Charlotte’s African-owned restaurants and salons keep tradition


Central Avenue, the center of our global community


Smoke coils in the kitchen, and the earthy smell of roasting coffee beans fills the air.

Inside a small brick building on Central Avenue one morning, after giving dark beans a few more minutes on the stove, Chito Negussi checks them out, throws out a few that don’t meet her quality standards and puts them in the grinder.

Fresh pulses slip into a cheese, Ethiopian coffee pot, on the stove again. She gets around Charlotte at ease as she prepares the cups and snacks, keeping one eye on the pot and the other on the back door.

Suddenly it opens.

Good morning, Mama, Judith Tzavi She says, kissing her mother on the cheek, while Negosi softly scolds her daughter for not getting up early.

Abu Gida, the most famous Ethiopian restaurant on Central Avenue, will open in a few minutes. But for now, sipping from steamy cups, Tesafye And her mother returned home for a few more minutes.

It is this sense of tradition that Charlotte’s many African immigrants, from East to West, have brought to keep their roots alive in their new country – using faith, language, and customs.

Abugida’s dining room is just one of those spaces.

royal african kitchen

You don’t have to travel 5,000 miles to sample the many flavors of West Africa. Just visit the royal African cuisine at Eastway Crossing.

Owner Frank Appiah takes pride in the variety and quality of food he serves in his restaurant, serving food from Nigeria, Togo, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal and his home country Ghana.

Appiah opened the restaurant in September 2019. He has spent half of his two decades in the US in Charlotte, and moved here during his early twenties to “fulfill his dreams”.

He’s been at Intel for a while – but dreams change. With an engineering and technology background, he knows it was a “crazy” choice to open a restaurant, but he said it was a necessary addition to the community.

“I am a person who loves to eat out,” he said. “When I came here, it was as if there was basically nothing.”

There were a few African sites that had foods from different countries. Appiah had the idea of ​​creating a one-stop shop for people interested in finding all the flavors of West Africa in one sitting.

“That’s how the idea was actually born,” he said.

A specialist in hospitality management, Appiah’s wife runs the kitchen – where everything from fufu, egusi, jollof rice, red snapper, peanut butter and okra soup is made daily – while Appiah handles customers.

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Melissa Melvin Rodriguez mrodriguez@charlotteobserver.com

Appiah estimates that half are African immigrants, but more black Charlottes are visiting the royal African kitchen for a taste, too—and they join Ibn Appiah at his corner table in the restaurant.

While raising his son in Charlotte, Appiah said it was important for him to teach his son his language, Twi, and to feed him the same foods he was raised on.

Appiah admits it has been difficult getting the word out about his restaurant to the community, and opening just before the pandemic was a struggle.

“It wasn’t easy,” he said. “Some days I come home and cry. Some days I’ll come home with a smile.

“But we are still here.”

Appiah, who fell in love with Charlotte during his first visit, said the city had changed dramatically during the decade he lived here — for the better.

“I see the future coming to Charlotte,” he said.

This is in addition to another memory that makes him hope for the future of his restaurant.

During the first few months of the Royal African Cuisine opening, a man came and ate alone. After he finished his meal, he told Appiah, “I haven’t been home in 16 years. Thanks… you brought me Africa.”

braiding hair Moyhe

Nearby, in Moyhe Hair Braiding, Moyhe-Eugenie N’Dri-Zie’s fingers were masterfully weaving her client’s hair. But N’Dri-Zie wasn’t always that skilled – she had to start somewhere.

When she was in middle school, Moyhe-Eugenie N’Dri-Zie begged her cousins, sisters, and mom to let her get their hair done.

At the age of 12, she would braid her hair with untrained fingers and apply conditioner to her heads, sometimes burning her scalp in the process.

But now, with nearly 50 years of practice under her belt, none of N’Dri-Zie’s clients have been left unhappy.

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Moyhe-Eugenie N’Dri-Zie sews hair on a client at her business, Moyhe’s African Hair Braiding, on Central Avenue in Charlotte. Melissa Melvin Rodriguez mrodriguez@charlotteobserver.com

N’Dri-Zie opened Charlotte’s first official braiding shop in 26 years, she said, just one year after she moved to Queen City.

Born and raised in Ivory Coast, West Africa, Ndry Zee immigrated to Queens, New York, to join her cousin, when she was about 26 years old.

N’Dri-Zie, who studied computer science and accounting in Africa, took English lessons at LaGuardia Community College, and in the afternoons, helped out at a friend’s salon.

