Forget Popeyes: this Ethiopian restaurant has the best chicken sandwich in Washington D.C.

By Hannah Natanson

People had been losing their minds for days over the Popeyes chicken sandwich when someone threw out a suggestion for locals in D.C.: “Popeyes is cool and all,” the woman tweeted. “If you live in the DMV area you should check out the Roaming Rooster.

It’s a family business owned by an Ethiopian immigrant who “has always been kind,” tweeted the woman, whose account gives her name as “La Hara” and says she is a musician.

The tweet flew across the Internet last Monday, inspiring similar tweets praising the restaurant’s fried chicken. The following morning, there was a line out the door at the Roaming Rooster in Northeast Washington.

It was “the best thing that ever happened to us,” said Michael Habtemariam, one of the owners. Habtemariam said he recognized the viral tweeter as a former customer but does not know her personally. (La Hara could not immediately be reached for comment.)

Now, there’s a demand for Roaming Rooster’s fried chicken sandwiches unlike anything Habtemariam has ever seen.

“Since then, it’s been so hectic, I mean right now, we have people lining up outside the door,” Habtemariam said Sunday afternoon in a phone conversation as he snatched a brief break from taking orders. “It’s very exciting.”

He estimates Roaming Rooster, which operates four food trucks and a restaurant in the D.C. area, has sold somewhere between 4,500 and 5,000 sandwiches since the tweet landed. For every hour the Northeast Washington restaurant remains open — 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday — there are at least 30 people standing in a line that stretches out the door, Habtemariam said.

The food trucks are seeing a similar rush. Habtemariam has had to call in family members to meet demand, growing the staff from its usual nine to roughly 14 people, and everyone is working between 15 and 16 hours a day, he said.

“We are so happy — we have no life, but we’re so happy,” he said.

Habtemariam, 37, his brother Biniyam Habtemariam, 41, and his brother’s wife, Hareg Mesfin, 40, are co-owners of Roaming Rooster. The brothers moved to the United States several years ago, opened a falafel food truck soon after and in early 2015 launched the first Roaming Rooster truck.

The Habtemariam brothers fell in love with cooking as children, Habtemariam said. Both were born in Ethiopia but immigrated to Canada with their father and three siblings in 1994 in search of “a better life,” according to Habtemariam.

The Habtemariams’ father, a pilot in the Ethiopian air force, was a single parent who lost his left hand in an airplane crash. Although Habtemariam said his father was “still an excellent cook, even with one hand,” that meant most of the cooking duties fell to the two boys.

The brothers became adept at making all kinds of food, Habtemariam said: “Ethiopian, Indian, vegetarian, American, everything.” In their early teens, both boys honed their skills at restaurants: Biniyam worked at a Canadian restaurant called Mother Tucker’s, while Michael took a shift at McDonald’s to help pay the bills, Habtemariam said.

“We really love cooking,” Habtemariam said. “It’s really fun — it’s relaxing, we just have always enjoyed it.”

Eventually, their passion for cooking led the brothers to open a sandwich shop in Canada, which they sold before coming to the United States. Biniyam Habtemariam moved to America in 2009 to marry Mesfin; Michael Habtemariam joined his brother in 2012. Once both were settled in the United States, there was only one career the brothers wanted to pursue.

The Habtemariam siblings and Mesfin spent about a year and a half coming up with their recipe for fried chicken, Habtemariam said, although Biniyam was the mastermind. All three wanted something free-range and antibiotic-free — and it had to be delicious.

“We were just at home, trying it, sampling it again and again,” Habtemariam said. “It has basic breading, it’s not very secret ingredients — but the way we measure it, the way we put the spicy ingredients together, that’s the secret.”

That kind of dedication and care led Roaming Rooster to success well before the Popeyes chicken sandwich blew up in recent weeks. The first food truck proved popular, Habtemariam said, soon allowing the family to expand to three more trucks — and, last year, to open their first bricks-and-mortar restaurant.

Roaming Rooster saw a steady stream of customers, Habtemariam said. Earlier this year, the eatery won “Best Fried Chicken” from Washington City Paper’s “Best of D.C.: Food & Drink Readers’ Picks” for 2019.

But it was last week’s tweet that drove demand through the roof.

Habtemariam said he first saw the tweet around 9 p.m. the day it was posted. At the time, he was inside the Roaming Rooster restaurant preparing for the next day of service.

When he looked again five minutes later, the post already had 2,000 retweets.

“Right after that tweet, we got flooded, slammed,” Habtemariam said. “The first day was probably at least double of what we usually make” — and customers’ appetite has kept at similar levels ever since.

Roaming Rooster sells five kinds of fried chicken sandwiches. The two sandwiches pictured in the tweet — alongside a grinning Michael Habtemariam — are the Honey Butter Fried Chicken Sandwich and the Nashville Hot Chicken.

Unlike Popeyes, Roaming Rooster is unlikely to run out of sandwiches any time soon, Habtemariam said. He has been on the phone with his suppliers at least once a day for the past week requesting more shipments.

It all feels surreal, he said.

“We are just a small local company. We can’t compare with Popeyes, but we really enjoy the love and support of the community,” Habtemariam said. “Seeing all this — it makes me feel like I did something right, that people are enjoying my product.”

Just then, someone yelled from inside the restaurant. Habtemariam apologized and said he had to go: Customers were waiting.

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