Amy’s Merkato restaurant, deli, bakery, coffee shop, and Ethiopian and Eritrean market boasts big Rainier Ave storefront windows right in the heart of Hillman City—but it’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it, and you’re missing out if you don’t. We sat down with co-owner Yodit (pronounced “Yoh-deet”) Seyoum, who also goes by Judy, to learn more about her cafe and the rich history behind it.
Amy’s Merkato is a full-service restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a broad-variety menu inspired by Ethiopian and Eritrean fare as well as Mediterranean and European cooking and baking. If you’re not familiar with east Africa, Yodit tells us, you may not know that the food is the same for neighboring countries Ethiopia and Eritrea. The dishes, ingredients, spices, and, of course, the injera bread that is synonymous with Ethiopian cuisine—these are all “Habesha,” she tells us, meaning of Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Amy’s Merkato sells everything from colorful combination Habesha meals, including wots (thick stews), kitfo, a signature Ethiopian dish, and hearty salads—alongside springy and tangy injera bread—to a variety of sandwiches, with many vegetarian and vegan options. They’re a fully-stocked coffee and tea shop and they offer a wide range of baked goods. They’re coffee is fresh-roasted daily, as Yodit says it goes stale quickly. To buy it by the pound, she says, give her a heads up a day or two before so she can make sure it’s truly fresh.
Their breakfast menu items include the Breakfast Combo (it’s “V,” for “vegetarian”), a veggie scramble served with a croissant and a caffè Americano and “Foul”—a dish made with fava beans, tomatoes, jalapeños, eggs, and feta or parmesan cheese, “drizzled in olive oil with a squeeze of fresh lemon” (can be made vegan). They also prepare pita with a “buttery and spicy” berbere spice sauce, served with yogurt or sour cream, and they even make French toast. You won’t find an eclectic menu quite like this anywhere else in Seattle.
Their lunch menu includes sandwiches stuffed with seasoned veggies, lamb, chicken, falafel, or beef tibs. They also serve house-made hummus and pita bread and their soups are prepared from scratch daily.
Yodit and her husband Filli Abdulkdra bought Amy’s Merkato—the first Ethopian merkato (or market) in all of Washington—in 2000. At the time, the shop was in the Central District on 30th Ave and Cherry St. The name comes from the previous owner. The market had been around for about six years prior and already had a good client base in the CD’s Ethiopian and Eritrean community, so the couple decided to keep the name.
In the beginning, Amy’s Merkato sold goods, many imported, mostly groceries like spices, teas and green coffee beans—things that were not easy to find in your average American store. They also made and sold injera (a unique Habesha bread). They sold their delicious injera to other local shops and still do today. It’s a popular market item! Around 2005, they took over the space next door to them in the CD and added a restaurant that connected to the merkato. They started selling fresh meat and began selling prepared Habesha and other foods. In the Habesha culture, it’s common for people to buy meat and take it somewhere to have it prepared for you, so they offered the two services combined under one roof.
Yodit is from Eritrea, where Italian fare is quite common. Eritrea was a colony of Italy for almost 60 years beginning around the turn of the 20th century. That’s where the restaurant and bakery’s menu gets its Meditteranean influence. Today at Amy’s Merkato, you’ll find unique delectable Italian and European-style baked goods and treats. In addition to lemon and orange cakes, they bake cheesecake and baklava, and Yodit’s best-selling cake is an Italian cake called diplomatico, made from alternating layers of puff pastry, rich whipped cream, and sponge cake. They also serve Turkish Delight.
In their market you’ll find traditional Habesha goods like the mesob, a round intricately-woven basket that holds injera, for the family to gather around for meals—some are free-standing and woven all the way from the ground up and some sit right on your table top. You can also purchase lovely painted tea pots and matching cups and jebenas, pitcher-shaped clay pots with large handles, used to brew coffee. And of course they sell raw green coffee beans to roast and brew at home. The merkato also features a wall of imported spices, jars of sauces and dry home-cooking ingredients (like lentils), and various other imported goods.
Around two years ago, major construction began at 23rd Ave S. and S. Jackson St. and Yodit and Filli started looking further south for a new location for Amy’s Merkato. They feared the construction would make access to their business difficult, especially considering many in their Habesha community had moved and/or had been displaced into southern neighborhoods over the years. Moving their business to Hillman City made sense. So they found a spot and began renovation. Unfortunately, the space had never been set up for a restaurant, so it needed a lot of work. Whilst in the midst of their build out, they ran into issues with permitting, causing lengthy delays. It was a full year before they could re-open in their new location. Thankfully, they were able to start making/selling their famous injera before they could fully open—Yodit says otherwise their business may not have survived being closed all that time while construction costs soared.
Amy’s Merkato will celebrate their one-year anniversary in Hillman City in December, 2019. The couple of 25 years are happy and settled in to their space. They’re working hard to build the same level of clientele they had in the Central District before the changes came and it’s happening, slowly but truly. They work six days per week, getting up before the sun to bake and prepare soups and sauces from scratch to serve three meals to their community every day.
Yodit and Filli, sometimes with the help of family, also cater for events for up to 75 guests, mostly Italian food (think chicken or beef and rice). Give them a week or more notice if possible to hire them to cater your next event. And if all that wasn’t enough, they’re planning to start hosting brunch at Amy’s Merkato on the weekends before the end of 2019.
Find Yodit and Filli at 5710 Rainier Ave S., Tuesday–Saturday, 7 a.m.–8 p.m. and Sunday, 7 a.m.–6 p.m. (Winter hours). Call them at (206) 324-2527 for questions and over-the-phone orders. Get Amy’s Merkato delivered with Door Dash or Uber Eats. But do yourself a favor and stop by to say hi in person. You’ll be glad you did (and so will your taste buds!).
On Wednesday, December 4, 2019, from 4–6 p.m., Rainier Ave Business Coalition will host a small business community Networking Happy Hour at Amy’s Merkato. Learn more and RSVP here.
Featured image: Yodit “Judy” Seyoum poses at Amy’s Merkato. (Photo taken for Plate of Nations by Carolyn Bick.)