People of SU

Coffee Boon

Written by Andrew Binion

February 22, 2023

Photo of owner of Boon Boona Coffee.

Image credit: Yosef Kalinko

As he just opened his third cafe, Seattle University MBA candidate Efrem Fesaha says finding a business you love—that helps others—is key. 

As we celebrate Black History Month, The Newsroom is spotlighting Black-owned small business owners and civic leaders. In this first installment, get to know Efrem Fesaha, the man behind Boon Boona Coffee. 

Representation matters in coffee and Boon Boona Coffee founder and owner Efrem Fesaha is telling the story of the African origins of the brew that keeps Seattle buzzing.

The Seattle University MBA candidate’s family hails from Eritrea, next to Ethiopia and across the Red Sea from Yemen, the lands of coffee’s genesis. 

Inspired by the social importance of coffee in East Africa, Fesaha sees his work as telling the 1,000-year-old story of one of the world’s most traded, and oldest, commodities.

“Without that knowledge, that history, so often it won’t be told or it will be told incorrectly,” he says. “It’s a big part of our culture, a big part of how we socialize and commune.”

Fesaha grew up in West Seattle and was working in finance when he started pitching his plan to potential investors, explaining the central place coffee holds in East African life. But he was confronted by questions about how he planned to compete with the major coffee brands commonly associated with Seattle.

Rather than go head-to-head with what he calls “the big dogs,” Fesaha’s intent has always been to honor the African origins of coffee and about 10 years ago started selling green coffee beans—the raw product that East Africans roast at home to the desired profile.

“It really was to bring some authenticity, some history, some understanding around where coffee originated,” Fesaha says. “For me, it was really important to source from Africa, to find ways to give back and pay higher rates for coffee, to find producers, importers and exporters and create a supply chain.”

Raw coffee beans were just the beginning of the story. He opened his first cafe in downtown Renton in January 2019, where his roasting operation is now located.

Boon Boona Coffee literally means “Coffee Coffee Coffee,” as Boon is the word for coffee in Eritrea and parts of Kenya, whereas Boona is commonly used in Ethiopia. The face on the brand’s logo comes from traditional Ethiopian iconography and art. 

As other cafes were closing due to measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, in April 2021 Fesaha opened his second cafe on 12th Avenue near East Cherry Street, a now frequent spot for SU students looking for that java fix. Last year he was named Washington Small Business Person of the Year.

Though Fesaha wants customers to be able to breeze in and out with their coffee and locally sourced foods, he wants the cafes to be more than that. He envisions them as communal spaces for hanging out and holding community events.

Earlier this month Fesaha opened his third cafe location, at the University of Washington Bookstore on The Ave, bringing the number of Boon Boona employees to about 25.

Though Fesaha admits he was too hard on himself during the first years of his endeavor, loving his work and helping others was what allowed him to weather the storms that come with being a small business owner.

“There are some very foundational things that make it challenging,” Fesaha says of Black-owned businesses, from systemic racism to redlining and gentrification. 

His advice to Black entrepreneurs, and anybody interested in starting their own business, is twofold: Find something you are passionate about and make the work benefit others, be it a community, those you are buying from or those working for you. (Boon Boona supports an array of area nonprofits including Glitter Cat, which promotes the hiring and career advancement of marginalized communities.)

“If you are doing it out of a sense of love and passion, it will help you drive through the difficult times and it will all be worth it.”