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Enat Ethiopian Restaurant’s Tina Tedla Marks 7 Years in Business

Two years after Optimist Hall expansion, owner looks forward

a portrait of the owner Tina Tedla of Enat, an Ethiopian restauraunt in Charlotte, NC
Tina Tedla (Photo by Kenty Chung)

When I caught Tina Tedla, owner of Enat Ethiopian Restaurant, over the phone in early June, it was a Thursday afternoon and she was running back and forth from Uptown to Optimist Hall, where she expanded with her second location in May 2022. 

The space served as a convenient prep kitchen for her appearance at that weekend’s Taste of Charlotte festival, where she has won an award for her classic lamb dish during her first appearance in 2022. 

That year, Tedla and the Enat team ran out of food relatively early in the weekend, and she promised herself never to make the same mistake again. She couldn’t tell me how many plates she was making — the team would serve red split lentil stew, derek lamb tibs, and beef sambusa — she only knew that she would make enough. 

Enat Ethiopian’s derek lamb tibs at Taste of Charlotte 2024. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

“Honestly, it’s hard to tell,” she said. “I know every year we get different people to try Ethiopian food. So really, we just go until we run out and prep more as we go. We gauge it by how busy we get, and we just make sure we have enough.” 

On June 17, Tedla celebrated seven years in business at Enat Ethiopian Restaurant, which she opened in Shops at CitiSide at the corner of The Plaza and Eastway Drive in 2017. The location is still open, as Optimist Hall represents a more fast-paced version of the traditional Ethiopian dining experience. 

We talked to Tina about how the expansion has gone for her business, what she’s learned during her seven years as a Charlotte restaurateur, and what comes next for Enat. 

Queen City Nerve: You’ve spoken elsewhere about how you grew up with your mother cooking. Did you grow up in Charlotte? 

Tina Tedla: So when I first came from Ethiopia, I was 10 years old. We lived in Maryland, Silver Spring, for about two years. I have a twin sister and my mom and dad, and it was getting expensive, and he wanted us raised in a smaller city. We moved here in ‘98, it was a lot smaller than it is now. 

So we pretty much grew up here since ‘98, went to middle school, high school, went to college nearby. So it pretty much became home, and throughout the years, my mom used to make the Ethiopian spongy bread, and she used to do catering here and there for events. And she had really good feedback with her food. So that’s how we went into business, pretty much her pushing me and telling me, “I’ll help you out.” So here we are seven years later. 

And you’re in an area in east Charlotte that is very ethnically diverse. There is an Ethiopian community there, but you also have a goal of teaching more Americanized people about Ethiopian food, as stated front and center on your website. Was it slow going in the beginning just to get that message out? 

It was very slow, especially in the area. It wasn’t really that popular at the time. And a lot of people really didn’t care for coming out that way. It was really a struggle at the beginning, but we did a lot of ads, a lot of word-of-mouth, and pretty much let the service and the food speak for itself. After that, it started picking up a lot more. So we came a long way since 2017. 

And how have you seen that attitude shift, if at all, in the last seven years in terms of the wider range of people here in the city becoming more comfortable with Ethiopian food? Have you seen it start to grow? 

Oh, definitely, tremendously, it’s growing. Especially being at Optimist Hall, that gave us another form of exposure and a lot of traffic. And I think the more the city grows, the better it’s going to get. I do think we still have a little bit more to go, but I think we became a lot better since 2017, or even since I moved here, the city itself has tremendously been growing. 

a portrait of a share plate with protein and an assortment of veggies
A share plate from Enat Ethiopian Restaurant. (Photo by Kenty Chung)

You all are known for doing this contemporary fusion, where you work in some other things that are not as traditional, the quesadillas and things like that. What was the process like for you to sit down and create this menu? Where did these ideas come from? 

In America, you had to adjust to how fast everybody moves; everything is constantly going, going, going. And typically with Ethiopian food, it’s not known to be fast-paced. So especially creating something like where you can order and it takes 10 minutes, and you eat, dine, and you’re out of there within 45 minutes — the concept was working with people here because you’re working with Americans. And not just Americans, just living in America is always fast-paced. So being able to have something quick, something fast. 

I think one thing I realized being in Charlotte is that not everybody’s really exposed to Ethiopian food and they’re sort of scared to try. So just meeting them where they are … If you don’t want the Ethiopian spongy bread, you have an option of the raw rice or pita, or even the sandwich. But even though the sandwich is like the tibs style, you can still get it on the hoagie bread. 

Read more: REVIEW: Enat Ethiopian Restaurant Is a Hidden Gem in East Charlotte (2021)

We get a lot of compliments on how fast the food goes out because a lot of people, even a lot of Americans, are used to other Ethiopian restaurants taking a lot longer than 10 or 15 minutes. 

