by Alexa Peters
In 2016, Black coffee professional Michelle Johnson in an article titled, “The Black Cup of Excellence: Being Black in Specialty Coffee,” wrote the following:
“Specialty coffee is a progressive industry, but being Black in a community majority of [w]hites still lends itself to the same oppression felt across multiple industries in our country and around the world.”
The article, which has since been taken down, shook the coffee industry to its core, and it began an industry-wide conversation that has intensified since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and has prompted more industry experts to speak out against what coffee writer Umeko Motoyoshi calls “anti-blackness in specialty coffee.” From her perspective, the industry’s persistent racism is born largely from its reluctance to acknowledge and learn about the African roots of coffee itself.
That’s where Efrem Fesaha, the owner of Seattle’s Boon Boona Coffee, comes in. Raised in West Seattle as the son of two Eritrean immigrants, Fesaha has spent the last three years establishing his Renton and Capitol Hill coffee shops dedicated to spreading the rich African coffee history to local java aficionados.
Growing up Eritrean in the birth-city of Starbucks, Fesaha was exposed to the best of both coffee worlds — the quick pit-stop for an elaborate Italian-inspired espresso drink and the relaxed pace of a traditional African coffee ceremony, which involves roasting green coffee over heat, grinding it with a mortar and pestle, putting it in the traditional coffee pot called a jebena, adding water, letting it boil, and partaking in three rounds of coffee and conversation, which should take a minimum of one hour.
“Most don’t know about it — most think coffee originated out of Italy — but it’s been consumed for hundreds if not thousands of years in East Africa, and we continue to practice this tradition in the diaspora,” said Fesaha.
Still, it wasn’t until a trip to Eritrea in 2011 that Fesaha, who worked in corporate finance until the 2008 recession, thought about making coffee a career. In particular, it was during a visit to Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, which still bears the evidence of Italy’s fifty-year colonization of Eritrea, that Fesaha found that his understanding of and passion for coffee deepened.
“[Italy] had a lot of influence on architecture and espresso bars and bakeries and such, so in downtown Asmara there are quite a few cafés,” said Fesaha. “There was one in particular, and they would roast their own coffee there, and they had delicious cappuccinos.”
Fesaha recalls that the pungent scent of coffee from the nearby roaster saturated the café and how patrons nursed their cups and conversed for several hours at a time.
“That awakened me to the experience of coffee,” said Fesaha. “And within Asmara specifically I saw [the traditional style and] this contemporary style of coffee consumption that I was used to here in Seattle combined.”
Fesaha returned home to Seattle inspired by this marriage of Western and Eastern coffee consumption, which led him to begin conceptualizing a new type of café for the region and eventually to opening the first Boon Boona location in Renton in January 2019.
“The word ‘boon’ or ‘boona’ is how we say coffee in East Africa. ‘Boon’ is more common in Eritrea and parts of Kenya; ‘boona’ you’ll hear more in Ethiopia,” said Fesaha.
Boon Boona offers the Italian-inspired espresso drinks Seattleites are used to, but with a twist — all their beans are sustainably sourced from African growers and roasted at their Renton café. Fesaha offers the traditional East African coffee ceremony as well as coffees brewed with traditional African spices and ingredients. It’s designed to offer familiarity for the large population of East African immigrants in Seattle and to expose Westerners to a more nuanced look at African culture.
“The narrative and the education of Africa here in America and the Western world has been portrayed just as safaris and animals. We don’t think that there’s this complexity to things,” said Fesaha. “That gold is primarily from there, diamonds primarily from there, coffee originated out of there — things like that are not known [in America]. It’s obvious the history was definitely not shared to make Africans and African Americans look less-than. That narrative continues to fuel that [idea of] superiority of the white race.”
To bolster the community-education component to his work, Fesaha engages his customers on the African roots of coffee as they hang out in the café, produces informational content on the café’s YouTube channel, and hosts a variety of regular events. Pre-COVID-19, Sai Samineni, a Boon Boona customer who lives near Renton, would hang out almost daily at the cafe to enjoy the art, music, and educational events on offer.
“It was the epicenter of my universe. I attended everything,” said Samineni. “They would have immigrant or woman-owned and refugee-owned food businesses and educational programming about various ethnic cuisines; obviously there’s standard coffee education and knowledge about growers; they would also have Renton police come and talk.”
When the pandemic hit, shutting Boon Boona down completely for months, Samineni says her “whole social life fell apart.” Fesaha, at this point, was concerned about losing everything.
“I had to have a serious conversation with the team, like, ‘I wish this wasn’t the case but I’m going to have to put everybody on standby,’” said Fesaha. “It was a tough two months and it was sad and it was stressful. That was more stressful than any other time of [operating] the business.”
Still, while the café was dark, Fesaha donated coffee to George Floyd protestors and health care workers on the frontlines and continued to partner with local brands like Beach Bakery, Black Coffee Northwest, Dahlia Bakery, Fresh Flours, and Bakery Nouveau — just a few of the local businesses that carry Boon Boona’s products. And by the third month of the shutdown, things started to look up.
“Online business was starting to really grow,” said Fesaha. “We were noticing like, ‘Okay, there’re more people landing on our website and they’re ordering coffee, so let’s upgrade our website, let’s get some incentives going’ … That’s kind of how we survived.”
Gradually, Fesaha brought back employees, and by October 2020, he was able to return to his plans for a second café, which opened last April at 12th Avenue and Cherry Street in Capitol Hill. Both locations are open for takeout at present, with plans to fully reopen in the coming months. When that happens, Fesaha intends to make the Capitol Hill Boon Boona every bit the neighborhood hub their Renton café is.
“Boon Boona is the place,” said Samineni. “It’s about coffee and reclaiming the authentic history of coffee, but it’s also more than that. Efrem uses coffee almost like an art form to build community.”
Alexa Peters is a freelance journalist and copywriter living in the Seattle area. Her work has appeared in The Seattle Times, The Washington Post, Leafly, Downbeat Magazine, Healthline, and more. Her Twitter is @itsallwritebyme and her Instagram is @alexapeterswrites.
📸 Featured Image: Boon Boona founder Efrem Fesaha. (Photo: Alex Garland)
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