By Keila Torres Ocasio
When Hadas Mengesha decided to close her deli on West Main Street and open an Eritrean and Ethiopian restaurant instead, she had one goal in mind: the food had to be as authentic as possible.
The opportunity existed for success. There is no other restaurant like hers in this city.
The result of her efforts is Teff Restaurant, which opened July 30 at 113 W. Main St., named for the small grain used often in Ethiopian cooking.
At the restaurant, spices for the dishes come directly from Mengesha’s family in her native Ethiopia and she uses recipes she learned early as the third of 16 children.
“It’s not like we’re going to Restaurant Depot or Costco to get this stuff,” said Mengesha’s son, Senay Mekonen, the restaurant’s general manager.
Teff’s offerings and use of hard-to-find ingredients are not the only things that make the establishment unique amid Stamford’s vibrant dining scene. It is one of just a few black-owned restaurants in a city with more than 300 places to eat.
“I guess what that really says is, there’s an opportunity for potential businesses in town,” Mekonen said.
Jeré Eaton, the owner of PrintabiliTees and chairwoman of the mayor’s multicultural council, sees the lack of African-American-owned restaurants as a void that has yet to be filled. “Where is the soul food place? Where is the sit-down soul food restaurant?” she said.
Before she learned of Teff’s opening and the existence of several other black-owned restaurants in the city earlier this month, Eaton believed there were no sit-down establishments in Stamford owned by African Americans.
“Every black person you talk to will tell you there’s no black-owned restaurants here,” she said.
When Thomas Madden, the city’s economic development director, could name less than a handful of such establishments, Eaton said that poses a problem.
African-Americans make up roughly 14 percent of the city’s population.
“One of the things I’m trying to get the city to do is take a look at what kind of businesses we have here and who they are owned by,” Eaton said. “For them not to track it is showing it’s not important to the city.”
The state of Connecticut tracks such information, she said. “When you register your business you can identify as minority-owned or woman-owned,” Eaton said.
Jeffrey Beckham, spokesman for the state Department of Administrative Services, said that’s not true. Although DAS does certify businesses as minority- or woman-owned, it is a voluntary program meant only to help the state comply with minority contracting laws. The state also certifies small businesses and those owned by the disabled.
The department does not, however, keep any record or database of the race or ethnicity of all business owners in the state. “We’re not keeping track of anybody,” Beckham said.
Stamford officials said they saw no need to keep track of the race or ethnicity of business owners.
“Across the city there are black entrepreneurs, and I’ve never counted how many and I never will,” said Sandy Goldstein, president of Stamford’s Downtown Special Services District. “We’ll leave that to other people. It’s an unusual question to me. When I meet an owner I’m colorblind.”
She noted that the city has African-American entrepreneurs in other industries and said there were plenty of black insurance agents, hair dressers and owners of private companies.
“I would support a good entrepreneur regardless of their color. And if a restaurant is good what do I care what color or nationality or religion the owner is?” Goldstein said.
She said she would only be concerned if she heard a black entrepreneur was somehow prevented from opening a restaurant.
David Kooris, a member of Stamford’s Board of Representatives who also serves as economic development chief in Bridgeport, said Bridgeport also does not track race among businesses. Although, like the state, the city does certify those owned minorities and women. The list is used, Kooris said, when considering what contractors, restaurants or other business to use when a need exists.
In Bridgeport there is staff dedicated to a Small and Minority Business Resource Office. The office was created in at the start of Mayor Bill Finch’s first term. Stamford does not have a similar office.
Kooris said he was not surprised Stamford did not provide the same type of resources to its small and minority-owned businesses. “When there tends to be a perception that things are successful, there is less of a need for government intervention,” he said.
Eaton said Bridgeport’s system was helpful in spreading dollars among businesses that can often be overlooked or ignored. She said two other large cities in the state — Hartford and New Haven — also do more to help minority businesses than Stamford.
Michael Pollard, Stamford Mayor David Martin’s chief of staff, said there are resources available in the city, but people may not know about them. He noted that the Stamford Innovation Center, a business incubator that is funded by the state and corporate sponsors, is known for helping startups and local businesses with workshops and programs.
“I would get concerned if there were no support mechanisms,” he said. “I think we have to look at why there are (no black-owned restaurants) here. I’m not sure what the barriers are here.”
Jack Bryant, president of the Stamford NAACP, wondered whether there were simply not many African-Americans interested in the restaurant business here. Or perhaps those who have opened restaurants that did not succeed were not educated enough in managing them, he said.
“I don’t think it’s strictly a race issue,” he said.
But Bryant said he does agree that the city needs to do better on attracting a population of business owners reflective of the city’s diversity. The same can be said for diversifying other areas, like the school system and police force, he added.
“A place like Stamford, which has a diverse population, should be doing something to attract these types of businesses,” Bryant said.