Uncommon Ground

An Ethiopian immigrant reaches out to Washington, D.C., with the sweet-scented incense and hand-roasted beans of one of the world's oldest coffee ceremonies.

Uncommon Ground

At two o’clock a woman emerges from the hidden back portion of the store. Dressed in a floor-length white dress and traditional headscarf, she walks to the front of Sidamo Coffee, on H Street in Washington, D.C., and sets herself down on a stool low to the ground. At her feet there’s a tray of ten miniature handle-less cups with red, green and blue leaf designs. Burlap coffee sacks surround her, walling off the area, and an intricately woven green square rug marks the center of the action.

Patrons seated at the few tables that fit in the narrow space continue to chatter and laugh. They’re unaware of what’s about to happen, and their host doesn’t exactly announce it.

Instead, she casually lights incense in a bowl, filling the air with a waft of smoke. When it comes time to light her hotplate, the lighter sticks. And sticks. She mutters under her breath and keeps trying until, at last, she has an open flame to roast her coffee. Once roasted, the beans are ground into a powder, and brewed in a jebena—a special pot that tends to be passed down from different generations; in Ethiopia, jebenas vary according to the village they originate from. This one is wooden with leaf patterns crafted into the bottom portion of the pot, near where a nose lets out steam.

Roasting the beans during the coffee ceremony.
Roasting the beans during the coffee ceremony.

It takes nearly a half-hour from the start to the presentation of the finished cups. Each step is completed by hand and carried out with drum-heavy music in the background. All the while, the female employee is silent, fixated on what she’s doing. Once the smell of coffee fills the store the woman pours the dark brown liquid into each cup with delicate precision and carefully walks them over to individuals one at a time. The blend she produces is intense and thick, but guests can add in milk or sugar to tamp it down a bit.

At a two-person table a few feet away sits her boss, Kenfe Bellay. Though he doesn’t go out of his way to explain the ceremony, if prompted, he will answer endless questions. Hosting the coffee ceremony is, after all, his brainchild.

The cafe's owner, Mr. Kenfe Bellay
The cafe’s owner, Mr. Kenfe Bellay

“It’s roasted right then and there,” Bellay says. “It’s ground right there. And then it’s boiled right there. There’s no better way than that to make coffee, and so many people don’t take the care to do all of that. It’s special coffee.”

Bellay is Ethiopian and Sidamo is his tribute to his homeland. The small coffeehouse, which he opened in 2006 with his wife Mimi, hosts a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony every week. That Bellay and his staff are nonchalant in their approach to sharing the ritual with customers belies its significance. It’s said to be the oldest coffee ceremony performed in the world, and to this day holds a key place in the lives of Ethiopians of all walks of life. Bellay likens it to a tea ceremony in Japan, only with coffee, Ethiopia’s treasured beverage.

“The coffee ceremony is everything,” he says.

In Ethiopia, coffee ceremonies go back hundreds of years. The ritual was practiced whether families lived in remote villages or more populated parts of the country. And to this day coffee ceremonies rise above socioeconomic, religious and other demographic differences.

Roasted coffee beans from the ceremony
Roasted coffee beans from the ceremony

“No matter whether you were Jewish, Christian or Muslim you participated in the coffee ceremony,” Bellay says. “It’s really the one common thing.”

A coffee ceremony sometimes happens among a single family in their own home. But more often it’s a larger gathering that brings many family units together. Beyond simply preparing and drinking coffee, the daily tradition has served as a community meeting of the minds.

After the beans are roasted, she offers for everyone in the cafe to smell them.
After the beans are roasted, she offers for everyone in the cafe to smell them.

Custom dictates the use of small cups, and the first person served is always the eldest. As the younger men and women take their turns receiving cups of coffee, the old men talk, passing wisdom between sips. According to Bellay, when members of a village argued, their spat often was debated publicly and resolved as a part of the coffee ceremony. Suspected criminals were tried during these ceremonies. Ultimately it was—and still remains—a powerful means to bring together different generations.

