The fast-casual market has already swallowed up Mexican burritos, American hamburgers, seasonal salads, Italian pizzas, Vietnamese sandwiches, and it's still hungry for more. Enter Ethiopian natives Yisak Fiseha and Selam Gebreyes, who have fresh meat to feed the beast: their breezy new take on Ethiopian cuisine.
The husband-and-wife team opened Ethio Express Grill on Nov. 18 at 952 Sligo Ave. in Silver Spring, just a door or two down from Jackie's. The couple left the software industry to try their hand in the hospitality business, hoping to find a niche in the rapidly growing fast-casual market.
"We were looking at the Ethiopian food business," Fiseha explained over the phone. "We thought it can be presented in a better way than it is being presented now."
Fiseha laid out his multi-point plan to make Ethiopian cuisine "more mainstream" and "more accessible": Ethio Express, he says, is conceived to prepare meals fresher, cheaper, faster and healthier than the standard peddler of Ethiopian platters.
The "fresher" part boils down to a decision the owners made to focus on, as the best fast-casual concepts do, only one or two dishes. In Ethio Express's case, it deals in grilled tibs. You can select your protein (beef, chicken, lamb or tofu), your base (injera, pita, spaghetti, brown rice or mixed greens) and your sauce (Ethio hot, Ethio mild, yogurt honey, among others).
Unlike the Ethiopian stews known as wats, tibs can be prepared fresh to order on the grill. "You cannot make a stew quickly," Fiseha said. "You have to make it and store it in the refrigerator. . . If you store it, it's not fresh anymore."
The "healthier" component is simple. Ethio Express prepares its tibs not with spiced Ethiopian butter (called niter kibbeh) but with a blended olive and canola oil. "It's good for health," Fiseha promised.
As for "cheaper" and "faster," Ethio Express will prepare you a meal for around $10 and hand it to you in less time than it takes the average Ethiopian shop to trot out a platter of injera covered with wats, tibs, salads and whatnot. As you might suspect, the owners worked with a fast-casual consultant in conceptualizing their 40-seat restaurant, which probably explains its clean lines and its penchant for over-explaining the cuisine (see graphic on how to eat Ethiopian food with injera).
As you also might suspect, Ethio Express is ripe for expansion. But Fiseha quickly batted down those expectations — for now.
"That's some time down the road," he said. "We don't want to grow too fast because you have to make it work. We have to market it. We have to make people love it. We have to fine tune it. You know, make it enjoyable."
"I don't think expansion is going to be a big problem," he added, "if we have something that people like."