Solomon Dubie, the founder and co-owner of Avole coffeeHe still remembers his first attempt to make coffee for his mother. He was 8 years old, grew up in Queen Anne in the mid-1990s and set an early morning alarm clock. He wanted to imitate what he had taught his mother many times – to roast raw, unwashed beans slowly in a pan. Instead, he burned the coffee and woke her up. Dubie remained undeterred. “I just remember her showing me and I just remember doing it over and over and getting better at it,” he says. Eventually, his mother taught him the intricacies of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, and after some practice, Dubie became the household’s main coffee maker.
In the years that followed, this ceremony has played a key role in all of Dubie’s major moments in life – birthdays, times of loss, family celebrations. Some of his earliest coffee memories include his mother visiting friends or talking to her best friend on the phone while she was making the coffee. A standard version of the ritual involves hand roasting the beans and serving three cups of coffee from the jebena, a traditional Ethiopian ceramic coffee pot. “Roasting coffee is the greatest highlight for energizing the room,” says Dubie, describing how his mother turned on the stove, put the beans in a pan, and let them fry and pop. Once they changed color, she would hand grind the beans and add the soil to the jebena for brewing. From a technical point of view, it required precision: she had to roast the beans deep enough to emphasize their character and complexity, but she had to know how to pull them before the toasted aroma that perfumed her kitchen turned to acrid smoke. But the ceremony had always included more than just the mechanics of making coffee; It was about sharing food and connecting with people and has been an important part of social life in Ethiopian villages for centuries.
About 25 years after his first failed foray into coffee-making, Dubie, along with co-owners Gavin Amos and Getachew Enbiale (Dubie’s brother), are now looking to honor that legacy with a highly anticipated new project that promises to be Seattle’s biggest café debut Summer.
Cafe Avole’s original Brighton location recently closed after Dubie failed to renegotiate a lease with the building’s new landlords. In its five-year term, the café has become an integral part of Seattle’s vibrant Ethiopian café scene alongside pillars such as Kaffa coffee and wine bar and Adugenet Ethiopian Cuisine & Bar.
Coming soon in the Central District of Seattle in the historic Liberty Bank Building, right next to the nationally recognized Communion bar and restaurant. At its premiere, the revival of the shop, like its predecessor, will emphasize roasting from a single source, while at the same time offering a simplified version of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony and selling the sprayed clay jebenas for people at home. In this way, says Dubie, he wants to create a community hub and educational experience where people can have intellectual conversations while learning about the cultural significance of Ethiopian coffee.
The origins of coffee itself can be traced back to Ethiopia. Legend has it that around AD 850 a young Abyssinian goatherd named Kaldi (also spelled Khalid) noticed that the animals he was prone to were more energetic after eating certain berries from certain trees that grew on the Ethiopian plateau. Curious about the nature of the fruit, Kaldi tried the berries himself and felt the same invigorating effect. He then preached at a local monastery in Kaffa, where the monks, fascinated by Kaldi’s discovery, made a drink from the cooked coffee cherries that eventually spread to the Arabian Peninsula and around the world.
“Some families in Ethiopia have been making coffee for thousands of years,” says Dubie, who continues to forge strong relationships with small producers who understand the deep history and nuances of Ethiopian coffee. He wants to ensure that regional varieties are better understood in the coffee world, such as Guji coffee from the south of the country, which Dubie describes as fruity with citrus notes (the taste profile is also vintage and specific to plants). In the past, Dubie has offered subscriptions to the roasts he sells, and he plans in the future to offer unmixed Avole K mugs for coffee drinkers to brew at home.
