Rhoda Worku was a college student in Ethiopia when civil war broke out. Her father, a high-ranking member of the government, was executed and her mother was imprisoned. Eventually, Worku’s mother was released but life barely improved. “We didn’t have anything,” Worku says. “The government took everything from us.”
In 1982, Worku traveled to the United States on a tourist visa and applied for asylum. “I was missing my family, but I was very eager to work and to do the American Dream,” she says. After receiving asylum, she moved to Virginia with her new husband and enrolled in the accounting program at Northern Virginia Community College. She paid her way through school by waitressing at a popular bakery, Bread and Chocolate, and worked her way into accounting and retail positions there. In the 1980s and 1990s, she helped open five new locations across Northern Virginia and Washington, DC.
But Worku had always dreamed of owning her own business. In 2004, she and her husband opened Caboose Café in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood. They started with soup and sandwiches, but, soon, patrons started asking for more adventurous fare. “Customers would come in and say, ‘when are you going to serve Ethiopian food?’” she says. “At that time, there were few other Ethiopian restaurants. We became very popular.”
Worku says her modest café made a big contribution to Alexandria. “People are exposed to other cultures and they love it,” she says. “American kids would come in and ask for injera [traditional Ethiopian bread], which is very healthy.”
Alexandria is very nice for a small business. It’s been great to raise a family. Kids study in the coffee shop. They used to say, ‘Ms. Rhoda, we want to work for you.’ I know all their parents. You don’t see that much anywhere else.”
Eventually, Worku opened a second cafe. A few years ago, City Hall asked her to cater the city’s naturalization ceremonies. “They gave me the opportunity to be an example for others,” she says. “If you work hard, you get somewhere.” Worku is delighted to help the city, because of how they’ve helped her, even offsetting her café’s physical improvement costs.
“Alexandria is very nice for a small business,” Worku says. “It’s been great to raise a family. Kids study in the coffee shop. They used to say, ‘Ms. Rhoda, we want to work for you.’ I know all their parents. You don’t see that much anywhere else.”