With Cafe Buunni, Sarina Prabasi and Elias Gurmu Bring Slow Coffee to a Bustling NYC - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

With Cafe Buunni, Sarina Prabasi and Elias Gurmu Bring Slow Coffee to a Bustling NYC

In a quiet residential pocket of Washington Heights in Manhattan, amidst brick Art Deco apartment buildings, a diverse crowd of regulars congregates in front of Cafe Buunni, coffee cups in hand. Inside the tiny café, which opened in 2012, there are the usual sounds and smells of a specialty coffee shop—the whirring coffee grinder, the steaming of milk, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee. Subtle hints of the coffee shop’s conceptual origins fill the space, from the small but majestic Ethiopian macchiato with its tan, milky base, its dark middle coffee stripe, and its foamy white top, to bags of freshly roasted Yirgacheffe and Harrar coffee beans for sale.

“When Elias and I first moved to New York from Addis [Ababa], we were trying to bring that ethos around Ethiopian coffee,” says Sarina Prabasi, co-owner of Cafe Buunni with her husband, Elias Gurmu. They now own and operate three cafés in upper Manhattan and an e-commerce business that specializes in Ethiopian single-origin coffee.

“It’s very hard to bring any business from another country and implement it here,” says Gurmu, who was a serial entrepreneur in his hometown of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. His businesses ranged from restaurants to pharmaceutical distribution. Gurmu and Prabasi’s courtship started while sipping macchiatos at the coffee shops of Bole, the bustling neighborhood dotted with hotels and embassies where Gurmu grew up and Prabasi worked. Prabasi had been working at various NGOs in Ethiopia, a country she fell in love with upon first visit. “I kept bumping into him,” recalls Prabasi of Gurmu, initially introduced by someone in her office. “We started saying hi and then, I don’t even remember who said, ‘Let’s have coffee.’ ” They sampled nearly every macchiato that Addis Ababa’s cafés had to offer.

While Ethiopia has a tradition of home roasting, brewing, and drinking coffee with family and friends, there’s also a strong urban café culture in Addis Ababa and other Ethiopian cities and towns. When Italy attempted to colonize Ethiopia twice—first in the late 19th century, then from 1935 to 1936—some Italians remained, as did their espresso machines, many of which have been maintained and continue to be used in cafés today. Prabasi and Gurmu were regulars at Peacock, a now-closed café where they knew the entire staff.

After getting married and welcoming their first child, Gurmu and Prabasi were ready for a change and moved to New York City. As they settled into their new neighborhood, planning for Buunni to be an e-commerce and wholesale business only, they couldn’t help but notice how a shuttered shoe repair shop would be an ideal spot for a cozy Ethiopian coffeehouse. They made Buunni into a physical business in addition to virtual.

They didn’t want to do a “cut and paste,” as Prabasi describes it, of an Ethiopian coffeehouse, or make it look like a museum with Ethiopian objects decorating every nook and cranny, geometric motifs covering all surfaces. Instead, they concentrated on the coffee and culture surrounding it, and on cultivating an experience “about pleasure, about conversation,” says Prabasi.

Gurmu and Prabasi describe the ethos of Ethiopian coffee culture as “slow down and stay awhile.” In front of Buunni’s glass and chartreuse façade in Washington Heights, the newly constructed outdoor seating area is at capacity and customers spill out beyond. Regulars of all types—professionals, young families, artists, neighborhood fixtures like one woman sporting a “Cat Mama” baseball cap—chat, read, or look at their phones. Some customers dart in and out of Buunni while running errands, kids on scooters in tow, sipping as they exit, or stopping for a moment to let their dogs sniff around and possibly score a snack.

While “slow coffee” and that community-centric ethos are paramount to Buunni, it’s still all about the bean. Ethiopia is renowned for its outstanding single-origin coffees. The country was predicted to produce about 450,000 metric tons of coffee last year, with 234,000 for export, according to the USDA. Gurmu notes that thousands of coffee varieties grow in Ethiopia, and the best known in the U.S. are typically Yirgacheffe and Harrar, named after the regions where they grow. Yirgacheffe has a floral, citrusy flavor and grows in southern Ethiopia at a high elevation in lush terrain. The bean is considered to have such a distinct character that it’s often mixed into coffee blends to add flavor.

They didn’t want to do a “cut and paste,” as Prabasi describes it, of an Ethiopian coffeehouse, or make it look like a museum with Ethiopian objects decorating every nook and cranny, geometric motifs covering all surfaces.

