Interview of The Week: Makina Cafe
MAKINA CAFE’S OWNER, EDEN EGZIABHER, IS THE FIRST ERITREAN-ETHIOPIAN FEMALE FOOD TRUCK OWNER. SHE GENEROUSLY PROVIDED US WITH SOME OF THE MOST INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT HER CHALLENGING BEGINNINGS AT THE FOOD TRUCK INDUSTRY AS WELL AS THE MOST INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT MAKINA CAFE ITSELF.
NYFTA: When did you first decide to open a food truck?
Eden: The idea came about the end of 2016. I hated my corporate job and I wanted out. I was brainstorming of what I can actually do. I have always been driven to do something that had meaning to life while making money so one idea led to another, the concept of Makina was born.
NYFTA: What made you think of opening an Ethiopian food truck?
Eden: I saw the potential. I realized our food was gaining popularity and having a business background I wanted to bring that to the mainstream. I wanted to introduce the culture that I love so much to the rest of the world through food.
NYFTA: How long have you had Makina Cafe for?
Eden: Makina Cafe opened Aug 12, 2017
NYFTA: What does your typical working day look like?
Eden: My days change. In the beginning, I was the driver, the cook, and the cleaner. I was averaging about 3-4 hrs sleep. A few months into the business I got very sick. The doctor pretty much said I couldn’t continue to do what I do. Between the stress, physical labor and lack of sleep, I was only going to get sicker. So I pulled back a little. Nowadays, I get up, run small errands, then be on the truck before open, have a team meeting, then open for service. After service, I go back to commissary (where the truck is parked), check truck is clean, quality control, go through inventory, load everything up for the following day (the truck leaves super early to get the proper parking spot for the day, so we have to do everything the night before). Then usually in the evening is my office hour (take care of finance, marketing, operations, email correspondence, etc, pretty much behind the scene work).
NYFTA: How did you put your menu together?
Eden: I’ve worked in different restaurants and observed different habits of American eating. I wanted to bring certain dishes that highlight the best of our culture but at the same time attract the general American public. I picked recipes that also have a lot of health benefits. I knew I wanted to cater to a lunch crowd, so I studied what people ate for lunch especially in midtown and picked items that have a lot of flavors, are healthy and affordable, and just overall different.
NYFTA: How often do you change/add items to the menu?
Eden: Our main menu remains the same. We don’t’ have too many things on the menu since its a food truck and our priory is not quantity but quality, but we do have a couple of things as a special every week that we rotate, so it gives people something to look forward too.
NYFTA: How did you test the menu? Friends? Family?
Eden: I chose a different approach. I wanted my food to be as authentic as possible, so I tested this with moms (they seem to be a harsh critique), but at the same time I wanted to cater to main steam, so I tested the market on some friends that have never tried Eritrean/Ethiopian food. They tasted it, provided me with their feedback, and I listened. I had to adjust a few ingredients that staple for our cuisine, but from a healthy perspective, they’re not so good. I had to get creative in how to achieve the same flavors without the same calorie content. The last thing I tested was the spice level. For some reason, people assume that Ethiopian food is too spicy, and I was not a good judge of that since I grew up on it. I invited a few people that I knew were sensitive to spicy foods and I made them try every dish on the menu to gauge the spice.
NYFTA: What do you think makes your menu items better than others?
Eden: We pay extra attention to quality and consistency. I am susceptible to and connected not only to my business but to my product, too. Quality is a big deal. I build everything (food, staff, design, etc) from a customer point of view. I looked at it: “If I was a customer, what would I pick? Would I eat Ethiopian food? What is Ethiopian food? Is this truck approachable? Is the menu easy to understand? Would I want to eat this for lunch?” I asked all those questions, and I believe that having an understanding of customer needs helps me to deliver the best product to a customer.
NYFTA: Do you have any exciting changes planned for the future?
Eden: We do actually. We’re going to be open for dinner and on weekends starting this spring. We are also working on gluten-free injera. Injera is our sourdough bread that’s thin, soft and spongy. By nature, injera comes gluten free, but most of the time flour gets added to it. It has been a challenge to find a 100% gluten-free injera, but we are working on supplying our business and selling it to customers since we have been asked about gluten-free option a lot.
Food trucks have a unique challenge when it comes to permits and licenses. Everything from food safety to where you can park is regulated at the federal, state, and county levels.