Making It
Ethiopian Immigrants Create Community With Coffee

By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, January 27, 2008

When Kenfe Bellay and Yalemzwed "Mimi" Desta opened Sidamo Coffee and Tea in late 2006, they were hoping to create more than a coffeehouse. They wanted, in the Ethiopian coffee tradition, to generate a sense of community.

It seems to have worked. After burglars broke into Sidamo -- twice -- on H Street NE, nearby residents rallied around Kenfe and Mimi. Local blogs blistered with indignation, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Alan Kimber found them a security camera, and customers dropped in to demonstrate support. "The whole neighborhood, they came and they showed their solidarity," Kenfe says. "They come, and they say 'sorry,' and they drink. It was a touching moment."

In Ethiopia, coffee is closely connected to community. During the monthly coffee ceremonies of Kenfe's youth, neighbors would gather to chat "about news or about their animals or about their crops and marriage or anything," he says. It was an approach he always wanted to perpetuate.

In the late 1970s, Kenfe fled the violent political repression of the Red Terror in Ethiopia. He spent time in Sudan and West Germany -- where he worked in a small coffee shop -- before joining his brothers in Washington about 20 years ago. "I did so many things," he says. He was a parking attendant and taxi driver and, for a while, operated a three-van shuttle service.

Kenfe sold the shuttle service when he and Mimi, whom he met and married almost 13 years ago, had children. Mimi, who is also from Ethiopia, worked at a hotel front desk while Kenfe helped care for their two daughters, now 9 and 11, and continued driving a cab and plotting his coffee shop. He took classes from the District's Small Business Development Center, did some research on his own and kept his eye out for a good location, settling on H Street because of its proximity to the Capitol and the revitalization efforts going on in the neighborhood. "I was sure it would come back, this area," he says.

Several years ago, a vice president at General Mills hailed Kenfe's cab, and Kenfe wound up sharing his dream with Eugene Kahn, who serves as a mentor and gave Kenfe a loan. "I think it's a great concept," Kahn says of Sidamo. "I think it's being executed very well by him and Mimi, and I think he's going to be very successful over time as that neighborhood gets redeveloped."

Kenfe and Mimi used the loan along with personal savings and home equity to fund the start-up costs and extensive renovations, which included everything from the chestnut countertop to a new heating and cooling system.

Now the long, narrow space is painted a restful green, with exposed brick walls and a warm wooden floor. The organic, fair-trade and shade-grown coffee from Ethiopia and other African nations is roasted on-site every morning. The shop also sells breakfast and lunch entrees; provides WiFi access; and hosts Ethiopian coffee ceremonies on Sundays.

"It's just been great for the neighborhood," says ANC commissioner Kimber.

Kenfe and Mimi split their time between the shop and their home in Laurel. Though they aren't turning a profit yet, they hope to be in "a good position" by the end of this year.

"I'm not a person to give up easily," Kenfe says. "If I failed, after I tried, that's another thing. But if I don't try, I will not feel good. And, also, I know it can be done."

Did an experience in another country inspire your business? E-mail

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company