Meals by Genet, beloved Ethiopian restaurant, is transitioning to takeout only
Genet Agonafer never thought she would close her dining room, but then again, she never thought she would own a restaurant in the first place.
The former flight attendant, caterer and now proprietor of one of L.A.’s most beloved Ethiopian restaurants has spent 21 years as the sole chef of Meals by Genet, a white-tablecloth gathering place at the heart of Fairfax’s Little Ethiopia district.
In March 2020, the din of the busy dining room — the clinking of wine glasses, the conversations and laughter as guests tore sheaths of injera to scoop up doro wot chicken stew — came to an abrupt halt, as was the case in so many restaurants across California. After a month off, Meals by Genet became takeout only. Since then, Agonafer’s had a lot of time to think about her future.
Agonafer, 68, says Meals by Genet has reached a turning point. She’s decided to semi-retire, offering takeout only and opening the dining room just for private events.
“The restaurant business is an endless cycle,” she said from a seat in the empty dining room. “The pandemic showed me — wait a minute, this is so good.” Six months ago, the chef-owner came to the conclusion that it was time to focus on her favorite job title of all: grandmother.
Several times a month, Agonafer boards a plane to the Bay Area to visit her son and two grandchildren, ages 2 and 5 — a luxury she wasn’t always afforded when the restaurant was open for dine-in service. The new business model gives her the time and ability to live a fuller life on her days off.
“I enjoy my grandkids, and every day I have been thinking, ‘I don’t want to go back,’” Agonafer said. “I am doing 60% less business right now, maybe 70% less, but I say, ‘So what?’ The peace of mind I am getting does not even compare. The amount of money I lose. But I don’t need much to live on.”
The losses from on-site alcohol sales are staggering, she says, and there’s no comparison between what she made with dine-in service and present-day takeout orders. Before, the restaurant would easily serve 100 to 120 people a night. Now, it serves 15 to 35 takeout customers.
Nonetheless, that takeout program has sustained Meals by Genet, as well as its tight-knit staff, during the last 14 months. No one was laid off, no one was furloughed.
The restaurant’s regulars are fiercely loyal, the chef says; some even offered money to keep the restaurant afloat during the pandemic. But Agonafer estimates that sales might be similar to what they were pre-COVID-19, even if the team hosts only four or five private events per month and continues to rely on takeout.
Before the pandemic, Agonafer would regularly arrive at 5 or 6 a.m., prepping all day for what was often an onslaught of customers, especially on weekends. Her days off were dominated by shopping and prepping for the Thursday-to-Sunday operation, rituals often accompanied by anxiety about the busy days ahead. Sometimes, she says, she would work 18- or 19-hour shifts.
She has flashbacks of servers running back to the kitchen to tell her that guests were getting angry about wait times for their food, or that customers were growing impatient to be let in or that her staff — all longtime employees who are like family to her — would be lost in their own discussions while an A-list actress sat just to their left.
“I would be running for my life,” Agonafer said. “Sometimes I’d tell them, ‘I can’t open. You can’t open the restaurant until I say so.’ And they’d have to go out and apologize to everyone waiting outside and say, ‘We’re sorry. We can’t let you in yet, because she’s not ready.’ This business is madness. It’s madness, but a beautiful madness, because I make a comfortable living. I am so grateful.”
Now, Agonafer can pause orders when too many tickets come in at once, telling her employees to schedule breaks between pickups that allow the chef time to catch up. She starts her days with a walk and a stretch before arriving at her Fairfax kitchen at 7 or 8 a.m. or even 9:30 a.m. (The other day, she arrived at 1 p.m. for the first time in her career.)
While the schedules of staff members haven’t changed as much, some of their duties have.
“Hello. Meals by Genet. No, I’m sorry. We’re only doing takeout. OK, thank you so much. Have a nice day,” is a constant refrain over the course of an afternoon. Every half-hour or so, Olivier Hoarau will answer a call from a guest hoping that the restaurant will finally be open for dine-in service. (The answer, of course, is “no.”)
Hoarau has worked as a server at the restaurant for nearly eight years. Previously, he would welcome guests, demonstrate how to scoop the stews and braises with injera, check on tables, offer wine, clear the tables and make chipper conversation. Now, he spends most of his time on the phone, trying to explain how to eat Ethiopian food, taking orders, suggesting correct portions for the size of a party, taking payment information and detailing the restaurant’s COVID-era pickup procedure (in the back parking lot, with no contact).
“It’s such a big difference. People used to come, and we’d have a group of 10 here [or] a group of eight. Everybody wanted to have the full experience: sitting, using your hands, using the bread to grab the food, and sharing the experience with family and friends,” Hoarau said. “I miss seeing my regulars, the people who used to come here for years every week.”
“I have kids who grew up with my food, and they are in college and I see them and then they bring their girlfriends and I want to cry,” she said.
“One guy, he proposed in the middle of the doro [wot].”
On request and with a bit of planning, Agonafer secretly hid the longtime customer’s diamond ring inside a hard-boiled egg, a favorite component of his wife-to-be and typically the first thing she would eat during every visit. But not this time.
“The place was completely packed, and I went to every table and I told them exactly what he told me,” Agonafer said. “I told everyone, ‘Oh, my God. That table, he’s gonna propose.’ So normally, that’s the first thing she eats, but that day, she would not open the egg. Finally, she opened the egg and the whole place erupted.”
For Agonafer, memories like this are indelible.
And that couple who got engaged over the doro wot and now have two children? Naturally, Agonafer still cooks for them — as part of her takeout service.
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