Harrar is grown in drier, desert-like lowlands, with a rich blueberry flavor. Harrar’s “cherries,” the fruit picked off the bush where the bean is extracted, are always sun-dried due to the region’s lack of water, unlike other cherries that are typically water processed, although some other varieties have started to be sun-dried as well to conserve water. Buunni also sells Limu, which Prabasi says has a cult following because of its slightly smoky flavor. Grown in the Rift Valley highlands, Sidama is another popular single-origin coffee with a notable strawberry flavor.

Ethiopian beans generally tend to be roasted lighter to bring out their unique flavors, but Gurmu and Prabasi don’t have a set formula. Like any crop that grows in soil, each season’s harvest can yield coffees with a slightly different flavor, depending on weather conditions like heavy rains, drought, sun to cloud ratios, and high or low temperatures. At the roastery they use in New Jersey, each coffee shipment is sample roasted so Gurmu and Prabasi can choose a light, medium, or dark roast (often they opt for two different roasts so customers can choose); Prabasi calls the process a mix of art and science.

It was initially challenging for Gurmu to launch a business in a new city where he had no connections, and where few spoke his mother tongue. But he’s learned and even marvels at New York City’s efficiency when getting a business registered. Special skill sets have evolved over the years: Gurmu is the operations person, while Prabasi has gravitated toward customer relations.

Perhaps due to Prabasi’s childhood living in multiple countries—including Nepal, her heritage; the Netherlands, where she was born; and the U.S., where she attended Smith College—she’s at ease amid all types of people. Prior to the pandemic she created a reading series at Buunni celebrating authors with different backgrounds, and she hosted open mic nights and postcard writing events for campaigning politicians, such as U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also known as AOC. “Before she was an acronym!” Prabasi says proudly, “when she was the wildcard candidate with no backing.”

While the pandemic forced Buunni to shut down all social events at their cafés and offer limited in-house service, a few silver linings have emerged over the past year. More of their customers brewed at home last year, which translated to a keener interest in their beans. According to a survey by the National Coffee Association, 27 percent of coffee drinkers tried to re-create their coffee shop drinks at home during the pandemic. Instead of answering questions about the more mundane aspects of running coffee shops, Prabasi and Gurmu now field emails, calls, and texts about the particulars and flavor profiles of their coffees. Buunni’s coffee bean subscription program took off during the pandemic, and they started an interactive virtual coffee tasting series. Between their cafés and e-commerce, Gurmu estimates Buunni goes through about 400 pounds of coffee a week.

Another pandemic-inspired change at Buunni—besides the creation of locally made Buunni swag like mugs and T-shirts— has been the emergence of Ethiopian meals available for pick up or delivery. Misr, spiced red lentils, and atkilt alicha, seasonal mixed vegetables, along with other traditional dishes are offered as prepackaged meals. It’s been so popular among Buunni customers that Prabasi and Gurmu are considering putting some dishes on the café’s menu, which has primarily offered locally made baked goods and sandwiches.

Buunni sources beans from cooperatives in Ethiopia that work with farmers who grow coffee in their yards or on tiny farms. Approximately 80 percent of Buunni’s Ethiopian coffee is organic and Fair Trade certified. Gurmu and Prabasi are confident that much of the remaining 20 percent they purchase is grown without chemicals. “They can’t even afford to buy any fertilizer,” explains Gurmu. “They use natural fertilizer, composting.” He adds that many farmers are technically organic but don’t have the money or resources to get certified.

One aspect of Ethiopia’s coffee industry that concerns Gurmu and Prabasi is the trend of former coffee farmers who now grow khat, a leaf that’s a stimulant when chewed. Climate change’s unpredictable weather patterns, coupled with the current low price of coffee set by the government, has made growing coffee an untenable option for many farmers. Khat is popular in the surrounding areas and in Middle Eastern countries, it’s easy to grow, and it has several harvests when coffee only has one. So far this trend hasn’t impacted Buunni, but Gurmu and Prabasi are worried about the future of the coffee industry in Ethiopia.

Appreciating what coffee can facilitate—a conversation and a shared moment—is what keeps Prabasi and Gurmu inspired by their craft. “We still love coffee,” says Prabasi, noting how it’s inextricably intertwined with their personal and professional lives. “Sometimes we’ll go to somebody else’s coffee shop if we want to just sit and talk,” says Prabasi with a laugh. Often, though, they’ll be found at one or another of the Buunni cafés, Ethiopian macchiatos in hand.

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