We all have seen the massive lines for Ekiben’s prized steamed bun sandwiches and rice bowls at Spring Fair. Or perhaps you’ve seen the crowds surrounding their stall at the JFX Farmers’ Market & Bazaar. But who are the masterminds behind the craft? The answer: a couple of University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) graduates with creativity and a love for food.
Owner and Executive Chef Steve Chu highlighted some of the history and background of Ekiben in an interview with The News-Letter.
The restaurant’s three original founders met as students at UMBC. All happened to be preparing food for the nonprofit organization Habitat for Humanity to use.
At college, Nikhil Yesupriya studied computational biology, Ephrem Abebe studied information systems and Steve Chu studied economics. All three enjoyed feeding people so much that they decided to make it their lives.
“We thought if it could be this much fun as a nonprofit college organization serving food, then we should take it into the business world and see how we do,” Chu said.
Each of the founders took on a different role within the business. Chu focuses on cooking, Abebe on logistical factors and Yesupriya on marketing and public relations. Yesupriya has since left Ekiben.
“For me, food can be a noble profession; feeding people all day can’t be bad,” Chu said. “Also, what better way to piss off your parents than to graduate college with a degree and sell food out of a hot dog cart?”
The restaurant did get its start as a small hot dog cart after finding food truck operation too pricey. The Fells Point Farmers Market was the first location that was receptive to the idea of three young men with no experience selling sandwiches out of the cart.
“It was like approaching some random guy on the street and asking for $5000,” Chu said. “The normal response would be ‘Why the fuck would I give you $5000?’ but Fells Point started working with us immediately.”
The recipes that Chu designs are always whatever the founders want to make, without feeling a need to put it into a certain category of food.
“It’s like the movie 8 Mile, where the rapper is sitting on the bus jotting down rhymes and ideas,” Chu said. “Inspiration can come from anywhere, and it’s always useful to keep a notebook around so I don’t miss any good ideas.”
Ekiben’s carefree style of making food has attracted impressive lines at the many farmers markets and events they work at now. It also brings many people seeking their signature dishes at the brick-and-mortar store that opened in early 2016.
But Ekiben wasn’t always the booming success and Baltimore mainstay that it is today.
“About half a season of farmers market later, it seemed like our parents were the only ones coming,” says Chu. “We were nobodies.”
For Chu, the final piece of encouragement he needed came from Ben Lefenfeld, executive chef at La Cuchara, when Lefenfeld tried The Original steamed bun sandwich.
“That’s the best seven dollars I’ve ever spent,” Lefenfeld said.
Blacksauce Kitchen served as the founders’ main inspiration. The well-established food business serves delicious food out of a pop-up stall at a farmer’s market. Their model motivated the Ekiben team to go out and do the same with their own unique dishes.
The Baltimore food community has been friendly at every step of the way, and Ekiben’s popularity has skyrocketed as a result.
You can have your own steamed bun sandwich at their storefront in Fells Point at 1622 Eastern Avenue, and once farmers market season starts up again, you may be able to catch them around the city!