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Supporter Spotlight: Habte Dadi and Almaz Lessanework, Owners of Blue Nile

Habte Dadi, Ken Fischer, and Almaz Lessanework.

As we reflect on the impact Ken Fischer has had on UMS during the past 30 years, perhaps one of his greatest contributions has been his commitment to presenting authentic cultural expressions from around the world and to building relationships locally with communities of shared heritage—part of his guiding “Everybody In, Nobody Out” philosophy. More than 20 years ago, a deep friendship grew out of an unexpected catering request as UMS was presenting a cappella vocalists Sweet Honey in the Rock for the first time. Today, the Blue Nile Restaurant remains one of UMS’s longest-standing community partners.

UMS sat down with owners Habte Dadi and Almaz Lessanework to talk about that first encounter, their Ann Arbor business, and why they support UMS.

UMS: You met Ken Fischer for the first time at the Ann Arbor Art Center in 1992. What brought you two together, and what that event was like?

habte dadi, ken fischerHD: Actually,  Ken was hosting Sweet Honey in the Rock, in October 1992, a long time ago. I had just got into the restaurant business, and he came in and asked me to cater for that event. I said, “Okay, but what do I do?” I had no idea how to set up catering because I was just getting started. But, with a lot of help and clues from Ken, we ended up catering the event at the Art Center. And since then, we’ve worked with UMS.

UMS: You said that you were new at that time.  What made you want to get into the restaurant industry? 

HD: At that time, I actually had no intention of getting involved in the restaurant business. I was working for another company, but that company transferred to Atlanta. I didn’t want to go to Atlanta. I was taking classes at Wayne State University for graduate school. So, I started working in restaurants: washing dishes, sweeping the floor, and eventually I started to prepare the food, then learning to cook, serving the customer, and so forth. I didn’t start from the top, I started from the beginning.

UMS: You have been a long-time partner with UMS sponsoring our ticket backs and hosting UMS artists/events at your restaurant. Why has it been important to you to continue to support UMS over all of these years?

AL: UMS is absolutely gathering a community, from Michigan, out of state, the world, and of course, the university. Ken is a connector, and I think over a period of time he has helped UMS build up a strong sense of community. From that first event in 1992 until now we have had a great time with it. We love to be a part of it.

habte dadi, almaz, dianne reeveshabte dadi, ken fischer, and kodo drummers

From our archives: On left, Habte Dadi, Ken Fischer, Almaz Lessanework, and the Kodo Drummers. On right, Habte Dadi and Almaz Lessanework with jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves.

Since moving to their current location on Washington Street, Habte and Almaz have extended their world-class hospitality by hosting many UMS artists and community gatherings in their restaurant, including Dianne Reeves, Wynton Marsalis, and the Kodo Drummers, to name a few. The story goes that when Wynton arrived at the restaurant following one of his performances with Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, he and the other musicians kept the place open until 4:30 in the morning! The Blue Nile partnership is one of our favorite demonstrations of the impact of Ken’s “Everybody In, Nobody Out” philosophy.