With its big, sunny windows and gleaming chrome sign, one would never guess that Oromian, the Ethiopian restaurant at 1522 S. State St. in Salt Lake City, was once a scruffy storefront with dropped ceilings, cinder block walls and the words “MR. PAWN” painted in bright yellow letters across the building’s front.
Or that when Rundassa Eshete started renovating the space in 2018, it didn’t have electricity or running water.
“We had to redo everything with infrastructure, whether it was a gas line, water, sewer, toilets,” he said.
The building itself, built in the 1940s, had historical integrity, Eshete said. He stripped it down to its bones, revealing old wood ceilings and steel support beams. Wood shelving and scrap tree trunks, left behind from the pawn shop, were recycled into handmade tables and a new bar.
The walls now are covered with warm wood panels, and hung with African art. The dining room is decorated with traditional East African objects, including traditional mosob cooking baskets.
The renovation was done in June 2021, Eshete said, but he couldn’t open the restaurant until this year.
“During COVID, everything was paralyzed,” he said. “Gradually, we opened, but the challenge is [that] we just couldn’t find workers. Workers are a challenge, cooking this kind of food, it’s not American food. … There used to be [a program] with Workforce Services. Back in the day, you could bring people from somewhere else, or your own country. … I tried to use that, but it doesn’t exist anymore, I think.”
Rundassa’s sister, Bullallee Eshete, is now the restaurant’s full-time chef. Right before the pandemic hit, when Oromian moved into its new building, she injured her shoulder and underwent surgery, leaving her unable to cook. Now, with Bullallee recovered and COVID-19 more endemic, Oromian is open six days a week, Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. (Sometimes, because of a continuing worker shortage, they open around 11 a.m., Eshete said.)
Ethiopia to Ukraine to Utah
The journey to open Oromian began long before Eshete bought the building on State Street.
He grew up in Oromia, a region in Ethiopia, when the country was ruled by a Communist government, which displaced the Oromo people’s traditional system of governance, Gada, which Eshete described as “a natural form of communism” where people shared resources in a way that dovetailed with their culture.
“This new system we borrowed from Europe destroyed [Gada],” he said. “My dad went to prison because he owned a lot of land, and many of my siblings were killed, and we lost our home and many people were killed. Lots of young people were killed by the Communist group. So I grew up under the Communist system, disliking it.”
Eshete said his choices for graduate school were limited to the former Soviet Union or other countries in the Soviet sphere, like Cuba and East Germany. Western countries, he said, were “viewed as the enemy.”
While attending the National University of Kharkiv in 1994, Eshete befriended Provo native Chris Herrod, who was in Ukraine to teach. After Eshete petitioned the American embassy for citizenship, Herrod’s parents sponsored him, and he moved to Utah and earned a second MBA at Brigham Young University.
Not long after arriving in Utah, Eshete met his wife, Jan, and purchased the African Mini Mart on Redwood Road from a Somali family. Eshete then brought over his siblings, who had fled to Kenya in the midst of political conflict in Ethiopia. The Eshetes slowly expanded the business from a market-restaurant hybrid to one of the first restaurants in Utah to serve Ethiopian food.
Free to be Oromo
Eshete, when speaking about his birthplace, uses the phrase “the Ethiopian state,” rather than “Ethiopia.” He explained that the nation is made up of more than 80 different ethnic groups, including his people, the Oromo, who speak their own language. They also practice their own traditional religion, Waaqeffanna.
“The Oromo people are not Muslim, nor they are Christian,” he said. “The views of the Oromo people are more like Native Americans — God has no gender, God has no color. … When it comes to territorial issues, since the land belongs to God and people belong to God, everyone should share God’s planet.”
Eshete said the Oromo aspire to be free from the Ethiopian state so they can speak their traditional language and practice their own religion, which is why an Oromo liberation movement began in the 1970s. Eshete named his first daughter Oromia in honor of his ethnicity and his homeland, and he’s honoring it with the name of his restaurant.
“There is still a conflict between the Ethiopian state and my people,” he said. “That is the reason I cannot go to Ethiopia, I’m part of that movement. So I thought, it’s just a part of searching for my identity in a free land, in America, where I can be Oromo as well as American. That’s why I changed the name from African [Mart] to Oromian.”
When he first moved to America, Eshete shed his Ethiopian name, Alemayehu, because he was free to express his Oromian identity without fear.
“When I left the country, I changed my name to Rundassa, which is my Oromo name,” he said. “Even my siblings changed their names when they became American citizens.”
Eshete now has three kids of his own, plus three adopted kids, and two children he and his wife are hosting from Mexico; they live in Stansbury Park, near her family in Tooele.
“The story began with a scholarship to Ukraine,” he said, “and then I came to Utah, which now is my home.”
Serving Oromo food
But Eshete hasn’t forgotten Oromia, its people or its culture, which is why he’s used Oromian names for certain dishes on the menu, such as kochee shiro, a chickpea puree with garlic, onions and peppers that’s sometimes called shiro wot in a traditional Ethiopian restaurant.
“When I was in Russia, I could eat a lot of borscht,” he said. With East African food, on the other hand, “you eat just a little, and you feel really full,” he said. “Plus it’s really healthy. It’s not fatty, and it’s full of protein because of the beans and peas, and it’s full of cabbage and [greens].”
Though Oromian serves chicken, beef and lamb dishes, the menu is loaded with vegetarian options, like alichaa misira (lentils in a yellow sauce made with turmeric, green peppers, onion, garlic and ginger) and ashaakiltii (cabbage and carrots sautéed with onions, garlic and herbs). It also serves traditional Ethiopian drinks, like coffee brewed in a jebena (a traditional East African ceramic coffee pot) and a traditional berze honey drink.
Eshete suggests people eating at Oromian for the first time order a combo, so they can sample a little bit of everything. That’s also a natural fit with how meals are served here — family-style, on big platters everyone shares — in the East African tradition.
Back home, Eshete said, “you have to eat with people. Eating by yourself is such a taboo, unless there’s nobody around you and you can’t find a person. You have to come close together, sit in a circle, and share not only food, but you share everything. … You share the land, you share the home. I can stay at your house indefinitely. I can wear your shoes if they fit me. And you can do the same thing with me.”
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