Charlie Zawde, the founder of Finfine Ethiopian restaurant, has lived in Berkeley since 1974. He’s currently looking for a new space for the restaurant, which was last in The Village, a recently demolished shopping complex in Southside Berkeley. Photo: Pete Rosos

All that remains of The Village, an indoor mall in Berkeley at 2556 Telegraph Ave., is a fenced gravel lot. The old brick building with wood shingles came down in September, and most of the businesses left the shopping plaza at the end of 2019, months before the planned demolition of the 75-year-old building to make way for a new mixed-use retail and housing project. Finfine, an Ethiopian restaurant that opened at The Village in 2000, was one of the last businesses operating on the premises. It was still open in early March, while owner Charlie Zawde was scouting for a new location. He had anticipated being at The Village for a few more months, but the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the restaurant’s premature closure.

According to Zawde, the plan was to stay for six to seven more months and then transition to a new place. “We closed on March 16, and that’s it,” said Zawde. “I’m over 70, and it was very dangerous for me to open.” Twenty years in The Village had come to an abrupt end.

The Village seen here in 2015, when a plan for a new mixed-use building at the space was first proposed. The brick and wood-shingle building was demolished in September and all that currently remains is a fenced gravel lot. Photo: Emily Dugdale

As the shelter-in-place order stretched into April, Zawde weighed the cost-benefit of placing the restaurant’s furniture, wares and appliances into storage. “We had four big refrigerators, tables and chairs, dishes. To put it all in storage would cost around $6,000 to $7,000 a month,” he explained. “If I had put it in storage, now nine months later, I wouldn’t have any money left.” Instead, Zawde continued to pay his employees, most of whom worked at the restaurant for more than six years.

Today, Zawde continues his search for a new home for Finfine and is adamant it must be in Berkeley.

“This is my place. Both my kids went to Berkeley Elementary School, Berkeley High School and the University of Berkeley. All my life, I’m a Berkeleyan,” he emphasized. “I’ve lived in Berkeley since 1974. I don’t see myself going anywhere.”

Zawde was born in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. He was 17 years old when he moved to the United States to attend college at the University of Oregon. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, Zawde attended the University of San Francisco, to his parent’s displeasure, for a master’s degree in Economics. His parents were wary of hippie culture and their son living in a big city without family.

“This is my place. Both my kids went to Berkeley Elementary School, Berkeley High School and the University of Berkeley. All my life, I’m a Berkeleyan. I’ve lived in Berkeley since 1974. I don’t see myself going anywhere.” — Charlie Zawde

He loved his mother’s cooking and learned how to prepare traditional Ethiopian food from her. But it was a culinary experience Zawde had as a student in San Francisco that may have made an even bigger impression on him. Zawde had a classmate whose family owned an Italian restaurant. He recalled, “We would go there to eat, and my friend’s father would tell us, go ahead in the kitchen and get your own food. He’d make us cook fish and sauté chicken. It was very family-oriented.” That familial vibe would later serve as an inspiration for Finfine.

After college, Zawde went to work in the corporate world as a general manager of a printing company that distributed paper goods to big companies throughout the Bay Area.

In 2000, he and sister Romanework Zawde, opened Finfine. Charlie kept his full-time job and worked at the restaurant during the weekend. He translated his business management and production experience to the restaurant, where consistency and efficiency are key. He ensured food quality, an effective use of the kitchen, and came up with a system to serve customers quicker.

Along with the business side, he worked all other aspects of the restaurant. “I cooked and cooked and cooked,” Zawde said. “If there is any washing to do, I’d go wash dishes. I’ll mop the floor. I don’t have an ego, that’s why we had a good system.”

When his sister passed away in 2014, Zawde left his corporate job to concentrate on running Finfine. The only change he made to the daily operation was incorporating organic ingredients into the menu. His weekly routine consisted of shopping for fresh vegetables at the Berkeley and Temescal farmers markets as well as Monterey Market in North Berkeley.

Tuna kitfo with mesir (red lentils), gomen (collard greens), salad and wine. Finfine’s used organic produce and fresh fish sourced from farmers markets, Monterey Market and Berkeley Bowl.

“The quality changed. We have grass-fed lamb and beef, organic chicken. And instead of buying refrigerated fish, I’d go to Berkeley Bowl to buy fresh fish,” Zawde said. “I decided that’s the only way to go. The difference with organic, especially the vegetables, is the flavor and for health. This is the food I eat. My kids come there to eat, and now the last five, six years, my grandkids.”

Harkening back to time spent at the Italian restaurant from his college days, Zawde cultivated a similar atmosphere at Finfine.

“I created a customer base, which is really a family base. People have been coming since I opened. If you go to Telegraph, it’s all kinds of fast food. We became a family business, a place where families can bring their kids.”

Finfine became a family business in another sense. Zawde’s son Fidel has been working at the restaurant for more than a decade and has replicated the path his father took 20 years ago. Even after earning a master’s degree and working full-time in product management, Fidel worked at his family’s restaurant, putting in several shifts a week. Like his father, he did what was needed, whether it be bussing tables, handing out menus or managing staff. His compensation was dinner.

Charlie Zawde with son Fidel, who has worked at the restaurant for the past 10 years along with a full-time job as a product manager. The Zawdes are currently looking at new locations on Fourth Street, Telegraph Avenue and College Avenue. Photo: Pete Rosos

When Finfine closed in March, Fidel launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $36,000 to help off-set financing and get the restaurant back up and running in a new space. The Zawdes say they have received support from the Telegraph Business Improvement District, which helped promote Finfine’s fundraising on its Facebook page and is connecting them with potential locations in Berkeley.

While commenters on Facebook have suggested alternative locations for Finfine, like Oakland or Walnut Creek, the Zawdes insist that reopening in Berkeley is the only option they’ll consider.

“My dad has been in Berkeley since the ’70s, so he wants to keep the restaurant there. It’s home, that’s important.”

Tamara Sherman

Tamara Sherman is a freelance writer based in Oakland. Her features and profiles have been published in Berkeleyside, Bay Nature and The Oakland Post. She does many things, but she is always planning a...