Helina Melaku is an Ethiopian American who is fascinated about teaching her culture and heritage to those around her. She also loves to cook. Right before the pandemic hit, she decided to put those things together. Melaku opened Konjo Me, a catering service providing food, spices and Ethiopian coffee, which turned into a new pop-up in Detroit.
Recently she hosted a pop-up event at Baobab Fare.
Konjo Me means “beautiful me,” or “embracing your inner true self and your inner beauty,” she says.
Melaku was born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She immigrated to the United States in 2003 as a teenager. One of the things she brought with her and holds onto dearly is her Ethiopian cuisine — something she wants everyone to try.
Melaku says Ethiopian food is prepared and eaten with your hands.
“Culturally, when we eat we eat together even from one plate … I wanted to bring that to others as well,” she says.
At the pop-up she’s serving a three-course meal served with injera, a sourdough-risen thin flatbread made up of teff wheat, that’s a staple food served with all meals. Melaku says you cannot eat Ethiopian food without injera.
People are sitting with family or friends as they look over the menu, laughing and waiting in anticipation of their appetizers, like fried pastries called sambusas. Melaku stuffs hers with lentils to accommodate vegans at the pop-up.
“Our entree options we have chicken tibs, we have dinish wot, which is like a potato stew, and we have a third, ater kik, which is the peas minced with turmeric,” she says.
For dessert, there’s 7-up pound cake with a scoop of Konjo Me coffee vanilla ice cream.
Melaku has been offering food at pop-up events for 10 months. The first one was in Midtown Detroit.
“Part of even starting this business is to bring people, in general, Americans [together], so they are exposed to different cultures on food and drinks … I just want the whole world to experience that.”
She says Ethiopia has an ancient and vibrant history – with music, food and an alphabet. She says the country practices the oldest Christianity in the world and is also referenced in the Bible.
“So it’s a very rich culture with beautiful people all about love and sharing and giving to each other and helping one another as well.”
Melaku says during the pandemic she had time to reflect on what mattered the most to her — building community and feeding people.
“Losing close loved ones really showed me that life is too short, and to go for what I’ve always dreamed to do and believe in and I just went for it,” she says.
Melaku launched her business in March 2020. Little did she know that COVID-19 would soon become her biggest challenge.
“As far as like how food is delivered, the contact less [pickup and delivery] even finding workers was the hardest part, making sure we follow all the guidelines and restrictions,” she says.
She says she made decisions intentionally and took steps forward when it felt right.
Bryce Detroit is one of Konjo Me’s regular customers.
“I’m a big fan of Konjo Me. I’ve been supporting the pop-ups and the catering for at least a year and a half now. Helina is amazing and I’m really appreciative of how she brings this cultural literacy through culinary art,” he says.
Detroit brought his two daughters to try food like danish wot, ater and the sambusas.
“It’s exposing them to our ancestral palette, for real. So having them come in contact with that, and then having the tongue experience food and taste where we’re designed to,” he says.
One thing Melaku says she struggles with is being a female in the food industry.
“Sometimes people are not open to sharing resources, experience so when you do find the ones that mentor you or guide you in the right directions, I’m very humbled,” she says.
Melaku says you just have to keep pushing through the challenges, “to keep the momentum going. It doesn’t mean you have to do it all the time every day but just don’t give up and keep pushing, keep adding.”
She also sells Ethiopian spices and coffee, and she hopes to expand her catering and pop-up business to a brick and mortar location.
Melaku launched her business at the beginning of the pandemic to feed people and build community. She leaned on her pop-up “Konjo Me” to find a beautiful way to celebrate her Ethiopian culture with Detroiters and hold onto hope for a better tomorrow.