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Anacostia gives coffee shop warm reception

Lidya Tewelde makes a latte during the lunch rush at Big Chair Coffee & Grill in Anacostia. Residents said they are happy to have a coffee shop in the neighborhood.
Lidya Tewelde makes a latte during the lunch rush at Big Chair Coffee & Grill in Anacostia. Residents said they are happy to have a coffee shop in the neighborhood. (Mark Gail/washington Post)
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By Akeya Dickson
Thursday, February 4, 2010

The true test for whether Anthony Wright would be a repeat customer at Big Chair Coffee & Grill was whether his steak sandwich could stand on its own without mambo sauce.

Twenty minutes after ordering, his plate sat before him at the bar, sans any trace of the hot sandwich or one piece of a french fry, mambo sauce long forgotten. A satisfied customer.

Wright, 47, an abandoned-vehicle investigator who works in Ward 7, is one of many customers who had heard the buzz about the coffee shop since the summer. He's just as happy to see the business open on Martin Luther King Avenue in Southeast Washington, an area that has struggled with development, as he is that the coffee shop is named for the Anacostia landmark across the street.

Although several businesses are closing and other projects in Southeast have stalled because of the lagging economy, the shop not only opened but did so in an area that's been avoided because of a reputation for being unsafe.

"It's crime, man; people are scared of Southeast," said Wright, a D.C. native who lives in Northwest.

After decades of working two and three jobs as a registered nurse and raising five kids, Ayehubizu Yimenu decided to do her part to change the business presence in the area. She scaled back to one nursing job and opened the coffee shop and eatery.

Yimenu was first inspired to open Big Chair Coffee while working as a nurse at Birney Elementary School, a few blocks up the street.

"When I would go on my break, I realized there was nowhere in this community for me or the teachers and office workers to get a cup of coffee," she said. "I thought it would be wise to open something for the community here, and I wanted to make history by opening the first coffee shop in Anacostia."

Yimenu started paying rent on the space, which formerly housed a plumbing store, nearly two years ago. Some of her friends didn't understand why she'd want to undertake such a project.

"The house was totally abandoned and falling apart. It was really scary upstairs, as there was a big hole in the middle of the floor. It took me a lot of money to even clean it up," she said.

Persistence paid off. Yimenu won a La Marzocco espresso machine, which used to be at the Murky Coffee in Clarendon, at a tax auction and some good accompanying luck from the beloved coffee bar, which closed last year.

Downstairs there is a bar with stools and some booths for seating. Yimenu encourages customers to bring their laptops and books to the upstairs area, which has sofas and tables to create a communal vibe. Artwork, in a rotating exhibition from the neighboring Honfleur Gallery, hangs on each of the mint-green walls.

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