Waft into Lalibela and the music and seductive spices in this sunset-colored restaurant greet you as a warm African breeze blowing along the spice road. It is simpler and more serene than most ethnic restaurants, not unlike its owner. Selamawit Tesfaye, called “Mimi,” moved to Westchesterfrom Ethiopiasome 16 years ago. She worked as a nanny and took ESL classes to learn English, and then waited tables to learn the trade before opening Lalibela, an Ethiopian restaurant in MountKisco. Initially, even Community Capital turned her loan down. Ethiopian dining has long been and still is a communal, ritualized affair. Portions come arranged on a flat spongy bread low in calories and gluten called injera, which is not only the bread and plate, but also the knife, spoon and fork. Diners tear off a piece and use it to pinch up headily spiced, and in this case, rich and delicious, food. It wasn’t the need to forget that don’t-play-with-your food rule or the gusto necessary to maneuver food from tray to mouth that inspired our initial “no.”
Chopsticks once seemed weird, too. It was her lack of restaurant and marketing expertise, credit cards as cash flow solutions, and the wholesale renovation required of the retail space. But nothing put Mimi off. Typical of our loan clients, her determination and resourcefulness led her to open anyway. She serves Ethiopian dishes, stewed or braised meats with soothing yet exotic tastes nuanced by the native spices berbere and mitmita, washed down with Ethiopian beer or an indigenous honey wine. Both encourage conviviality and aid forgiveness for the inevitable dropped food. A year later, Mimi asked again and is now using a loan from us to market and advertise, install air conditioning and add staff: on weekends, she now employs six. “I started my dream, but Community Capital was my dreamcatcher. Now I can stay open, grow the business, and perhaps open another branch in White Plains.”
Why an Ethiopian restaurant?
My dream was to own my own restaurant. I was originally thinking of a small coffee house. But I love to cook Ethiopian food—I cook on the chef’s days off or when she’s on vacation—and the only good Ethiopian restaurants were in Manhattan or a long drive to New Jersey.
How did your business evolve?
I used my personal credit cards and had a lot of help from family and friends. The location was critical. I chose Mount Kisco because I needed a town with a diverse population comfortable with ethnic food—but not too big that a restaurant like this would get lost. Once we secured the lease and took over what was a woodworking shop, we had to build out the kitchen, add a bar and another bathroom (with handicap access). Customers accepted eating with their hands—utensils are available on request, but people don’t usually want to use them. It ruins the fun. We found a source for the injera in Idaho, but import Yirgacheffe (Ethiopian) coffee, which we roast every morning. The coffee is more like Turkish, but it’s not muddy. You drink it from a small cup, black. I drink it three times a day. We keep our spices subtle and mild. I found it’s best to use a medium blend and put hot pepper on the table.
How will Community Capital’s loan help?
We can generate new and steady clientele by advertising in local newspapers and magazines. We’ve been lucky—we’ve gotten Best of Westchester awards and great write ups, but people still don’t know we’re here. We want to reach people in Scarsdale, Yonkers, Brewster and will use all the local papers that every town has. Once people come, they come back.
Your menu favorites?
Our signature dish, Doro Wat, a chicken drumbstick served with spiced butter and a hard-boiled egg and Lamb Tips.
And the name?
My mother comes from near Lalibela, which is a very holy Christian city in northern Ethiopia. And it’s catchy and easy to pronounce. (Judging from the picture on the wall, it’s also very scenic).
What’s the best advice you got along the way?
Don’t give up. Dreams matter. Follow them.
When did you know you’d arrived?
When the New York Times and Westchester Magazine gave us great reviews. But it’s still hard. There are days that are slow. When I’m in business two or three years, then perhaps I’ll think I’ve made it.
A vacation. A three day break with my boyfriend (of six years) to the Catskills. The tough part is not being able to take a vacation or a weekend off—Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays are our busiest. When my friends and my mother or sisters ask when I’m going to get married and have a baby, I tell them I already am married. And I have a new baby. It’s part of running your own business. And it’s worth it.