Introducing Melku Gebrekristos
From an early age, Melku Gebrekristos wanted to run a business. As a young woman in her home country of Eritrea, she built and ran floral and nursery operations but she always had a food business in the back of her mind.
Today Melku is the proud owner of Laza Catering, selling Eritrean / Ethiopean cuisine at
- the local farmers’ market,
- various festivals and events, and
- most recently in her own storefront operation.
Building on her past experiences, Melku has slowly and steadily built her business over the past six years.
She has kept work-family balance as a priority, and also says that it is very important to “have fun” along the journey. This journey includes being open to new opportunities when they arise. She is determined but nimble, moving where opportunities emerge.
Like many immigrant entrepreneurs, Melku did not launch her business at the time she immigrated to Canada in 2002. Instead, she focused on her own settlement needs and raising her children. A trained medical lab technician, she also assessed her employment prospects and learned that it would be very difficult to work in her field.
During these early years, she thought about the diversity of Canada’s population and openness to new forms of cuisine and saw a gap in the market in her home town of Guelph. She viewed this is an opportunity to share something of her home country, and to introduce a new cuisine to Guelph. In the beginning, her message focused on ethnic cuisine and her
“made from scratch”
cooking. Today, she focuses more on the ingredients (vegan, gluten free, etc.) and healthy eating.
In 2009, Melku began preparing Eritrean cuisine to sell at the farmers’ market and local festivals. Now with its own storefront, Laza Catering has been able to use its small commercial kitchen to increase its sales of take-out food and catering. Friday evenings feature a buffet dinner.
The latest innovation of Laza Catering is hibiscus tea, available in bottles only since September. Rich in antioxidants and consumed worldwide, this tea can be drunk hot or cold. Laza’s hibiscus tea is sold in several local health food stores, and Melku is looking to expand. Seeing the bottling process to fruition has been a rewarding experience for Melku who beamed when she stated,
“When I saw the first bottle of hibiscus, you cannot imagine how happy I was.”
Never one to sit still, Melku will be introducing another product line very soon. This one will be based on moringa, a plant found in parts of Africa and Asia that is believed to be highly nutritious and have medicinal properties.
Melku has relied on a variety of resources, formal and informal, to grow her business. She has worked to connect to resources in her community, to build her networks, and to rely on the expertise of knowledgeable friends:
Local business resources: In January 2015 Melku will accesses resources at CBaSE, the Centre for Business and Student Enterprise at the University of Guelph. CBaSE will working with Melku on issues such as product pricing, marketing, and knowing more about her competition.
This fall she joined the Guelph Chamber of Commerce where she has benefitted from access to new resources and making connections to other business owners. Laza Catering is also a member of “Taste Real, from the ground up local food,” a Wellington County local food marketing initiative.
All of these are ways of growing her business in a professional way. Melku notes,
“I want the community to know I act professionally. I don’t expect big sales this time of year so instead I am focusing on developing the business, making plans for the future.”
Running a food-related business is demanding. The work is also physically demanding, requiring Melku to stand for long periods of time, carry food and equipment, and work long hours, with the work being especially intense during festival and event season.
A person of action, Melku finds the paperwork that comes with running a business to be the least enjoyable aspect of entrepreneurship. She has heard about financial supports for business expansion, but she has not been able to find anything concrete. She fears taking too much time away from running the business to investigate possibilities that may not lead to any results.
If you are in the area, visit Melku at the Guelph Farmers’ Market or in her storefront at 74 Ontario Street in Guelph. It will be an experience you will savour!
You can find out more on her website http://www.lazacatering.ca
Sarah Wayland, Principal Investigator