A Visionary Burger
Addis Ababa’s Sishu restaurant serves up a model for Ethiopian business.
Sishu’s home-away-from-home vibe resonates with the Ethiopian diaspora in Addis Ababa, as well as with expats living in the capital city. In the warehouse-turned-restaurant located in the Kera neighborhood, a welcoming aroma of fresh bread emerges from an open kitchen. Although sandwiches coexist on the menu, Sishu is best-known for its burgers. Slightly sweet buns and moist, seasoned ground meat join a creamy, tangy homemade sauce to tease palates; crisp French fries served with made-from-scratch ketchup round out the meal. The comforting decor combines elements of a diner, picnic, cafeteria and library all in one.
Lingering is expected and encouraged here. While an eclectic playlist wafts in the background, urbanites from all walks of modern Addis life — drawn mostly by word-of-mouth — relax over meals and coffee: young foreigners abroad for study or research trips; their older counterparts on business; visiting Ethiopian diasporas; or permanent returnees, such as restaurant co-founder Matthews Teshome.
Years ago, when Matthews relocated to Addis from the United States, he noticed the lack of places to hang out that didn’t require drinking alcohol or listening to loud music. Inspired by the need for a low-key, foreigner-friendly spot to relax, he created Sishu with his business partner (and restaurant namesake), Selamawit “Sishu” Deneke. Burgers and sandwiches, being simple to prepare, were an obvious choice for the menu. Customers quickly judged them to be better than most in America, and definitely the best in Addis.
Sishu strives to source as many ingredients locally as possible. Entire cows are purchased from a farm in Debre Zeit (southeast of the capital), supplemented as needed by an Addis supplier. For the bread, each silky soft portion of homemade dough is weighed in full view of customers. Due to the inconsistent supply and quality of local cheese, Sishu buys imported Gouda; potatoes come via Debre Zeit farms as well. Good fries are hard to come by in the city, Matthews claims, so it is a goal to keep Sishu’s as close to the gold standard as possible.
The demand for authentic burgers and sandwiches in Addis is so high that customers would likely forgive a little slip in quality. But Sishu’s two business partners are focused on maintaining and improving their products and service. To keep service standards high, they hire more staff than the required minimum but are holding off on opening burger-only branches until the company culture and finances can sustain them.
Recruitment and training is slow; new employees come by referral, and it can take up to two months for them to reach a full productivity level. Language and cultural difficulties make server positions harder to fill; of the current staff of 45, most work at the back end of the restaurant.
Sishu keeps its staff members happy by paying them double what they would make elsewhere, although Matthews would like to pay them even more. Until that’s possible, Sishu maximizes its limited resources by a form of revenue sharing: Ten percent of revenue is reserved for salaries and pensions, and the remaining money is divided equally among employees. While small, those bonuses are affordable for the company and significant enough to engender employee loyalty. It’s the hope of Sishu’s co-founders that, one day, all staff members will share the middle-class standard of living enjoyed by many of the restaurant’s customers.
This revenue-sharing model and the strategy of methodical growth represent Sishu’s real objective: to help transform Ethiopian business practices. “Our mission is to be a model for other businesses in Ethiopia,” Matthews says. “And the success of that mission depends on our monetary success, because if we’re not successful, then no one will want to copy us.”
Sishu aims to be one of the biggest companies in Ethiopia within 10 years by launching a two-part expansion plan: A second kitchen (already 75-percent functional) will produce and supply burger components to high-end hotels, and later the larger market; and take-out-only branches will sell burgers at more affordable prices to a wider segment of the population.
Until enough additional capital from investors can accelerate these plans, the company will continue to finesse the restaurant’s ambience and menu, assessing how new items and ingredients play out with its loyal, always-game customers.
“Something I love about Sishu is that the food is always consistent,” says Nathan, the Ethiopian diaspora director of the documentary Sincerely Ethiopia, which profiles the restaurant among the best of what the country has to offer. “I love their business model, and that they experiment with other types of food.” He’s personally all about the cheesesteak sandwich.
Word of Sishu’s bacon (the “best in Ethiopia”) has gotten around, though, so the bacon cheeseburger remains a favorite among both the transient and permanent crowds of customers. No matter their origin or destination, all recognize the universal burger, sandwich and fries — and a place like Sishu that serves them with a side of friendly atmosphere — as something globally familiar, and therefore always a taste of home.