It’s been a tough few months for Shita Yenenh.
Like many other small business owners in Reno, Yenenh has experienced major decreases in patronage since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the owner of Zagol Ethiopian Restaurant, she saw a 60 to 70 percent decline in business after the statewide shutdown.
On top of this, the recent worldwide demonstrations related to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement have brought up a lot of emotions for Yenenh.
After the killing of George Floyd, she said she began reflecting on her own experiences being Black, and worrying about others in the Black community.
“It really hurt me deep inside, to my heart,” she said. “Seeing what’s happening now, it really hit me.”
Originally from Ethiopia, she eventually found herself coming to live in the United States in 1983. She’s lived in Reno since then, and said she and her children faced many instances of prejudice throughout the years because of their race.
It was especially difficult for Yenenh when she first moved here. Back then, she said the city had an extremely small population of Black people, so it was rare for her to see anyone who looked like her.
There were plenty of times where she felt like she was being singled out. At the grocery store, she and her sister were sometimes told that there’s “nothing for them” there. Her daughter was the only Black girl for a majority of her K-12 schooling, and was called names because of it.
She said it got even tougher when she moved across town.
“The worst thing I saw was when I bought a house in Southwest [Reno] to send my kids to a better public school,” Yenenh said. “When I [bought] that house, everybody was just running away from me, like I’m gonna jump and do something. I was crying every night without my kids seeing me.”
Even though she said circumstances have gotten better for her since then, she said she still has concerns about how the Black community is treated, and fears for her grandchildren’s well-being.
“For me, for other people, for other families, for other parents,” she said. “Every day…I’m scared, so scared.”
On top of this, Yenenh has had to deal with COVID-19 jeopardizing her dream–owning a restaurant.
She wanted to have a restaurant of her own for as long as she can remember. So, in 2007, she and her brother started the only Ethopian restaurant in Reno.
A lot has happened since then.
She ended up buying her brother out after two years and becoming the sole owner. On top of owning the place, she has run it by herself for most of its existence–she is the only cook and worker inside the restaurant. She was at a location on Fourth Street for a while, where she struggled financially for nearly a decade.
She eventually moved and now operates out of Mira Loma Park Shopping Center. Here, she said she was doing OK–until COVID-19 started affecting business.
The statewide shutdown meant that she saw a large part of her clientele disappear. She said she was grateful for the loyalty that some customers displayed while she was only open for takeout orders, however.
“They were glad I’m open,” Yenenh said, explaining that some have been paying more for meals and ordering more frequently. “They were really worried that I would be gone for good, because I’m a small business and it’s just me.”
It has gotten slightly better for her restaurant since the introduction of phase two of Gov. Sisolak’s reopening plan. Some days she will get 50 percent of her regular business back, but other days she gets less. Since her dining area isn’t very large, having it open at 50 percent capacity doesn’t allow for a ton more business.
“One time, I could only have five here,” she said. “I don’t have a big place to separate [customers], so I have to do what I have to do.”
Despite the recent challenges, Yenenh still appreciates that she can follow her dream. Even when she faced financial hardships in the past, she remained open, because she was passionate about owning a restaurant. Although she now has some concerns for herself and others about spreading COVID-19, she is thankful that she can continue operating.
“It’s really nice to have business back running,” she said. “It’s not the same, but I’m really glad [people can] go out to eat.”