The story of Lalibela Ethiopian Restaurant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, could go any number of directions, most of which would make the average person’s head spin.
First, there’s a certain resilience that it takes for a family to start and run a business, fueled both by passion and a crazy high-level of tolerance for uncertainty. And, second, this is an American dream story about leaving a homeland steeped in a rich history, starting life in a strange place, and introducing people to an exciting, new-to-them food.
(By the way, the menu at Lalibela is excellent. We’ll save the Sambusa for the end, but think meat or vegetable filled pockets of goodness that you’ll long for and revisit in your mind days after you’ve eaten them.)
Being an entrepreneur is like walking a tightrope while juggling awkwardly shaped objects. So, when Bank Midwest called and asked to spend an hour or so chatting about Lalibela, owners Mulugeta and Marta Endayehu, like so many entrepreneurs, threw us into their daily routine and made the meeting happen. The old adage, “if you want something done quickly, give it to be busiest person in the company,” seems to apply here. Admittedly, this article won’t even come close to scratching the surface of their story, but it’s a success worth sharing.
Secret Ingredients for Success: Community and Family
Beginning life as a small catering business, Lalibela opened its doors in 2003, a few years after Mulugeta and Marta came to the U.S. In 2018, they took the bold step of purchasing a new location at 200 S. Kiwanis Avenue, and began the process of remodeling it to fit their needs.
We sat down with Mulugeta and asked him the secret to Lalibela’s success. He didn’t attribute it to the long hours, hard work or good food that’s imperative to make it in the restaurant business. No. Rather, he talked about the importance of community.
“During Covid, we closed the restaurant to indoor dining for seven months. Sioux Falls is a strong community, and our customers supported us by ordering takeout as often as they could. That helped a lot.” He also talked about providing excellent customer service. Indeed, while interviewing Mulugeta, followed by dining at Lalibela later that afternoon, we were made to feel like family. This was about creating an experience that many of us could learn from as we strive to make our own customers feel the very same way.
“In the early years, we had our doubts that Lalibela would be a success. It was risky. Strong financial management was important then, and it is now,” Mulugeta also mentioned having discipline and relying on business partners for help to provide guidance when needed. When asked the advice he’d give to others thinking about starting a business, “Go for it. If it doesn’t work out, you could always go back to what you were doing.”
Lalibela is named in honor of the town where Mulugeta’s parents grew up, an area most widely-known for 11 rock-hewn medieval churches dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries. An UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lalibela has also long been regarded as an important Christian pilgrimage site.
Connection to family is important to Mulugeta and Marta. “Each year we close for a week to go on vacation with our two children. We have visited many places in the United States. Our customers understand this is important, because many of them are also like family.” Again, we spent a considerable amount of talking about the importance of community and family. Clearly these are the foundation for Lalibela’s success.
Big Flavor Made Fresh to Order
What about the food, you ask? It might be the most creative thing you’ve eaten in a while, and you’ll want to go back. Sooner than later. The menu is diverse with meat, fish and vegetarian options, and seasoning levels were adjustable to certain palates.
At Lalibela, you eat the meal using injera, a sort of flatbread, and your hands. Sharing a meal this way with others was almost as good as the food, and measures to protect against the spread of Covid were thoughtful. We all had something a little different, but started the meal with Sambusa for the table. These wonderful triangular pastries are accompanied by a delightful dipping sauce, almost a meal unto themselves. The difficult part about going back, besides how quickly you’ll want to return, is deciding what to eat next. Everything is fresh and made to order, and you will not leave you hungry. Key takeaway here – we ate some outstanding food.
Like all businesses, best practices and success comes in many different sizes, and often you can’t point to exactly what makes them stand out. In Lalibela’s case, they have a combination that just works. Recently, Lalibela and owners Mulugeta and Marta Endayehu were highlighted on an episode of the popular Food Network show, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Good for them and good for the Sioux Falls community. Congratulations!
Community Bank Helping Community Businesses
Bank Midwest started in 1882 to solve a business need, and that continues to this day for businesses throughout South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota. Our purpose is to help customers Dream Big, Plan Wisely, and Live Well. In Lalibela’s case, they seem to have recipe for all three.
To learn more about making your business dream become a reality, talk to one of our experienced business lenders near you.
Find Lalibela on Facebook.