This week, the owners of Saigon Sisters and Demera unveiled a promotion to introduce their cuisines and cultures to each other’s customer bases. Customers can pick up special Ethiopian meals made at Demera at Saigon Sisters in West Loop. In Uptown, customers could pickup Vietnamese meals made at Saigon Sisters at Demera. It’s a partnership that Saigon Sisters’s Mary Aregoni and Demera’s Tigist Reda hope to grow as the two women continue to keep their independent restaurants operating during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
They’re billing it as the first-ever virtual culinary tour of Vietnam and Ethiopia. Saigon Sisters has been open for a decade with various locations across the city. It serves both a variety of Vietnamese dishes including banh mi. Demera has been open for 12 years in Uptown and is regarded as one of the best Ethiopian restaurants in Chicago. It was a longtime ex-member of the Eater Chicago 38. The restaurant has introduced many to the spongy joys of injera.
The partnership will allow nearby customers to try food from the different restaurants without driving across town. The two have known each other for years, meeting via a small business program run through Goldman Sachs. They’ve traveled together. Reda mentions a trip to New Orleans. Aregoni has hosted pop-ups for Reda to help expand Demera’s brand toward downtown.
During the pandemic, the two have supported each other, talking about the industry’s future while sharing glasses of wine and meals. They’ve discussed topics including the federal Payment Protection Program. Reda has asked Aregoni about how many customers she’ll be allowed to serve inside Demera’s patio. Aregoni tells Reda that she wonders if the city will close Lake Street down to allow for outdoor seating in front of her restaurant. There’s a trust in their shared experiences.
“It’s really nice to have someone going through the same thing you’re through,” Reda says.
Aregoni is was born from Vietnam and spent time in a refugee camp in Thailand. Reda immigrated from Ethiopia. Both have encountered similar challenges in marketing their home countries’s cuisines to Americans. Women of color have to be mindful on how they market themselves, as the episode involving New York Times food columnist Alison Roman shows.
COVID-19 has hurt business for both restaurants, but the two say they’re hanging in there — both say their food handles takeout and delivery very well. Demera is even using Tock. Aregoni says the pandemic gives her the chance to experiment with marketing and recipes. More people are at home which means she’s getting more responses from social media posts with food, including a fried chicken banh mi. That gives her valuable feedback. As far as the partnership with Demera, the two combined their customer contracts to singularly launch the promotion. They both have about 8,000 emails each, which means they are reaching twice as many potential customers.
“We’re not big chefs, we don’t have a big restaurant group, we don’t have a forum,” Aregoni says. “We have to do this on our own.”
Both restaurants offer a la carte takeout and delivery, but for this cross-marketing experiment, they’re offering family meals that serve two to three. Bundles are more cost effective for the restaurants, Aregoni says, and that’s even more important during the public health crisis. Demera and Saigon Sisters are also selling pantry items, taking inspiration from restaurants like Fat Rice and Bar Biscay which have embraced the general store model. They are offering items to fill a pantry with international flavors. There’s Ethiopian and Vietnamese ingredients. Reda makes own farmer’s cheese and honey wine which are for sale. There’s also awaze, a chili powder that goes well with chicken wings. For Saigon Sisters’s there’s a pho spice packet, fish sauce, and shrimp paste. They’re also offering Thai coffee.
Aregoni and Reda say they want to grow the partnership, expand to include other restaurants. Both Demera and Saigon Sisters have stalls inside Chicago’s French Market, and as the Tribune notes, the future of food halls is cloudy. Aregoni wants to work with another French Market alum, Garifuna Flava. Garifuna is in Chicago Lawn and serves Caribbean and Latin fare.
“We share culture, and the food,” Aregoni says. “We have similar backgrounds.”