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Chef Elias Taddesse never thought he’d drive a quarter of a cow weighing upwards of 230 pounds back to D.C. from Baltimore in his girlfriend’s truck, but when you’re running a restaurant in a pandemic you have to roll with the punches. And restaurants, like his, have been dealt repeated blows.
The Ethiopian immigrant, who earned and maintained Michelin stars in New York City fine dining kitchens before coming to D.C., opened Mélange in September. He started out serving gourmet burgers and doro wat fried chicken sandwiches, but still has aspirations to take full advantage of his Mount Vernon Triangle space by launching a fine dining restaurant. His tasting menu will blend his French culinary training with the dishes he loved to eat growing up in Addis Ababa.
To make his juicy burgers, Taddesse needs beef. When he got the call that someone had tested positive for COVID-19 at the butcher shop he typically relies on, he had to scramble to find another purveyor. The weekend was approaching and Taddesse was counting on stronger sales. He had been getting a custom Roseda Farm blend from the butcher, so he thought to go straight to the source. Old Line Custom Meat Company processes the same beef in Baltimore, where he secured the quarter steer.
He also needed a meat grinder. Taddesse had always aspired to grind his own meat in house, but the sourcing emergency accelerated the timeline. “KitchenAid wasn’t going to cut it,” he jokes. He called on a relationship he had built while popping up at Wet Dog Tavern. The pal sells used equipment. After some bartering, Taddesse acquired a grinder he could afford and got to work.
Thinking on his feet, Taddesse came up with a plan to sell the nicer cuts of beef that don’t belong in burger patties. “We ended up doing a New Year’s Eve menu with dry-aged ribeye,” he says. “Better cuts of meat mean better sales. We sold more than 22 dinners.” He will also introduce off-menu specials like a Keto-friendly short rib dish for the VIDA Fitness crowd next door and a french dip with Ethiopian flavors next week.
Mélange is one of a handful of restaurants that risked opening during the pandemic. But that’s not the only challenge Taddesse has faced. Having a downtown address means the events of the past week have impacted his operations. When Mayor Muriel Bowser called for a 6 p.m. curfew on Jan. 6 following the violent insurrection at the Capitol, Taddesse was busy prepping doro wat (an Ethiopian chicken stew), making pickled red onions, grinding beef, and making ice cream. “Then boom, you have to stop everything,” he says.
The sudden changes have taught Taddesse a thing or two that he’ll carry with him, even when business begins to normalize: put in time building personal relationships with purveyors; spend money on marketing; and position yourself to adapt by being as organized as possible.
“I learned to build solid relationships,” Taddesse says. “Get to know the people who, day in and day out, provide you with supplies. These are the people who back you up.” That way, when you’re in a bind, you’ll have reinforcements. “If I run out, I can call the guys and have what I need in two or three hours.”
But before you can sell burgers, fries, and chicken sandwiches, you need customers. “Normally when you open a restaurant, you’re luring people to come in,” Taddesse explains. But during a pandemic, you don’t have the same kind of foot traffic as you normally would. “Now you’re fetching your customers. You have to push marketing more. Instead of spending money on building out restaurant aesthetics, you’re thinking about marketing.”
When he opened around Labor Day, Taddesse knew his target audience was nearby residents. The people who would make up the downtown lunch crowd were working from home and still are. His strategy was to offer discount codes to nearby apartment complexes. He also hired public relations support. “You have to be aggressive with promoting,” Taddesse continues. “That’s the only way you can survive. You have to be out there telling your story and posting 100 times on social media. Businesses that have been successful have been social media savvy.”
Social media, according to Taddesse, plays another important role in pandemic operations. Chefs of new restaurants relish the opportunity to watch diners dig into their dishes in a buzzing dining room for the first time. Taddesse has missed out on that because Mélange has yet to open for indoor dining.
“Everybody wants validation for what you do,” he explains. “When you’re in a dining room setting, you feel the energy, feel the bustle, and that gives you that push to keep going. My focus on getting diners’ perspective shifted me toward social media.” When Instagram users express their satisfaction, it’s akin to the smiles he’s spotted from the kitchen.
Shifting to social media for feedback is one way Taddesse has had to adapt since opening. There are plenty of others that impact the bottom line. One of the chef’s chief focuses is not letting anything go to waste. Food waste is practically criminal when every dollar counts, but it’s been tough for restaurants to gauge how many customers they will serve over the past 10 months. The normal rhythm just isn’t there and weather plays a bigger role in patronage than before.
To combat the unknown, one must be organized. Instead of chopping fresh onions every day, Taddesse pickles them so they last four or five days. When he makes his aioli, he uses clarified butter that holds better. “Think of things you can prepare ahead of time,” he recommends.
He also carefully plots the roll-out of new products. Mélange started selling house-made ice cream in flavors like coffee cardamom in December as a precursor to the milkshakes Taddesse says will pair well with his burgers one day. “If I wanted to start with milkshakes, I’d need more people and more equipment,” Taddesse says. Most restaurants are operating with significantly less employees to cut down on labor costs. “Getting ice cream out now gets us to that next level when we’re ready for it.”
“Even when things are normal, we should still use this model of no waste and careful preparation,” Taddesse continues. “Because even during normal times, anything can happen.”
Taddesse had a big decision to make this week—should he stay open or shut down? With road closures and extreme security measures in place for inauguration, many restaurants opted to close for the first half of the week. Mélange kept cooking. “The way we’re prepared, we don’t need a lot of people on the line,” Taddesse says. “I live next door. So in the worst case scenario, if nobody can make it in, I can put my girlfriend up front and man the griddle myself. At least I can attract people who live here instead of sitting at home feeling sorry for myself.”
While the hospitality industry bemoans that it hasn’t gotten enough financial support during the pandemic, especially from the federal government, there hasn’t been much wallowing. There simply isn’t time.
Over the past 10 months chefs and restaurant owners have reinvented themselves, blown up their business models, applied for grants, learned new skills like web development, marketed themselves with abandon, experimented with pop-ups and ghost restaurants, sold merchandise, launched delivery services, fed those in need, and morphed into makeshift grocers all the while trying to keep their staffs employed.
Because Taddesse and his colleagues haven’t given up, there hasn’t been a shortage of good food and drink to comfort us during one of the worst years on record.