You just mentioned that Ethiopian food is not usually known to be fast, and in my experiences there are a lot of share plates, or one big share plate, rather, with people sitting around a table with their injera and a lot of different items and taking it in together. How did you adapt that for a food hall atmosphere like Optimist Hall where so much of it is centered on takeout?

It’s not a lot of seating, so we did create at least two tables that are designated just for our customers. And so when they do eat family-style, they still have an option to dine in with us. 

The only thing I did a little bit differently with Optimist is that I didn’t bring the entire menu from the first location. Our menu, our cuisine can be really overwhelming. It’s a large menu. So what I did was I brought the most popular ones from the first location that can be served fresh and cooked fast and easily and still be enjoyable with family and friends. So they can still do large plates, they can still do dine-in, and they can also do to-go. I minimized the menu. 

And what has the response been like? Has it helped you reach new folks who didn’t know that you were located there? 

Oh, yeah, definitely. We do get a lot of exposure through social media and now TikTok, so you don’t know who’s walking through that and what access they have through social media. So we’re constantly getting new people every day, and this person posts, and then people come from posts, things like that. So it’s constantly doing something different where we’re getting noticed and people are really trying it out, like, “Okay, I’ve heard of you guys. Let me finally come try it out.” 

So I think word-of-mouth is a huge advertisement for us, and also social media. I’ve had someone walk in two, three times, they ate and they loved the food, and they did a story about it. I have no idea who they are. But I think the thing is just treating everybody the same and just making sure everybody has the same experience. 

Tina Tedla working at Taste of Charlotte 2024 in early June. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

And even going back to your original location, The Shops at CitiSide are starting to see more popularity. Carolyn Barber at Reggae Central came over there from Plaza Midwood in 2022. Have you noticed that growth in your original location?

Oh, yes, definitely. A lot of her customers come to me, so it’s amazing to have people come in because I know when I first moved into the location, it was barely anybody in there. It was really empty. So just getting that traffic and people coming, we have the same customers [as Reggae Central], or at least her customers will at least come and try it out. So it’s definitely been a huge boost for us that the shopping center is growing. 

And talking food now specifically, over time what would you say are your bestsellers that have stuck on the menu for all seven years that people come back for and help with word of mouth? 

Definitely the goden tibs, the beef short ribs. At the Plaza location, we have the kitfo, which is beef tartare. Our lamb is very popular, the classic lamb. I actually won an award in 2022 Taste of Charlotte for that. 

a portrait of Tibs, a hybrid stir fry and stew and is one of the most popular dishes among Ethiopians
Tibs from Enat Ethiopian Restaurant (Photo by Kenty Chung)

And having both fusion items and more traditional dishes, you can serve anyone who’s looking for either style, so as not to upset folks from Ethiopia who are looking for a taste of home? 

Yes, of course. And that’s mainly our Plaza location. I’ll be honest with you, a lot of our Ethiopian, East African, Eritreans, they do prefer the Plaza location more just because they can really dine in and get served, and that’s what they’re used to. 

So it’s different for them being at Optimist. They get really surprised. Some of them really get excited to see it, and some of them are like, “No, we still want the traditional,” which we pretty much tell them, “If that’s what you’re looking for, then you go to Plaza.”  

Do you have any plans for more expansion down the road?

I actually do, but I do want to wait a little bit longer just until the city grows a little more, only because, with having this location, I do notice that we still have a little bit longer way to go — just like how sushi became popular, but it was over time. So I think Ethiopian food is getting up there, it’s just taking a little bit longer. So I do want to expand in the near future, but I do want to do it on a different side of town where it’s not as exposed yet. 

You still have many family members heavily involved in your business. Have your parents been able to play a role, especially after your mom all but pushed you into this business and supported you so fervently? 

I lost my dad four years ago, so he didn’t get to see Optimist Hall, but [my mother] is definitely still around. She still helps me out. She’ll actually be at Taste of Charlotte helping me tomorrow. 

When you have immigrant parents and you’re an immigrant yourself, they come here for a better life and to give us a good life, so you work extra harder to prove to them and show them that their work didn’t go unnoticed.

When she sees the success, does she ever take credit for convincing you to get into this business? 

[laughs] No, she’s more proud, and she’s happy, and she’s the one who constantly pushes me harder. She’ll be telling me to do a third location. It’s amazing to see her entrepreneurial side; she’s a risk-taker. I remember taking her to Optimist without telling her I signed a lease. I was just going to surprise her. First thing she said was, “Oh, it’ll be really great for you to open one in here.”

She had no idea. One of my sisters was like, “No, I think it’ll be too much for her.” And she said, “No, it’s not. She can do it.” So she was really ecstatic about it. It’s amazing to see. But it does, of course, take a lot of hard work and consistency, and that’s really what I go by, is just staying persistent.

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