Henok Tesfaye | From Valet to Used-Car Dealer

Monday, December 11, 2006

The way Henok Tesfaye's mother smiles as she serves up some spicy doro wat in her U Street restaurant wasn't part of the business plan that got Tesfaye a $35,000 microloan. But it's certainly part of the result.

The story of how Tesfaye, who immigrated from Ethiopia at 16, was able to give his mother her own restaurant begins in the mid-1990s. Taking college courses and valet-parking cars in downtown Washington, he dreamed of bigger things. "While I was working, my mind always wanted to open my own business," he says.

At 24, he had enough savings to rent a parking lot near 12th and U streets NW for $800 a month. But back then, in 1998, it was such a rough block that few people wanted to park there. So he turned half the space into a used-car lot, buying vehicles from nearby auto auctions and putting up for sale three or four at time. He made just enough to pay the bills.

In 2000, a potential buyer -- a fellow Ethiopian, like most of Tesfaye's customers -- said he planned to finance his purchase with a loan from the Ethiopian Community Development Council's Enterprise Development Group. When Tesfaye called to check, he learned of the group's microfinance program and was told he could probably qualify for a loan.

Months later, he applied. EDG staffers pulled his credit history and reviewed his business plan. He told them that he wanted to expand and needed financing to enable him to bid on contracts to operate parking garages and open a second used-car lot.

"I tried maybe a couple of banks. They said, 'No, you don't have good business history.' I was not in business for enough years," Tesfaye said.

But EDG gave him a chance. Putting up a used Toyota Land Cruiser, Nissan Maxima and a Jeep for collateral, Tesfaye got a $35,000 loan at an interest rate of about 11 percent in 2003. He used it to buy more used cars -- Hondas, Toyotas and Fords, he says, priced between $3,000 and $4,000 -- and open a second small dealership in Bladensburg. He paid off the loan early.

The car businesses did well and Tesfaye's cash flow increased. Relatives who immigrated to Washington joined his company. When a younger brother graduated from college, he helped oversee the business.

Today, Tesfaye's company manages the 1,000-car parking lot at the old Washington Convention Center, as well as valet parking for several Washington area restaurants and clubs, including Fogo de Chao and Republic Gardens. His 50 employees are mostly immigrants, mainly from Ethiopia and Mauritania.

At 32, Tesfaye spends most of his time being a boss. But just in case he's needed at one of the locations, he still keeps a red valet jacket in his car.

"I came to this country with no money, and I'm okay. I have a good life, you know," he said.

Which brings the story back to his mother, Tiwaltengus Shenegelgn. Two years ago, Tesfaye and a brother made enough money to try a different kind of investment -- they bought their mother a place at 9th and U streets NW. She turned it into a stylish Ethiopian restaurant called Etete, her Amharic nickname. The chicken dish called doro wat is a specialty of the house. The proprietor's broad smile is a bonus.

"I am very happy to have my restaurant," Shenegelgn says, clasping her hands before her chest.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company