How it all started: read our story on Heated
"Down the hall from a morning yoga class for seniors at the Ethiopian community center in South Seattle, Surafel Techane was in the commissary, setting up a food processor and assembling a handful of ingredients — almonds, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, and a fragrant mix of Ethiopian spices — on a small stainless steel prep table.
Techane — a New York University undergrad studying business, home in Seattle for the summer — wasn’t there to prepare the post-yoga lunch for the seniors down the hall. He’s a budding entrepreneur producing Ethiopian-inspired energy bars to sell at farmers markets in Seattle.
The critical ingredient is teff, a highly nutritious ancient grain that’s unfamiliar to most Americans but culturally significant to Ethiopians. Despite its relative obscurity in U.S. food culture, teff is gaining recognition outside the traditional communities that have consumed it for generations. It is most often used to make injera, the spongy sourdough flatbread used both as a platter and utensil to scoop up the delicious, flavorful stewed meats, lentils, and greens commonly associated with Ethiopian cuisine.
“It’s a cool grain you can use in different ways, and I wanted to be someone who could be part of that narrative in the United States,” he says of his TeffBars, of which he can create and package 500 a day, more if he has help from friends and family.
Techane says he initially started making TeffBars as a quick, nutritious bite to eat when pressed for time. “I’ve always loved cooking and experimenting with fusion food,” he says. Techane’s classmates “were super obsessed with it,” he says.
Their prompting led to his first step toward making it a business. At the 2018 Ethiopian Sports Federation in North America soccer tournament in Dallas, Techane sold his TeffBars as a trial run. While some Ethiopians were puzzled by the nontraditional use of teff, Techane sold out of about 1000 bars.
“It’s been an awesome experiment,” Techane says, but one that’s kept him busy at Seattle farmers markets in recent weeks, selling two bars for $5, in classic and mocha flavors.
“It’s approaching a full-time job,” says Techane, who is returning to NYU for his senior year and pondering how he might eventually transform his small-batch operation into something bigger after graduation. He says he’s motivated to help empower small local farmers.
Michael Grass is a journalist based in Seattle and is the former executive editor of Route Fifty and the founding co-editor of DCist.com.