by Elizabeth Turnbull
Efrem Fesaha had an ambitious dream — to bring a unique coffee experience to Seattle, one of the coffee capitals of the world. And now, in 2022, he’s been recognized for it, receiving the title of both Washington Small-Business Person of the Year and Pacific Northwest Small-Business Person of the Year.
Unlike many coffee-making practices, where the coffee beans are roasted in advance, in the East African coffee ceremonies, the coffee is roasted immediately before consumption.
This is an experience that residents of King County have now been able to enjoy at Boon Boona Coffee cafés for roughly three years — thanks to Fesaha and the community members who helped him get his business off the ground.
“[The awards] just made me pause for a moment and really say, ‘Look at where you’ve gotten,’” Fesaha told the Emerald in an interview Friday, May 13. “‘[And] look at all the people that have helped get you there.’”
When Fesaha started his business in 2012, he was distributing coffee beans to the East African community in the area. After reaching out to his family in Ethiopia to help with sourcing the coffee, he turned to local grocery stores in the East African community who would sell his coffee beans.
“There’s two grocery stores who were the first ones that offered me space on their counters,” Fesaha said. “A big grocery store isn’t gonna do that. Especially not for the kind of product I was trying to sell. Nobody wants really green coffee; they want roasted coffee.”
Even with community members and family on his side, the burden of starting a business wasn’t always smooth sailing. After difficulties in getting a loan for his business, Fesaha created a business plan using resources from SCORE and the Washington Women’s Business Center, and he was able to secure a loan in 2019.
With this money, he opened the original Boon Boona café in Renton, at 724 S 3rd St., which is both a roastery and café. Today, Boon Boona has an additional location in Seattle at 1223 E Cherry St., employs a total of 20 staff, and roasts over 100,000 pounds of coffee.
“Like most Ethiopians and Eritreans, you grow up with [this coffee],” Fesaha, who himself grew up in the White Center area, said. “There’s a traditional component which I was familiar with, growing up in our household.”
It was a trip to Asmara, Eritrea, in 2011 at the age of 27 that he realized how Eritrean coffee culture had something the U.S. didn’t.
“They would roast in the back of the café. And then, you know, those beans would be used throughout the day,” Fesaha said. “It was both a contemporary and a traditional kind of approach to coffee consumption or coffee culture that I was seeing there, that I wasn’t seeing here.”
Customers were encouraged to take in the experience, and many would stay in the café for hours, something that Boon Boona cafés encourage to this day.
“It’s supposed to be very warm, very inviting,” Fesaha said. “It’s the best way to produce community.”
Once the pandemic is less of a concern, Fesaha hopes to resume live music and poetry nights in the Renton café, and he hopes that both cafés will be a space where locals can discover a new style of coffee and personal connections.
“Someone could be on their first date, or meet their potential partner there,” Fesaha said. “It’s supposed to be a space where people can meet others.”
Elizabeth Turnbull is a journalist with reporting experience in the U.S. and the Middle East. She has a passion for covering human-centric issues and doing so consistently.
📸 Featured Image: Boon Boona Coffee founder Efrem Fesaha. (Photo: Alex Garland)
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