South End Coffee entrepreneur wins WA Small Business of the Year award

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 has 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 beforehand, in East African coffee ceremonies the coffee is roasted immediately before consumption.

It’s an experience King County residents have been able to enjoy at Boon Boona Coffees for about three years now – thanks to Fesaha and the community members who helped him start his business.

“[The awards] just made me pause for a moment and really say, “Look where you’re at,” Fesaha told the emerald in an interview Friday, May 13. “‘[And] look at all the people who helped you get there.

When Fesaha started his business in 2012, he was distributing coffee beans to the East African community in the area. After contacting his family in Ethiopia to help source coffee, he turned to local grocery stores in the East African community that would sell his coffee beans.

“There are two grocery stores that were the first to offer me space on their counters,” Fesaha said. “A big grocery store won’t do that. Especially not for the kind of product I was trying to sell. No one really wants green coffee; they want roasted coffee.

Even with community members and her family by her side, the burden of starting a business has not always been easy. After struggling to get 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 get a loan in 2019.

With that money, he opened the first Boon Boona cafe in Renton, at 724 S 3rd St., which is both a roastery and a cafe. Today, Boon Boona has an additional Seattle location at 1223 E Cherry St., employs a total of 20 people, and roasts over 100,000 pounds of coffee.

“Like most Ethiopians and Eritreans, you grow up with [this coffee]said Fesaha, who himself grew up in the White Center area. “There’s a traditional component that I knew of growing up in our household.”

It was during a trip to Asmara, Eritrea in 2011, at the age of 27, that he realized how much Eritrean coffee culture had something that the United States did not have. .

“They were roasting at the bottom of the cafe. And then, you know, those beans would be used throughout the day,” Fesaha said. “It was both a contemporary and traditional take on coffee drinking or coffee culture that I saw there, that I didn’t see here.”

Customers were encouraged to have the experience, and many would stay in the cafe for hours, which Boon Boona cafes encourage to this day.

“It’s supposed to be very warm, very inviting,” Fesaha said. “It’s the best way to produce a community.”

Once the pandemic is less of a concern, Fesaha hopes to resume live music and poetry nights at Cafe Renton, and he hopes the two cafes will be a space where locals can experience a new style of cafe and personal connections.

“Someone could be on their first date or meet their potential partner there,” Fesaha said. “It’s meant to be a space where people can meet.”

Elizabeth Turnbull is a journalist with reporting experience in the United States and the Middle East. She has a passion for covering human-centric issues and doing it consistently.

📸 The featured image: Efrem Fesaha, founder of Boon Boona Coffee. (Photo: Alex Garlande)

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