“When you cook, it’s not by a recipe, it’s by passion.” These words spoken by Sofi Kinde, owner of Nanyea Restaurant & Coffee House, easily summarize why you need to enjoy a meal at this Ethiopian eatery. As you step into the deep red building, located on North Dixie Drive in Dayton, it becomes immediately clear that you are about to embark on a cultural excursion, expanding far past a simple meal. Take in the fragrant smell of burning incense, notice the beautiful art adorning each wall, and let the mellow lighting set the mood. To get the most out of the experience, come with an open mind and a sense of adventure.
Once you get Sofi talking about her love of cooking, it would be impossible to miss how her eyes light up when she talks about creating delicious food. Surprisingly, she never had envisioned herself as a restaurant owner before opening Nanyea Café about three years ago. Growing up in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, Sofi’s only plan was to reunite with her parents. Her mother and father had been selected as green card lottery winners as a part of the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program.
While waiting to join her parents, Sofi was raised by her Grandmother, along with her five brothers and two sisters. Like most of the families in Ethiopia, they were very close. Finally, at the age of 14, she was able to join her parents in the United States.
When asked about the motivation behind her parent’s desire to come to the United States, she told me a good education was a priority for her family, and one of the main reasons why her father had wanted to relocate. “When you live in a third world country, it is a lot different than here. That’s why he always said you need to appreciate what you have here.”
Finding a great school system was much easier here but starting over had its trials. Sofi had been away from her parents since she was very young, she knew almost no English and had never experienced snow. “It was like a new chapter in a book,” she tells me. Determined, she overcame the challenges of learning a new culture and language.
After high school, she moved to Dayton to attend Sinclair Community College for its Business program. Deciding to settle here, she became a student worker and held positions in the disability services office and then in the general office. Sofi connected with the small local Ethiopian community and made Dayton her new home.
In Columbus Sofi’s mother had owned a bakery and then a restaurant herself. Yet, it had never occurred to Sofi that she would one day be a restaurant owner too. When asked if she had always wanted to operate her own, she responded that it had never even crossed her mind.
Maintaining a close-knit community is a deep-rooted value in the Ethiopian culture, which was the true motivator behind it all. Yearning for a social gathering place, friends and family encouraged Sofi to consider opening a coffee shop. Ethiopia is considered the birthplace of coffee, in which it is not viewed as a mere caffeine fix. Instead, it is ceremonial, a time for bonding, deep conversations, and connection.
I was honored when Sofi enthusiastically offered to make us a pot to share. As it was brewing, she explained to me how each coffee ceremony would start by roasting and grinding the beans on the spot. The coffee is prepared in a jebena, a traditional clay pot that is said to infuse notes of flavor into the coffee. Sipping the warm coffee, I taste the deep chocolate notes she had described.
Coffee ceremonies are a rich part of her culture, but Sofi knew that a coffee shop alone was not enough. “Cooking is my passion”, she explains. A smile overtakes her face as she describes the joy she experiences when she cooks, “I always try to make someone’s day.” Knowing her heart was in the kitchen, and with her community behind her, Nanyea Restaurant & Coffee House, named after Grandma Nanyea herself, was born.
The restaurant started in a small building on North Main Street, but after word spread about the flavorful eats Sofi was serving, she needed to relocate to their larger new location just over a year ago. If you look on the menu you will find a large variety offered for meat-eaters and vegetarians alike. Each dish is labeled in English as well as Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. On the front side of the menu, there is an opportunity for diners to learn a few words of Amharic.
Just about anything on her menu is sure to be delicious if you are willing to be a little adventurous. When you come to Nanyea Café some things will uniquely stand out. Sit down and prepare for a journey. The first thing you should know is that it is traditional in Ethiopia to eat with your hands. That’s right, no forks. Sofi strongly encourages everyone to be open-minded and allow themselves the full cultural experience. It may seem insignificant but feeling the food with your hands and smelling it as you bring it to your mouth is a reminder of connection with your food. “We all work for our food. Food is like a king. You got to give it respect.” Sofi states with admiration.
Get a true taste of Ethiopia by starting with injera, a spongy gluten-free bread. This fermented flatbread is traditionally served at nearly every meal and is said to have many health benefits. If deciding what to order next seems intimidating, Sofi recommends her favorite dish on the menu, Nanyea’s Tibs. It consists of beef cubes sautéed with her secret seasoning blend, onions, tomato, and Ethiopian butter—known as kibe. This dish holds more than an abundance of flavor, it has the honor of being the first and only dish, for a while, that Sofi served at her brand-new restaurant. It is the meal that helped her grow into a successful business.