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Calgary restaurant owners give back to the community amid coronavirus threat

The owners of an Ethiopian restaurant on International Avenue in southeast Calgary have seen their share of hardship.

War, famine, poverty – families broken apart by strife.

While they’re struggling to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, like many Calgary small businesses, they’re finding ways to give back to Calgarians suffering from a lack of support.

In February 2019, Selam Gutema and Anwar Sultan opened Yegna, an Ethiopian restaurant located in the community of Forest Lawn on 17 Avenue SE.

They’re just getting started as business owners, but helping the community isn’t new to them.

“Before we opened the restaurant, our motivation was to keep everyone in the community happy,” Gutema said.

Giving back to the community

Since March 23, the restaurant has donated more than 150 meals to families in need after they put the message out on their Facebook page. It received a very positive response.

“When cases of coronavirus started to appear in the city, we didn’t have any business, but that’s what we decided to do,” Gutema said.

In the years since they arrived in Calgary from Ethiopia, both have helped many families, especially those who are in poverty or may have limited resources.

“When this [situation around coronavirus] happened, it was natural for us to respond because we heard that some families were struggling tremendously,” Sultan said, noting that there were seniors and others that were sick and had no support system.

“When we heard about that, we thought we could make a difference and we’re giving back to our community because they have supported us when times were good for our business.”

Sultan said some families have received large meals due to the number of people that live in a single household. Many were in quarantine and they couldn’t go out to get food.

“It was very sad to hear some of them crying over the phone, but it was just natural for us to respond to these kinds of calls,” he said.

Coronavirus has impacted business

Sales at the restaurant have suffered due to restrictions on seating capacity introduced by the provincial government.

“We closed for a couple of days after the government announced measures,” Sultan said.

“We’re only doing takeout, but it’s not doing very well.”

As for their employees, all of them are at home, which leaves Gutema and Sultan as the only people to run the restaurant.

“Sometimes, we get one worker to help us prepare food and we have volunteers who come and deliver food to people for us,” Sultan said.

Both understand the risks of delivering food at this time, but they’ve taken many precautions at every step.

Paying out of their own pockets to say afloat

With the struggling Alberta economy, Gutema said that the restaurant has been facing tough times for the past few months.

“We’ve been having a little bit of trouble and we actually had to finance the restaurant from our own pockets for the past few months because business during the winter wasn’t good,” she said.

Both owners had hoped that the upcoming summer season would help turn things around and help them recover, but it may not happen due to the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“This not only really hurts us, but everyone who owns a business,” Gutema said.

‘We’ll keep trying for as long as we can’

Months before the coronavirus arrived in the city, Sultan said the restaurant was very busy during the summer and fall.

“Business slowed down during the winter, but we still maintained a diverse group of customers and we were hoping that we could revitalize the restaurant in the summer, which would’ve been great,” he said.

Fast forward to today and those plans have changed.

“It’s completely dry now,” Sultan said.

“We can’t accept any dine-in customers and takeout meals are very slow right now.”

He said that the current focus is on making deliveries and donations to those in the community for as long as possible.

“We know that we can’t go on for a while because resources are becoming scarce, but we’ll keep trying for as long as we can.”

Gutema said that everything from the way food has been prepared to being consumed has been affected by the coronavirus.

“We have to keep it as authentic as possible, from how we make our food, how we serve it, to how we eat together – just like in Ethiopia,” she said.

“None of that can be happening right now.”

Owners expect the government to eventually shut down all restaurants

As governments across Canada and around the world announce measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus, a wide range of businesses, including restaurants, have completely closed to keep their staff and customers safe.

Sultan expects to see the restaurant temporarily ordered closed by the government in the near future.

“We know that some lounges have completely closed in Calgary. So if the virus continues to affect many people, I think the government may be forced to close restaurants in the best interest of the public, even if it directly affects us,” he said.

“Everyone is in the same boat when it comes down to this, but we’re afraid that it’s going to negatively impact greatly and it impacted all of us.”

We’ve ‘seen hardship from time to time’

The current coronavirus pandemic is one of many hardships that both owners have faced throughout their lives.

“We grew up and Ethiopia and have seen hardship from time to time,” Sultan said.

“I can’t say this is easy at all, but we have seen so many problems from wars, family breakdowns, and poverty on a bigger scale.”

Sultan said they are humbled to see the support they’ve received in Canada and they believe that they will get through this.

“We need to be thinking and standing up for each other so we’ll be stronger on the other side and we must keep our faith and stay united — that’s the only thing that can help us move forward,” he said.

Sultan is grateful to hear that the African continent hasn’t been as greatly affected by the coronavirus while they continue to think about people living in European countries like Italy and Spain, which are dealing with the brunt of the pandemic.

‘Everything has been turned upside down’

Gutema said that the little things we take for granted, like giving hugs or a handshake, are now a big deal these days.

“Nothing is guaranteed in this world. That’s what I’ve learned,” she said.

“I will cherish any moment that could happen to myself, Anwar, or the business.”

Within the past two weeks, Gutema said everything has been turned upside down.

“We’re struggling financially, but we have to be here for each other to provide emotional support, especially at this time,” Gutema said.

“But if we get through this, we’re not going to take anything for granted.”