As the oldest daughter of 12 siblings, Fetien Gebre-Michael has always felt very comfortable in the kitchen. “My mom would say, Make them something, so I was constantly cooking for a little army, quite literally,” she says. It’s hardly a surprise then that now, with her business partner Yoseph Assefa, Gebre-Michael owns and runs not one but three businesses: Konjo Catering; the Ethiopian Food Truck; and Konjo Ethiopian Food at Edgewater Public Market. She recently spoke with 5280 about growing up in Lakewood, starting her businesses, and the changes she’d like to see amid the Black Lives Matter movement.
The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
5280: How did you come to start a business in Colorado?
Fetien Gebre-Michael: My family immigrated from Ethiopia by way of Israel. There was a war going on in Ethiopia in the 1970s and my parents and two oldest brothers fled, claiming asylum in Jerusalem. Myself and one of my brothers were born there, and we came to the United States as refugees when I was three years old. Even from the beginning, it was a hustle for my parents, who were always pushing to make sure we had better opportunities than what they had. We settled in Lakewood because my parents had some friends there. We were always the only Black family. Always. On that side of town, it was either white or a sprinkle of brown or Latino… and then there was us.
I give kudos to my parents. My father worked 15 hours every day to support all of us; he started Freedom Cabs, had a liquor store at one point, and a few other businesses. They always told us: “Be the best you can be, and don’t worry about what people think about you; you know how great you are.” We all went through college and some of us have Master degrees. In fact, my first time being around Black people that weren’t Ethiopian was in college; I graduated from Metropolitan State University of Denver with a bachelor’s degree in marketing. That was my first experience being around Black people all of the time, and I loved it.
The other side of me that not everyone knows is that I’m a huge lover of reggae music. I love it so much that I wanted to do my own promotions, so I started out with Konjo Promotions in about 2007. Every Sunday, I’d host a weekly reggae night called Club Afrik and I’d sell food there, too. I was doing all regional African food, but when I’d do my own food from Ethiopia, people really liked it.
I incorporated and registered Konjo Catering in 2014. But I was cooking out of my home kitchen for friends and family long before that. It grew from there, catering for lots of non-profits and at community events. Those are really important to me—to see my people and for them to see me.
When did you open the Ethiopian Food Truck?
My partner Yoseph [Assefa] and I launched the truck in 2015. But before that, I was actually going to open a food stall inside what was going to be the Afrikmall on East Colfax. [Afrikmall closed after a year in business; the space is now occupied by Mango House.] It didn’t pan out for me, but Yoseph approached me and asked why we couldn’t get a food truck now since Afrikmall wasn’t working out? It worked out perfectly; the truck took off. And we were the first and only Ethiopian food truck in all of Colorado at that time.
And how did you come to open Konjo Ethiopian Food at Edgewater Public Market?
When Yoseph and I were thinking about our first restaurant, we realized that we should go fast-casual; we could fill that niche for healthy, fast Ethiopian food. We tried to get into Avanti [Food & Beverage] but it has a huge wait list; we’re still on the wait list and it’s been five years! Broadway Market and Tributary [Food Hall & Drinkery] filled up quickly, too, but then Yoseph stumbled onto Edgewater through a friend who also has a truck. Yoseph was constantly showing up at the job site, pushing and pushing until he could get us a spot. There was a vegan concept that dropped out at the last minute and we scooped it up. We planned for a year before the opening [in November 2019], and had a line the entire first day. It was awesome. We didn’t have too many barriers to entry; people there are really nice. Other food halls have been a bit more standoffish towards us, but at Edgewater, customers are excited for our food.
Have you faced any challenges due to your race or gender in starting these businesses?
When it came to starting the truck, there were no issues with race. But when it came to being around other food trucks, being in that community, they just weren’t as open to us. The majority of the food truck owners are white men; I see more female-owned trucks now, which is awesome, but I rarely see Black-owned food trucks, especially when we started. There would be times there would be friction, but we’re just fun-loving people. We don’t care.
When we would do City Park Jazz on Sundays, which I love—it’s one of our highest grossing events of the summer—we had some issues. All the trucks line up and it’s first come, first serve for parking; they direct you in before the crowds arrive. And this one day, we were parked in a spot, and the owner of one of the other trucks was really rude to Yoseph. The man said, “Hey man, that’s our spot.” And Yoseph said, “What do you mean, that’s your spot? Is your name on the ground here?” And the man said, “We always park here.” He tried to almost muscle in, like we didn’t deserve to be in the spot. And we were like, wow. I asked him, “Did you pay for this spot? Did you pay extra for it?” But Yoseph wasn’t going to go there over something so minute. He said to the man, “You go to the organizer and if they say that you can park here, I’ll move.” The man never came back. It’s little things like that we deal with. Friction.