She said, “My passion was hairdressing, but I never thought, ‘I’m going to do it.'” In Africa, Ndri Zee said being a hairdresser was not a desirable profession, so her father did not approve.

But once N’Dri-Zie discovered she could make a career by doing something she loved, she never looked back.

Soon, she opened her first hair salon in Queens on Eastside Street. One turned in two, but New York’s cousin N’Dri-Zie encouraged N’Dri-Zie and her husband to get out of New York as soon as they started having children.

Cousin moved to Greensboro, and N’Dri-Zie gave her a shot. But as someone who grew up in the capital of Ivory Coast, she couldn’t handle the slower pace of the city. I decided on Charlotte.

“We are going to apply for an apartment,” she told her cousin. “If we are approved, then God wants us to move here.”

A few days later, N’Dri-Zie started her life in Queen City.

When I first moved, I wondered, “Where are all the people on the streets?” Her cousin replied: “At their house or at the mall.”

And in the years since, she said, getting to know Charlotte — and the Ivory Coast community — has grown, too. She joins them every week in chapel at Mount Carmel International Church in Plaza and Sugar Creek, which has a congregation made up mostly of immigrants.

And every week she thanks God for her life in Charlotte.

“I love it here,” she said.

Now, when N’Dri-Zie refers to “home,” it no longer means Ivory Coast.

“Check my driver’s license,” she said. North Carolina says.

Abu Gida Ethiopian Restaurant

Back in Abugida, Tesafye thinks of her first few weeks in Charlotte, and remembers how calm she was.

She was raised in Ethiopia, then immigrated with her family to the Washington, D.C. area for a year. There, she was surrounded by other Ethiopian immigrants, including her aunts, uncles and cousins, so it felt like a “little home”.

But Charlotte was another story.

There were no other Ethiopian students in her classroom and no family nearby, and Tesafye, who was still learning English and taking ESL lessons, felt lost. It was a difficult transition period for the 16-year-old, who was brought by her mother to America for better educational opportunities.

“It was a shock to me,” she said. “And the kids will make fun of you. You just hated it.”

But at home, Tesafye’s mother started growing the community by cooking it.

As more Ethiopian immigrants arrived in Charlotte, Negussi invited them to feed them. They were telling her to open a restaurant, Tesafye recalls, but Negussie always explained that she couldn’t take risks with the kids. It was her responsibility to them, she responds.

Years later, Tesafye took a risk for her sake.

Abujeda opened in 2017. The restaurant — the kitchen run by Negussie, run by Tesafye and shared with her brother — allowed the family to continue doing what they liked: bringing people together through food.

Tesafye wanted the restaurant to be a gift for her mother – but also for the Charlotte community.

“I really wanted to study…about cultural food,” she said. “If you notice, there’s Indian, there’s Mexican, and there’s Chinese (food). Beyond that, it’s very rare.

Many people have a misconception about Africa. We have many flavours, and many dishes.”

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Chito Negosi roasts coffee beans over a fire as she prepares traditional Ethiopian coffee for herself and her daughter before they open the Abu Gida restaurant. Melissa Melvin Rodriguez mrodriguez@charlotteobserver.com

Before the epidemic put an end to it, Tesafye and her mother would throw a traditional Ethiopian tea party for clients, to show them their daily habits. Every morning, even at home on restaurant closing days, the family gathers for coffee.

“Drinking coffee is like having a conversation,” she said. “Sitting together, partying, making a cup of freshly roasted coffee every morning, eating that is a big deal to us.”

Tesafye loves when customers first find something they like on the menu, something that reminds them of the food they grew up with.

“Although Injera is different… they will find something to relate to,” Tesafye said. “Then you start to see them relax.”

Tesafye said the support the restaurant has received from the Plaza Midwood community has been shocking. She said neighborhood residents are big supporters of small business, and they’ve been coming back for years. The local Ethiopian community has supported them from the start. They left a $90 tip for $10 meals, just to help out.

“We never had to struggle,” she said.

When the family first moved to Charlotte, they lived near Central Avenue, where there was a mix of Asian, Somali, Ethiopian and Hispanic families. But Tesafye fears what will happen if home prices continue to rise.

“Housing is going to change this community,” she said. “I think three or four years from now, most of the companies you see here… I don’t think you’ll see that.”

It’s disappointing – Tesafye knows the value of a diverse community. She grew up sharing meals and conversations with people from different cultures and discovered their similarities in the process.

And for Tesafye, there is no better way to bridge these differences than with a cup of coffee.

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