During the economic recession that plagued the United States of America, and the rest of the world for that matter, Solomon Bekele and Mulu Habteselassie were in the middle of opening their Ethiopian themed market, Alem, in Wisconsin, a state that is not known for having an extensive Ethiopian community (at least when compared to states like Virginia and California). At the time, they were the only business on the block but their vegan meals and extensive buffets quickly made them popular.
Mulu says that owning a restaurant has always been her dream; a dream she inherited from her mother who passed away in 2005. Her mother’s death served as extra motivation to realise their shared dream and create something that commemorates both her national and familial roots. When the couple came across the space they now occupy, in the middle of downtown Milwaukee they knew it was meant to be. The name of the market, Alem, was chosen in honor of Mulu’s late mother.
Mulu is responsible for the preparation of all the recipes that are also her own. Cooking and simply being active in the kitchen remind her of her childhood when she used to watch her mother cooking meals for the family. In Ethiopia, it is customary for young girls to be present in the kitchen from a young age and learn from the older women. Mulu had learnt how to cook by the time she was 8.
Vegan choices are some of the most popular offerings the restaurant has and the couple seem intent on making that their biggest selling point. Mulu asserts that she mostly eats vegan herself and loves cooking the vegan dishes. Of course, regardless of the kind of meal, Ethiopian food is incomplete without a vast array of spices.
The market gets its spices from suppliers in Minnesota as well as a few key ingredients from Ethiopia.
Their story of resilience and dream weaving, however, has taken an unexpected and difficult turn due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, the couple’s business only provides takeout and curbside services and the menu has been drastically cut down to accommodate the reduced customer flow. Not to mention, Solomon and Mulu are the ones handling every aspect of service now to cut down costs and remain open.
The couples are optimistic, however, considering that they have survived this long, and are more or less settling in for the long haul. One of the key factors they cite in their drive to survive is their passion for their work. They say that their business is not just a money-making endeavor, but also a way for them to stay connected to their roots and share the memories that built them with their community.
Both Mulu and Solomon have a special place for ‘Doro wot’ given its association with the holiday season and the hustle and bustle that accompanies that. The fond memories they have of those times and their desire to impart that sense of community through food certainly has been the life force for their business so far and there is no reason to assume it won’t carry them through these tough times as well.