meat, which aren’t cheap.
A former teacher at Bishop Hendrickson High School, Phorp, who refinanced his house to open the restaurant, estimates the enterprise has already lost at least $100,000 so far.
“At a certain point during the summer, we realized the challenges [the refugees] face are just bigger than we expected, we had to face the choice of firing these people and bringing in American workers, or we hang onto them and try to absorb those costs,” Phorp said. “Our impetus from the beginning was not to make a lot of money and become a restaurateur, but to help people.”
So Abyssinia is now exploring becoming, at least in part, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching refugees English-language and job skills, with the restaurant serving as a real-world training ground.
Phorp is forming a partnership with the Providence Granola Project, which provides jobs making granola for refugees from Burundi, Myanmar, Bhutan and Iraq.
He has also reached out to Johnson & Wales and Brown universities to see if they can provide assistance.
“We are looking for a kind of hybrid model where we can keep it going without losing money,” Phorp said.
Working from a host station at the front of the dining area on a quiet afternoon at the restaurant, Asmerome Kidame, who moved to the United States from Eritrea in 2009, serves stories about his time in the Ethiopian Navy and seven years in a refugee camp along with dishes of Ye’Beg Wot, a spicy lamb stew.
“We tell them the history, about how it was when Haile Selassie was king, before everyone started fighting, and the people every day tell me they like that,” Kidame said. “You used to have to go to New York or Boston and now it is in Rhode Island. I am happy about that.”
If a new “social entrepreneurship” model for Abyssinia does not emerge, Phorp said the restaurant will likely have to close, as he cannot imagine trying to run it as a regular American restaurant.
“Even if we did have to close our doors, my credit would be shot, but it would have been worth it,” Phorp said. •