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Filling a need

Habesha grocery store brings flavors of East Africa to Pierce Street

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SIOUX CITY | Last fall, Muluebrhan Haile noticed a trend. New jobs were luring several people of East African heritage from southeastern Iowa to Sioux City metro. 

"The main reason was Seaboard (Triumph Foods)," he said of the new pork plant in Sioux City. "There was (also) Tyson (beef plant in Dakota City) and Blue Bunny in Le Mars." 

As people moved, business slowed at his newly opened grocery store on Ottumwa's East Main Street, which specialized in imported East African food products. Within a few months, Haile and his wife and three children decided to relocate as well. 

They arrived in Sioux City in December. And, two weeks ago, the "open" sign flashed on at his new business at 1503 Pierce St., Habesha Grocery Store.

Now, Haile said, he's prepared to offer otherwise hard-to-find products for what he said is the growing East African population within the Sioux City metro.

"People are moving to Sioux City because there's a lot of opportunity," he said. "That’s why I came here."

The small store's shelves feature a selection of imported East African and Middle Eastern products, including cups and plates for the traditional East African coffee ceremony, organic Ethiopian coffee beans, Egyptian fruit juices, dried and canned beans, seasonings and the flours used to make traditional breads like injera, the flat sourdough bread often served at every meal and utilized as a plate and eating utensil. 

Haile said he receives the products from companies that import them from the Middle East and eastern Africa. So far, he said, he's seen pleased customers of East African descent drop by and people of other cultures who are fans of his home country's food.

Haile moved to the United States from Eritrea in 2006, while in his mid-20s, because of political turmoil. 

"There were a lot of problems in my country -- for that reason I escaped," he said.

Once in the states, he worked for several years in Washington D.C., where he gained experience working in grocery stores. He later moved to Indianapolis and then to Ottumwa, the southeast Iowa community where his family lived for six months before moving to Sioux City.

Haile briefly worked at Wells Enterprises in Le Mars, as he went through the necessary permitting process for the grocery store. Since it is located on a parcel of land zoned as mixed use, it required a conditional use permit, which it received. However, the city's Board of Adjustment declined a second conditional use permit that would have allowed Haile to sell alcohol and tobacco for off-premise consumption.

Haile currently runs the store by himself seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays. 

The store sits on the opposite end of the block as Elilly Restaurant and Coffee House, an Ethiopian restaurant that opened last year. 

Haile said he believes his store is the second such grocery store in the metro. East African Restaurant and Grocery at 217 W. 23rd St. in South Sioux City also sells groceries used in East African cuisine. 

Haile said if business is strong, he hopes to expand the products he offers. For example, he said he would like to be able to carry more than just the cups and plates used in traditional East African coffee ceremonies and potentially include items such as mats, coffee pots and incense.

If all goes well, he said, he could consider eventually opening his own restaurant offering traditional East African cuisine. 


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