Food for Thought: Roaming Rooster brings family tradition to comfort food
How Roaming Rooster owners are changing traditional food
Food for Thought is a series highlighting immigrant-owned restaurants in the DMV area. Play the TikTok below to see this article's accompanying video.
Mike Habtemariam, co-owner of Roaming Rooster, is creating a sense of traditional family style Ethiopian cuisine with the comfort of hot fried chicken. Habtemariam co-owns the six restaurants in the local chain with his brother Biniam Habtemariam and his sister-in-law Hargewine Mesfine.
Fried chicken is not a traditional Ethiopian dish. The Habtemariams were inspired to start a fried chicken restaurant through their travels, discovering the variety of flavors and different types of hot chicken throughout the U.S. They took ideas from other styles of chicken such as Nashville-style hot chicken, by which their chicken is highly inspired.
Inspired by many flavors, Roaming Rooster has their own style. The name Roaming Roaster comes from using free-range chicken. They started with plain fried chicken, but concocted their own flavor inspired by their Ethiopian and Canadian backgrounds.
“On the spice itself there’s a little bit of Ethiopian flavor, but not strictly Ethiopian flavor,” Habtemariam said. “We did not actually fusion Ethiopian and American food.”
Habtrmariam discussed the Ethiopian tradition of five or six family members sharing one plate and the importance of sharing a story about your day.
“When we’re eating, we talk about what’s going on in your daily life. Everybody tells their stories,” Habtemariam said.
Habtemariam brings this idea of family to his business model. He makes sure his employees get together and are treated like a family.
“It’s not an owner-based business,” Habtemariam said. “We’re all like a family.”
Habtemariam grew up in Canada with his single father, older brother and three younger sisters.
“Growing up, we always used to cook in the house,” Habtemariam said. “Mostly my brother — I used to [wash] a lot of the dishes.”
The brothers also worked in small restaurants in Canada and eventually started their own restaurant. They sold the restaurant and moved to the U.S. after Biniam married Hargewine.
The Habtemariams first entered the D.C. food scene with a falafel food truck called D.C. Ballers, and soon pivoted their concept to what is now Roaming Rooster, inspired by their use of free range chicken. The idea for fried chicken came when they noticed a fried chicken truck was missing from the food scene.
That inspired the Habtemariams to try to perfect their own fried chicken recipe.
“We experimented for over a year, coming up with a great recipe,” Habtemariam said. “We trust each other. We know we all have the same goal: we want to grow this business for our kids.”
They perfected their fried chicken recipe, and the first day the truck hit the streets, they sold out before lunch. Habtemariam said he was overwhelmed by this response.
“Every time our truck goes out, we sell out. We knew there was something good about our chicken,” Habtemariam said. “It’s made with love. That’s the recipe.”