Ethiopia to Camp Bowie
Things seldom come easy for Samson Yosef, a man who escaped the Red Terror in his homeland of Ethiopia and immigrated to the United States in 1988. He’s worked double shifts ever since, juggling a series of grueling jobs. Then five years ago, he opened a 7-Eleven on Camp Bowie Boulevard.
Now Yosef is trying to open what would be Fort Worth’s only Ethiopian restaurant. He’s leased a vacant building at 4303 Camp Bowie Blvd., right next door to his convenience store. His plan involves gutting and renovating the building that was most recently J. Saunders Boutique. He’s had to scale back his original design — the parking lot was too small to meet the city code requirement to provide one parking space per 100 square feet of restaurant space. His original vision of a full-scale restaurant has been pared back to an Ethiopian deli that will specialize in take-out food, with a few small tables for sit-down diners.
The city issued a building permit on Monday. Yosef hopes to be serving his beloved East African cuisine by summer’s end.
“This is my dream,” he said, standing in the unfinished space still being framed out. “I had a catering business a long time ago, and I really enjoyed that, and I want to go back to that. This is a perfect location. There is nothing around here like this.”
Dallas County offers more than a dozen Ethiopian restaurants and markets, while Tarrant County’s landscape is barren in that regard.
“I’m not aware of any in Fort Worth,” said Betru Gebregziabher, president of the Ethiopian American Chamber of Commerce of Dallas.
About 40,000 Ethiopian immigrants have settled in the Metroplex in recent decades, but most are in the Dallas area, he said. The restaurants and markets sprang up first near Ethiopian-American communities. Over time, customers from various backgrounds came looking for the healthy, gluten-free fare.
“It also offers vegetarian dishes, so a lot of vegetarians and health-conscious customers like it,” Gebregziabher said.
Yosef is a popular figure in Arlington Heights. Neighbors say he is a hard worker, is friendly to customers, maintains a tidy store, and contributes time and money to local causes. Not long ago he bought eight violins for a local school’s music program, and he has supplied pizza for various school events.
Longtime Arlington Heights resident Cindy Green is rooting for Yosef for many reasons. She likes his work ethic and friendly nature and looks forward to trying a new cuisine.
“He came from meager means,” she said. “He’s worked his way through life. I’d like to see him be successful. It will be nice to have a new restaurant in the neighborhood and have some diversity, something besides Mexican food and Subway sandwiches.”
Green and other neighbors were upset when it seemed the city was blocking Yosef’s attempts to open the restaurant because of the small parking lot. They rallied behind him and wished him luck when they stopped by the 7-Eleven. Yosef was touched by their feedback. He’s more certain than ever that he chose the right place to plant roots with his wife and children.
“I try to be a part of the community, and people see my efforts, and they appreciate it,” Yosef said. “Before me there were other good managers at 7-Eleven, but I think I stand out.”
Scott Price of Fort Construction is overseeing the renovation. He said city officials have been helpful and courteous as they discussed how Yosef could build his restaurant and still meet code regulations.
“[Yosef] originally wanted a full-scale restaurant, but now it’s going to be a deli,” Price said. “He’s going to be cooking in there. It’s got a kitchen. He’s putting together the menu right now.”
Yosef hasn’t come up with a name for his deli yet, but he’s itching to get it started. He said he’ll be selling rice, beans, herbs, tea, and coffee, as well as preparing traditional Ethiopian and fusion dishes on site. He’ll cater events as well. He expects most of his customers will come from the surrounding neighborhood.
Yosef, on the other hand, came from the other side of the world. He was born in Ethiopia in 1963 and was 10 when the country was taken over by a Marxist government run by military leaders.
“After that it became chaos,” Yosef said. “It was a really bad time. I’m lucky to escape that.”
The resulting atrocities were horrific. Over the next few years, the new government was suspected of killing an estimated 500,000 people in a genocide known as the Red Terror. All these years later, Yosef still doesn’t feel comfortable talking about what he saw there. He fled to Zimbabwe in the late 1980s, then to Botswana, where he sought asylum. Later he moved to Dallas to be near a brother who had settled there.
“I started from scratch,” he said. “I have never done an easy job. I did what I can to try and make it.”
He ran a catering business, sold cars, worked at a different 7-Eleven in Dallas, and drove tow trucks, limousines, and taxis. Working long shifts became the norm.
“I drove a taxi with great intensity –– I drove 72 hours straight,” he said.
After becoming a 7-Eleven franchisee five years ago, he went searching for a specific store to buy. Few Dallas stores interested him. He knew Fort Worth from his taxi-driving days and bought the Camp Bowie store because he liked Arlington Heights. He and his wife, Jenber, and their sons moved to the neighborhood about the time they took over the store.
“Here at 7-Eleven, I work 15 hours a day seven days a week. No day off,” he said.
His wife works just as hard. Jenber, an Ethiopian-American, met Yosef not long after he arrived in the United States.
“When she walks out of [the store], she doesn’t walk straight because of all the long hours, but she stands here by me,” he said.
One of the reasons they work so hard is to make a good life for sons Benyam, 13, and Tedros, 15.
“I consider myself a lamplighter,” Yosef said, calling up Victorian images of a town worker lighting the oil-burning streetlights one by one to pierce the night’s darkness. “I do this to give them a better future.”
His sons help out at the store when they can, and they’ll pitch in with the deli as well. “It’s going to be a challenge, but we can do it,” Benyam said.