All entrepreneurs have one thing in common: a dream to create something new. But what they don’t share might be more critical to their success: equal opportunity and access.
Even for Nesanet (Nes) Abegaze, the first generation Ethiopian-American co-founder of Azla Vegan, the journey to opening a restaurant wasn’t an easy path. With degrees from both Stanford and UCLA, she first began her career working as a teacher and a school administrator. Facing bureaucratic burnout, she decided to pivot. Nes eventually found her calling when she decided to help her mother pursue a lifelong dream of opening a restaurant in the summer of 2013.
Nes recently sat down with WNBA star Chiney Ogwumike to discuss entrepreneurship, community, and what it’s like carving your own path. Watch the video below, and catch up on their recent Instagram Live conversation.
Sharing culture through food
Today, Los Angeles-based Azla Vegan is a joint venture between Nes, her sister Banch, and her mother Azla Mekonene. Not just a restaurant, Nes sees Azla as an opportunity to create a community space where art, film, and conversations can be shared — along with a good meal. At the heart of it, Nes sees her work as an attempt to look at nourishment holistically.
Azla Vegan specializes in homemade vegan Ethiopian food inspired by Nes’s family tradition of gathering every Sunday for a meal and an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Menu offerings range from traditional dishes such as gomen and misir (tasty kale and collard greens and spicy red lentils), to the modern mashup of the Kitfo Impossible Burger, which is a meat-free patty flavored with silz (a berbere tomato reduction), layered with vegan mitmita mayo, caramelized onions, and lettuce on gluten-free brioche bun.
Connecting to community and heritage
Azla’s story is similar to that of many other small entrepreneurs — it was business as usual, until COVID-19 hit. Nes and her family had just finished renovating a second location for Azla to move into before the pandemic pressed pause on everything.
“There were a lot of challenges during that time,” says Nes. “But it was also a tremendous opportunity to slow down. It was a moment for us to rethink and reconnect with our purpose behind opening the new space. Asking ourselves, how can we get creative with these challenges by pivoting and responding?”
Nes credits her community, family, and her heritage with helping her get through challenging moments, explaining, “We’re blessed to be in Leimert Park, a cultural mecca for the Black community in LA. We have so many assets in Leimert, and our ancestral knowledge creates a sense of purpose in doing business. Even in the most challenging times, I’m able to tap into that.”
Food is a way to serve the community. It's an honorable profession.
Finding support with DoorDash
Azla was part of the first cohort of DoorDash’s Main Street Strong Accelerator Program, which provides restaurant owners with an immersive curriculum designed to help grow their businesses.
Nes explains, “Not only did DoorDash give us a very generous grant, they also provided weekly courses on everything from marketing, finance, sourcing materials, and more with different experts.”
However, the biggest benefit of the accelerator for Azla was being able to connect with other Los Angeles entrepreneurs and form a community of colleagues. “It’s easy to get in the zone with your own work and forget to network,” she explains. “It was great to connect with other business owners who are facing similar challenges.”
The Main Street Strong Accelerator is a part of DoorDash’s Entrepreneurship & Access Program, which seeks to help level the playing field for underrepresented entrepreneurs by providing access and opportunity to small businesses owned by women, immigrants, and people of color.
With DoorDash, there’s a real authenticity and real caring for merchants. They really are genuinely interested in making sure that businesses not only survive the pandemic — but also thrive.
Embracing change with a beginner’s mindset
Today, Nes is trying new things with Azla — exploring the boundaries of what a modern Ethiopian restaurant can look like, and finding new ways to keep her business growing. “It's time to revisit and rethink everything. There’s a tremendous sense of possibility right now, and I’m just trying to not let the challenges overwhelm me,” she explains.
Some of that exploration has led to the development of new recipes and limited-time offerings, like Azla’s Taco Tuesdays or the Kitfo Impossible Burger flavored with Ethiopian spices, which attract and engage new and existing customers.
Nes is also eyeing a few big ventures on the horizon. Forthcoming projects include a cookbook/family memoir and developing Azla packaged goods including a Berbere spice blend and Azla’s housemade awaze hot sauce, which provide another stream of revenue for the business.
Creating a legacy through story
Nes’s goal is to create a “living archive” of her mother’s story through food, and to share that with guests. “Following COVID, we’re seeing that people are looking for an authentic connection,” she explains. Today, customers want to support the businesses they feel like they have a relationship with, and having a story can help forge that connection. Nes hopes that this shift in customer expectations will lead to long-lasting positive changes in the industry, where restaurant staff and other essential workers are given the dignity and respect they deserve.