Ethiopian Baker in D.C. Finds Her Forte in an All-Natural Niche

Above: Hareg Messert of Chez Hareg bakery in Washington’s
Shaw neighborhood (By Dominic Bracco II For The Washington

Washington Post
By Joe Yonan
Wednesday, December 10, 2008; Page F10

A funny thing happens when people try two versions of the same cookie made by baker Hareg Messert: They often like the vegan one better. “They’ll start off saying, ‘Oh, not me. I’m not vegan.’ But then they taste it,” she says.

She thinks it’s the butter, or lack of it, that does the trick. Without dairy products, her cookies taste clearly of chocolate, ginger or pecans because, as she puts it, “the flavors have not been taken over by the butter.”

Whatever the reason, Messert, 39, may have found her niche. A year and a half after opening Chez Hareg bakery in Washington’s Shaw neighborhood, this former Ritz-Carlton pastry chef is widening her reach. She’s supplying several cafes, and she’s starting to sell her all-natural cookies (in both vegan and traditional versions) in a few area stores.

She credits her growth to the exposure from her debut this fall at the 14th and U and Bloomingdale farmers markets. At her booths, Messert gave out samples of her classic French cookies, biscotti, panettone and pound cake, a smart move for someone confident that nibbles would translate into sales. Between that and media attention, her customer base started to grow beyond the Ethiopian community near the bakery.

The Shaw neighbors have helped her build a following, especially among vegans or sometime-vegans. She and other members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church avoid animal products on their many fasting holidays.

Ethiopia, which was never colonized, has no tradition of desserts beyond fruit and honey. But Messert also spent time as a girl in West Africa, where she was introduced to French-style pastries by cooks who worked for her family. She started baking, but it wasn’t until after she came to the United States at age 17 that she considered making a career of it. Messert, who graduated in 2000 with a culinary degree from Stratford University in Falls Church, worked at the Best Buns Bread Co. and Carlyle Grand Cafe in Shirlington and at the Ritz hotels in Pentagon City and the West End before striking out on her own. Read More.

2 Responses to “Ethiopian Baker in D.C. Finds Her Forte in an All-Natural Niche”

  1. 1 Lesya Dec 20th, 2008 at 3:07 pm


    A well deserved praise to Hareg! We admire this sister’s indomitable spirit. We are glad to hear that your clientele s growing. Keep it up sister! One day you will have a break like that of Rachelle Ray. I wonder why Ethiopian Television Network do not give her a cooking type of show. Not only she is good in making pastries and various new inventions such as juices & smoothies she has vibrant personality like Rachelle. Wishing you all the best in forthcoming years.

    Lesya & Gabe from Baltimore, MD

  2. 2 Shireen Lewis Jan 13th, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    A few days ago, I discovered Hareg’s palmiers, spritz cookies and sable roules at the Takoma Co-op in Takoma Park, Maryland. They are so delicious!!I cannot wait to go back to the Co-op and buy more. I am vegan and have been waiting for this kind of finesse and delicacy in vegan baking for a long time. Thank you so much, Hareg. I plan to be a frequent customer at Chez Hareg!!!

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