There’s an online food truck Facebook group and there’s tension there, too. People won’t comment on our posts, if we’re looking to fill a spot or asking if there are breweries with openings. There are far more comments on other posts. But we have thicker skin, so it’s fine. We’re just going to hustle. We’ve figured out which areas work for us, where people like our type of food and like our truck being around.
Yoseph may have faced more discrimination because he did the back end work on the truck and starting Konjo Ethiopian at Edgewater; he might not have told me. Our Black men are so used to being treated a certain way, it doesn’t even make them flinch. It’s not something to talk about. It just happens and we all know it. For me, outside of people looking at me sideways like they always do because I’m a Black woman, I just go in and be myself. I say hello and smile to anyone and everyone. That’s how I was raised. If people are subconsciously being racist, I may not even notice it. I’m just doing what I have to do.
What changes do you want to see in the local community?
I hope people will continue to think about how Black people are treated. A lot of Black businesses are mom-and-pop type businesses, and they’re scared to take out bank loans. They don’t want a loan or to make a business plan because there are such high interest rates for our group of people. If you and I walk into a bank with the exact same credit score and it’s a new lender we’ve never really dealt with, off the bat, you’re going to get a better rate than I am because I am a person of color. It’s historic and systematic. It keeps good, hardworking, business-minded people away from really pushing and following their dreams.
A lot of those businesses were left out of the CARES Act and PPP funding this spring because they didn’t have a bank or a lender to deal with. They couldn’t get that financing they needed because that relationship wasn’t already in place. They don’t have that relationship because of the system around them. It’s not their fault, but it’s happening on a daily basis in our community. People are talking about George Floyd and police brutality, but it’s so much more. It’s a prison pipeline that begins at school. It’s what they teach at school. It’s a system that’s keeping the Black community down and it’s been going on for centuries. It’s not going to go away overnight.
It’s nice that people are pushing for change now, but it’s going to take time and there will be a lot of pushback. Case in point: The name change of Stapleton [to Central Park]. They’ve been talking about that for how long now? And no one really cared or pushed for it, it was brushed aside. Now, they’ve changed the name because of Black Lives Matter. It’s a small victory but it’s something, and I hope and pray that it will continue.
I also really like how 303 Magazine pushed their list of Black-owned businesses back in June. We also had an influx of people who came to support us at Edgewater because of the list, which was beautiful. We got so busy for a while there! But in the back of my mind, I kept thinking: This is what white-owned businesses get every day. We’re just getting a taste of it. Why? It’s not necessarily because people don’t want to go to Black businesses, they just might not know where to go. And there aren’t enough of us in the big picture. Part of that has to do with being able to get the type of backing we need and resources to push into a storefront. That’s the reason Yoseph and I chose to do the food hall instead of a brick-and-mortar shop.
Our goal is to have a chain of restaurants in food halls, but a lot of our plans are on hold because of COVID. At Edgewater, our sales dropped 80 percent as soon as the pandemic hit. Even though we pushed and pushed, we’re still down 50 to 60 percent from when we opened. People are just scared to go out. They’re all thinking about the next wave. And there are 13 different vendors in Edgewater, so if 100 people come in, that’s not enough for each vendor to survive.
But we’ve been hustling. We’re expanding the menu at Edgewater; the market recently launched a brunch menu. And we have the truck out Thursday through Sunday. Every Sunday, we’re parked at Whittier Cafe, which is great; the owner [Millete Birhanemaskel] is my cousin. This spring, I wondered if there were any other Black female-owned trucks in the area because it would be nice to have a full weekend when people could come down and support those businesses at the cafe. I found two other trucks through an online Facebook group, so on Fridays at Whittier, you have Nel’s BBQ & More, and on Saturdays, it’s What’s Happening Catering. Sundays is the Ethiopian Food Truck. The neighborhood is very loving.
We just have to get through this. As a business owner, I can’t just sit there. It’s not in my nature. Look at who my parents are—they didn’t just sit down and I’m not going to sit down. You get up and you work. And so far, so good! We have a social media presence and good marketing, and our Black community always supports us. They’ll share our posts and order our food, tell their friends—that’s what keeps us going. They always support us. We’re so indebted to them.
Bonus: Until September 20, Yelp is running a Buy One, Get What? special that includes Konjo Ethiopian Food, where you can get a free sambusa with the purchase of any combination meal; more information can be found here.