“The coffee ceremony is a way to bring people together,” says Bellay, who began participating at age five or six. “It gives them a tool to solve problems.”

At Sidamo, the Sunday coffee ceremony is designed to be inclusive of Washingtonians of all varieties—regardless of race, class, gender, age, religion. How well this is achieved varies greatly from week to week. Sometimes there’s a crowd, and sometimes—such as this Memorial Day weekend—there’s no one there but a few regular customers. In a city with a dearth of independent coffee shops, many D.C. residents simply come in for the coffee, knowing it’s brewed fresh daily. Some patrons know of Bellay’s heritage, and his wish to carry on his culture. Others just want coffee.

Bellay was forced to leave Ethiopia three decades ago. In the late 1970s a violent political campaign known as the Red Terror drove out his family and resulted in the killings of tens of thousands of citizens. He first settled on the edge of Sudan before temporarily moving to Germany. Eventually, in the mid- ’80s, he followed his brothers to D.C. With each move, Bellay had to start over.

“I did all things,” he says,” whatever I could. I was working really hard all the time.”

That included running a shuttle company as well as working as a taxi driver. In the course of that work Bellay made a friend who changed his life. Pulling up in front of the Convention Center one day following an event, he picked up Eugene Kahn, then a vice president at General Mills.

Coffee ceremony station
A coffee ceremony station.

“I told him I wanted to open a coffee shop,” Bellay says of Kahn. “When he dropped me off he told me to come back tomorrow and pick him up there. And he gave me his card.” Over the next few months, Kahn offered mentorship, guidance and even some funds to assist Bellay in opening Sidamo. They’re still friends, and Kahn remains a source of business guidance, checking in when he has time off from his work with the Gates Foundation, which takes him to Africa for months at a time.

While working odd jobs, Bellay took classes at D.C.’s Small Business Development Center. At the center, he learned how to write a business plan, and open and run a small business. He also took online classes in other disciplines like coffee production, which always interested him.

“Coffee’s a part of me,” he explains. “My first goal was to do this. I was working for so many years in these other types of jobs to get here, to save up and eventually open the store.”

According to Census data, the Washington Metropolitan region is home to somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 Ethiopians. The migration from Ethiopia to D.C. began in the 1970s when refugees overwhelmingly set up camp in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. That decade saw the start of an influx of immigrants to the corridor from a host of nations–Caribbean, European, Latin, in addition to African. Adams Morgan, at that point, began transforming into a nightlife destination and hub for restaurants representing these varying ethnicities. As housing prices rose, Ethiopians and other immigrant groups had to find a new community. The U Street area, especially near its intersection with 9th Street, filled the need. The corridor has since become known as “Little Ethiopia” as a steady crop of ethnic restaurants and stores popped up.

When Bellay decided on a location for Sidamo, he strayed from Little Ethiopia, seeing an opportunity in a new neighborhood. Now, H Street has become popular, but in the early 2000s the neighborhood was run-down with little foot traffic, barely any retail and a reputation for being unsafe. Sidamo’s was one of the first new businesses to open in the corridor. After identifying a building Bellay and his wife spent three monthsreadying the inside and outside spaces.

“It was piled in trash,” Bellay says of the back portion of the property. “But we cleaned it up.”

Besides clearing away garbage to make way for a seating area, they also installed hardwood floors and added personal touches like African works of art and signage. The work has, it seems, paid off. His customers are a mix of Washingtonians, some Ethiopians but spanning a wide range of ethnicities and ages.

“We had customers right away,” Bellay says. “D.C.’s tough because it’s so transient. But we have some people who have come in since the beginning.”

Three years ago Sidamo expanded to a second shop in Howard County, Maryland. Bellay’s wife, Mimi, manages that location while he runs their original store. Most days the Ethiopian refugee can be found at Sidamo, mingling with patrons, sitting in the garden area or inside the coffeehouse he worked so hard to build. Bellay is always sipping on the coffee his staff brews.

“I’ll have fifteen cups in a day,” he says. “But they’re small cups like back in Ethiopia.”