If you enjoy cooking, you know how essential seasoning is in every dish. Cayenne, garlic powder, paprika, ground ginger, and so many other distinct flavors bring dishes to life. In many areas, immigrants have brought the tastes of home and blended it with the flavors of their new home, producing some of the best cuisines we know. When Chinese immigrants immigrated to America during the California Gold Rush, they brought their cuisine with them. Today we know the cuisine well, and you can find a Chinese restaurant in most urban towns. In the DC Metropolitan area, Ethiopian Immigrants have done the same with their cuisine. Small-town restaurant owners and self-taught family cooks helped diversify the food industry within the DMV area.
Twenty seven-year-old Nathaniel Fikru tells us that "Ethiopian Americans aren't just restaurant owners; they are entrepreneurs. They own parking garages, taxi firms, grocery stores, travel agencies, and more." Nathaniel is the son of two Ethiopian immigrants that used their roots to make a life for themselves in the United States. Nathaniel's parents migrated to the US in 1987. His dad arrived first, and his mother came shortly after. Both his mom and dad had started some upper-level education in Ethiopia, but like other immigrants, the prospect of relocating to America was an opportunity they could not resist. However, moving to the US didn't mean immediate success.
Nathaniel tells us that his dad was a taxi driver, "but my parents started noticing a lot of Ethiopians moving to the DMV area, and it was becoming a hub." Nathaniel said his parents observed a lot of the Ethiopian families trying to make injera (Ethiopian Bread). "My parents started to think, why not start manufacturing it for people," Nathaniel added. He told us that people did like their injera, and it became a staple in a lot of people's homes, so around 2000, they decided to create a convenience store called WODER Ethiopia.
Nathaniel told us that his parents didn't understand the American business structure at first. There were many challenges, but they never gave up. WODER Ethiopia started as a restaurant but has transitioned into a convenience store that disperses its products to other businesses around the DMV. WODER Ethiopia is a staple in their community.
Nathaniel grew up in the store. He'd eat in the back, and on weekends he would stay there. Sometimes, he and his sister would sleep in a corner room if it were too late. Eventually, the two of them were helping out as cashiers. Growing up in a business-minded household shifted the way Nathaniel saw the world and how a business could help communities. "I still have a vivid memory of my parents purchasing the store. Parts of it were still under construction. There wasn't a conventional kitchen. Concrete was everywhere," Nathaniel shared with us. Nathaniel shared that he has met a lot of people in the community because of the family business. "I use to joke around with my sister that we couldn't act up when we went to downtown Silver Spring because people would see us, and they'd know our parents," Nathaniel remarked. "I grew up in a very tight-nit multigenerational household, and business is what we do," he added. What their family does brings people together, and now Nathaniel wants to do the same with his own business.
Nathaniel shared that, "growing up in the Wheaton area, I was always surrounded by a variety of cultures. The Ethiopian community was very large, but I also grew up around a variety of other cultures, including the Latino community and other black/African communities. I always felt comfortable and at home." When he went to high school, the school was a completely different demographic. He went from a middle school with a large immigrant population to a high school where he was in the minority. Though he was bullied for it at times, he was very proud of his roots and wanted others to be too. "Many other diaspora members and first generation immigrants don't know the beauty of their home. Some don't know their language, cuisine, regions. I was blessed to have that," he told us. Now, he wants to help people start to connect with their roots through his spices. This desire is a part of why he founded Diaspora Foods.
When you look at the spices in your home, you probably see McCormick, Sazon Goya, Spice Islands, but its time to add Diaspora Foods. Nathaniel shared that "We have so much life and vibrance in African dishes, but we need to make that accessible. We have to be able to capture immigrants as well as those born in America." Diaspora Foods wants to bridge generations through cuisine. Diaspora Foods isn't just targeting the Ethiopian diaspora. They are inviting other diaspora groups to be a part of what they are building. Diaspora Foods wants different cultures to work together and wants to help the African diaspora master the art of their cuisine and pass the wisdom forward to future generations that follow. Diaspora Foods intends to teach the world about the outstanding flavor and intimacy of our African seasonings.
If you're wondering how to support Nathaniel and Diaspora Foods, he says it's not [just] about knowing how to make food. It's about finding people who know skills that are needed. From web designing, branding, supply chain, all are welcome. "My parents and the rest of my family have been the most supportive. They know what good products taste like," Nathaniel shared. He wants partnerships with people from different backgrounds that will have the same support from their family. "I want people to see diaspora foods and say they will buy it over McCormick," he added.
When we sat down as a team and thought about Nathaniel's story, we couldn't help but see that his family's store became the spices the community needed. Much like his parents, Nathaniel is using his roots to branch out to new spaces. His willingness to remain authentic and proud of his heritage has helped him create a business that will change the way we eat. Perhaps one day, we will learn to see our roots as the spices in whatever "melting pot" we are in. We love Nathaniel's story, and we can't wait to share more about Diaspora Foods' success.
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