From Their Table to Yours: A Spotlight on Four Family-Run Restaurants

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Ebru Mediterranean Grill

A week before the owner, Bulent Aki, graduated from Seattle Central Community College, his professor asked his graduating class to write an article about what they will do once they graduate.  He studied computer processing in school, but had a passion to start a small business.  Working at a company on data processing, Bulent found that the business was not doing well so he had to figure out what to do next.  He reminds himself that it was a Friday when he had the urge to start his own restaurant.  He met his partner, Sharrie Nailon, when she was running her own restaurant in Seattle Center.  She had a business degree and had grown up in the area so she seemed to be a great partner for this journey.

Ebru first opened 30 years ago in June, the year was 1986.  It was the first restaurant in Crossroads mall in Bellevue, WA, and after building it, Bulent had under $2,000 left in his checking account, and that’s how he started.  The name Ebru was inspired by a magazine that was sent to him by his father in Turkey.  It was an art magazine that he received in 1984.  When the restaurant needed a name, Bulent recalled this magazine and the beautiful Turkish art that was featured in it.  This 500 year old art was called Ebru.  Sharrie mentioned that “In Turkey, a lot of time when they name their businesses it’s what you want to represent your business as and we felt that we wanted it to represent an art of food and to be as beautiful as this art.”


Ooba Tooba Mexican Grill

The first Ooba Tooba was opened in 1997 by Mark Johnson, his brother Craig Johnson, and his sister in law Lisa Tarleton. Mark worked as a stock broker, but found that the internet was changing the way people worked with stocks and didn’t need him as much.  “My brother went through a training program and worked in the chain restaurant business for about 15 years. After having put so much time in, he figured that if he was going to work so hard, he wanted to do it for himself” explained Mark.  Interested in starting their own restaurant, Mark, his brother, and sister-in law “came up with the menu, they spent six months traveling around South America, working on different flavors and what combined well.”

Ooba Tooba’s values great customer service, good ingredients, and unique flavors. The moment you walk into any of their four locations, you are greeted by a vibrant atmosphere with delightful aromas. “Every meal is served with chips and we try to never run out of our staples” Mark added. Mark and I discussed the restaurant business and he said “the way you start, you’re on your feet twelve hours a day, you are the manager, the owner, you do all the ordering, you take care of the customers, it’s a 24/7 kind of job.”  His positive attitude really identifies their businesses’ core, they are all about providing a good experience.

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Momona Café and Restaurant

Comfort food is the best way I can explain the Letina Tewolde’s cooking. Letina is a native of Eritrea and opened Momona after attending a two-year culinary school at an Italian Nunnery in Eritrea. As a single mother, she knew that starting her own business would allow her to be flexible, work for herself and, most importantly, be successful. We discussed the name of her restaurant and she mentioned that “Momona means tree in the Eritrean language, one with beautifully fragrant leaves”.  She brought me to the kitchen, and a sweet, striking aroma greeted me as I anticipated my first taste of Eritrean cuisine.

In the Eritrean cuisine, spicy and rich dips are commonly made to enhance the unique texture and tastes of chicken, goat, lamb and beef while a flavorful, delicate dip is made with only vegetables.  These staple sauces are traditionally placed on a spongy flatbread called injera.  Letina, brought up how the Eritrean cuisine is very similar to Ethiopian cuisine yet seafood is more commonly used in Eritrean food due to its coastal location – an example of how geographic location influences a culture’s cuisine. In terms of history, Letina explained the Italian influences in Eritrean cooking and the importance of spices such as curry and cumin.


Thai Kitchen

Thai Kitchen opened in 1980, when there was only one other Thai restaurant in the Seattle area.  Cindy Gayte’s mother opened the restaurant and she recalled that “Thai food was essentially unknown in the area.”  In order to accommodate to the customers, they had to put Chinese dishes on the menu. Her brother, Tom, also sat with us and remembered that he didn’t think he’d end up in the restaurant business when he grew up, but is now the proud owner of (the very popular) Thai Tom. Tom added that they were the “only Thai family in the area growing up” and “people didn’t even know what Thailand was”. All five children in the family worked at the restaurant during high school, helping their single mom, where they spread their culture, learned hard work and understood what it meant to run a small business.

Cindy and Tom talked about their mother’s love to create and to feed others. “More than half of the Thai restaurants around here were somehow once connected here” mentioned Cindy.  This restaurant really introduced the Thai culture and flavor to the area.  “Sweet, sour, hot, and salty” are the main categories of Thai food while “chilis, limes, fish sauce, palm sugar, and coconut milk” are some of the main ingredients.  We went on to discuss the business aspect of the restaurant and Cindy stated that “People have been coming here since dating, marriage, children, etc. and they all remember us from when we were children.”  The successes they’ve encountered have all been extremely well-deserved as their family has truly influenced the food culture in the city.  Running a small business is a difficult task and their mother believed that “If you’re going to do it, you better know how to do everything.”  The children have stayed true to this and have provided the community with beautifully authentic and fresh Thai food for over three decades.

Photos by Setareh Rock.