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Chez Hareg moves into warehouse, new market on H Street

Monday - 3/25/2013, 5:03pm  ET

Hareg Messert, owner of Chez Hareg bakery, is moving on up in the world of vegan cakes and cookies.

The pastry chef turned entrepreneur is moving into a new 5,000-square-foot production facility, plans to start an organic market and bakery on H Street NE with her cousin and open at least one Chez Hareg cafe in the next couple of years.

Messert, a native of Ethiopia and a former Ritz-Carlton pastry chef who opened her own bakery in 2007, recently signed a deal to begin distributing her vegan cookies to Costco Wholesale Corp. The deal required the scale-up from her current 1,600-square-foot Chez Hareg space on Rhode Island Avenue NE.

The Costco deal is "a big step for me," Messert said. She has already been distributing to some Whole Foods Market Inc. and Mom's Organic Market stores in the region. Those deliveries, and the rest of her bakery business, require five employees to cut about 1,000 cookies per day.

In the new facility, Messert is investing in a machine that will be able to cut 3,000 cookies in an hour. She wants to be sure there is no loss in quality, however. (Anyone who has tasted her vegan palmier or shortbread cookies will know why — they're unbelievably good.)

Messert currently has 11 employees and expects to more than double that in the new warehouse on Mount Olivet Road NE. After it opens — she hopes in mid-April — she will close the Rhode Island Avenue bakery.

She won't be retail-less for long, however. Messert and her cousin, George Ayele, will open the Chez Hareg Market at 806 H St. NE by the middle of May.

The market will sell not only Chez Hareg baked goods, but also organic and local products from around the region. Messert envisions it being like a Mom's Organic Market but with more of a focus on local.

"We've been pushing to do a local market, trying to give a chance to local, community producers to sell their products," she said. "So if someone in the neighborhood makes and cans unbelievable jams, for example, they can have a place for them."

The market will have a coffee bar and juice bar and also offer special events such as cooking classes, she said.

Once both the warehouse and the market are running smoothly, Messert plans to turn her eye toward a cafe. She already has looked at space in the CityMarket at O development in the Shaw neighborhood, but all the spaces small enough for her cafe (she is looking for 800 to 1,000 square feet) have already been leased.

Something that size will likely become available once the showroom space closes, which could mean a Chez Hareg Cafe could be a reality in about two years.

"That's actually going to be a good time for me," Messert said, adding that she eventually hopes to open a cafe in Virginia to cater to that area's Ethiopian population.

That delay is just fine because she doesn't want to grow too fast, Messert said. At least at first, Chez Hareg will not distribute to as many Costco locations as the superstore originally offered. She took the same approach with Whole Foods and still only distributes to 21 out of 37 Whole Foods in the mid-Atlantic region.

I like to control my steps," Messert said. "I'm not trying to push myself too far before we are ready."

© 2013 American City Business Journals, Inc.