But Cafe Avole’s new location is not only tied to Ethiopian coffee history, it will also be a part of local history. It was selected specifically for the Liberty Bank address by the nonprofit organization Community roots housingwho manages the property in collaboration with other local organizations including the Africatown Community Land Trust, Byrd Barr Place, and the Black Community Impact Alliance. Beginning in 2018, Dubie began a pitch process with Community Roots, a group with a mission to develop affordable housing across Seattle through community-focused efforts. After Cafe Avole was selected for the available retail space in the residential building, Dubie and the co-owners of the store had to go through additional rounds of talks to clarify the lease and work out the design plans. “Our goal was to bring in local black-owned businesses that also fulfilled the vision of empowering the African American community and creating a vibrant center for the community,” said Yiling Wong, communications manager at Community Roots.
The Liberty Bank building was once home to a bank of the same name that gave loans to black businesses and homeowners when other banks turned them down. Founded in the late 1960s in response to redlining, Liberty was one of the first black-owned credit institutions in the Pacific Northwest and served the community for 20 years. Though the bank is no longer there, the mixed-use building is now a hub for nonprofits in the Central District, including the aforementioned organizations working to help businesses in Black. There are also artments for low income families, a project coordinated by Community Roots Housing, to bring more justice to the neighborhood that has seen the effects of gentrification in recent years.
Dubie grew up in the area and experienced the challenges of starting a business as a black entrepreneur. Dubie values the efforts of such community organizations to promote greater diversity. The Seattle coffee scene, says Dubie, “has been dominated by white men at all levels.” There wasn’t much representation for People of Color or even specifically for someone of Ethiopian origin. “I’ve been buying Ethiopian coffee from a white man for the longest time,” says Dubie, because others had already established their bulk purchasing ability and were able to do the roast that requires more access to Cital. “I bought my idea for years and couldn’t get funding because it was too new,” says Dubie.
Now he sees more opportunities for Ethiopian coffee – sold by Ethiopians. “We’re actually being recognized for overcoming some of these challenges and being a black guy in business,” he says. “Today there is a different energy in the city.” Dubie has spoken to major hotels, restaurants, and grocery stores about wearing Cafe Avole coffee. Hotel Interurban, Central cooperative, and the Sea-Tac Airport Restaurant Africa lounge – which recently switched to a restaurant that after years of being the standard gastropub serving Congolese cuisine – has already started selling its roasts.
In a similar spirit of community support, Dubie originally started Café Avole in Brighton, driven by a desire to bring people together and provide a space for collaboration. Part of this work involved providing free products to needy residents in the neighborhood through partnerships with local organizations such as: Nourishing Roots Farm and Rainer Hofstand, and hosts of dinners that showcased the skills of African chefs. One of his partners at the creative agency Paradice Avenue Souf used to shoot music videos at Cafe Avole’s former location; Dubie also worked with Paradice on a special Yirgacheffe roast, which highlighted South End artists and wanted to educate consumers about the origins of Ethiopian coffee. “I saw it as a first step,” says Dubie of the now-closed Brighton store, adding that he hopes some of the young entrepreneurs he has worked with become community leaders over the next 10 years. “It just builds more resilience for us.”
Dubie, Amos and Enbiale are working on a project called Food Oasis, which is an extension of the former Cafe Avole’s free grocery program that seeks to innovate in “direct product sourcing,” says Dubie (Info on the official website is still pending). In the meantime, the partners will continue to work on collaborations in the new Central District. The cafe is designed so that customers can sit at the espresso bar, but it will also be a multipurpose space, and Cafe Avole plans to host community events once the store is fully operational. “We focus on coffee. We also focus on representing blacks over coffee – Africans over coffee, ”says Dubie.
Although Cafe Avole has had to close its Brighton location, Dubie is optimistic and fully focused on the bright future in a new neighborhood. “At the moment there is great anticipation for the opening and the participation of the community,” he says, “finally the sun is coming out.”
Lakshmi Sarah (@lakitalki) is a journalist, educator and author. She has produced content for newspapers, radio and magazines from Ahmedabad, India to Los Angeles, California, including AJ +, KQED, Die Zeit Online and The. Find them Instagram, Twitter or somewhere in a field talking to a beekeeper.