How sweet it is: Harlem food Startup Gets a Lift

June 8, 2012

Taste of Ethiopia, a food business launched in Harlem less than one year ago, is about to get a taste of stardom.

The fledgling company, which makes fresh Ethiopian dishes sold at local markets like Whole Foods and Foragers City Grocer, is one of four New York food manufacturers who’ve won the city’s first ever competition to be showcased at the Summer Fancy Food Show.

The winners also include Chulita’s Famous, a Latin sofrito maker in Long Island City; Morris Kitchen, an artisanal syrup company in Williamsburg; and Davidovich Bakery, a Queens bagel manufacturer.

They’ll all be heading to the Fancy Food Show in Washington D.C. on June 17, where their products will be sampled by some of the country’s premier food buyers, the kind of exposure that is rare for startups.

“It’s a huge deal,” said Hiyaw Gebreyohannes, 31, Taste of Ethiopia’s founder.

The contest is part of the city’s larger effort to heat up local food production, which has continued to expand locally even as manufacturing overall has declined.

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Looking to keep the momentum going, the city funds two local food incubators which provide low-cost commercial kitchen space and mentoring: The Entrepreneur Space in Long Island City and Hot Bread Kitchen at La Marqueta in Harlem, where Taste of Ethiopia is based.

As of 2010, there were nearly 1,000 food companies in the city, employing 14,262, up from 872 businesses in 2005.

While employment has grown modestly, the sector is seen as an important provider of jobs to New York’s immigrant population.

Immigrants make up as much as 70% of the city’s food workforce, according to a report by the New York Industrial Retention Network.

At the same time, many local food companies are started by foreigners: Three out of four of the winners of the contest are immigrants.

“You have someone who comes to the United States and one thing they bring is an ability to make food,” Seth Pinsky, president of the New York City Economic Development Corp., told the Daily News. “They start out of their kitchens and they want to move to the next step.”

Born in Djibouti, which borders Ethiopia, Gebreyohannes came to the U.S. when he was a year and half. He grew up in the food business, helping his immigrant parents run Ethiopian restaurants in Michigan.

After running a midtown African fusion restaurant, a year ago Gebreyohannes saw an opportunity to sell a line of fresh, vegan, Ethiopean prepared foods, along with gluten free injera bread.

He made his first sale last summer to Foragers and has moved along quickly from there. Today, Taste of Ethiopia sells to 15 stores in Manhattan and Brooklyn, employs five and will have sales this year nearing $200,000.

“The goal is to be nationwide,” Gebreyohannes said.

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