With incense burning, Helina Melaku sprinkles green coffee beans onto a cast iron skillet and cooks them over a portable burner.
The longtime Detroiter and Ethiopia native then watches as the beans roast, emitting smoke until they are black and brown, and ready to brew.
Melaku then brews the coffee and when finished, pours it into small ceramic cups for drinking. Two to three cups are consumed per person, usually alongside a snack of popcorn. Roasting and drinking the coffee, she said, is a ceremony that often takes an hour or more.
The beans Melaku uses are from Ethiopia – one of the last remaining places where coffee beans grow wild – and where coffee ceremonies are performed daily. Typically, they occur midday, after lunch, and are meant to be a time to connect with others, and savor the coffee.
Melaku brought the coffee ceremony to Detroit in 2020, with the formation of Konjo Me, a food pop-up that serves authentic Ethiopian cuisine, like marinated chicken and spicy red lentil stew.
“It is my heritage where I grew up doing these coffee ceremonies in a way of roasting coffee,” she said. “It’s a form of healing and brings the neighborhood, kids, everyone together.
“We sit together. It’s just more calm, you’re not rushing to grab a cup of coffee and rush to go to work,” she added. “It’s really something that you sit down and appreciate and enjoy.”
Besides the ceremonies, Konjo Me’s coffee is served at Spotlite’s Cairo Cafe, and the roasted beans are available for purchase at City Market Detroit, The Congregation, Eatóri Market, and other locations around Detroit.
Konjo Me is among a handful of businesses started in the last few years that are bringing traditional East African coffee to Detroit.
“They are adding a lot into our economy,” said Seydi Sarr of the African Bureau of Immigration and Social Affairs, a community organization based in Detroit that promotes social justice for African immigrants.
“The diversity in the City of Detroit, when it comes to Black and African immigrants, is being now more visible,” she said. Historically, she said, Black immigrants in Detroit are often lost in the masses of a majority Black city, as their diverse immigrant identities aren’t visibly apparent.
The new traditional African food businesses, and others, she said, are opening the door for more access and opportunities, calling the businesses “anchors of the vibrancy of [the Detroit] community.”
In New Center, Baobab Fare is another immigrant-owned food business offering East African coffee to the Detroit community.
The business started in 2017 as a pop-up, before moving into a brick and mortar on Woodward in 2021. The full-service restaurant has menu items like slow roasted goat shank and eggplant stew, in addition to, of course, coffee.
“You don’t see that many Black people in coffee around Detroit,” Hamissi Mamba, co-owner of Baobab Fare told BridgeDetroit, despite Black countries like Ethiopia and Kenya being major exporters of coffee to the United States. “They’re the ones feeding the coffee markets in the United States.”
Selling the coffee at Baobab Fare, Mamba said, isn’t to make a profit for the restaurant. Instead, the profit is given back to farmers in Burundi, because many of the growers never see the monetary benefit from their work.
Each year African coffee farmers lose more than $1 billion from exploitative prices, with African farmers receiving the least for their product among coffee producers worldwide, according to a report published by Selina Wamucii, a platform for agricultural cooperatives. In Ethiopia, the price of coffee has fallen at times to farmers receiving less than a cent for a cup that sells for $4 in the United States.
“Farmers – they won’t get the right price they deserve,” Mamba said. “We are doing different things, giving back from the coffee business to the community by working directly with farmers.”
Baobab Fare offers both washed coffee and unwashed coffee, the latter of which is “disappearing” as an option in the coffee world, Mamba said. Unwashed coffee is also called natural coffee. It’s how beans have been roasted for hundreds of years, with layers of the fruit removed after drying, resulting in a more fruity flavor. “The flavor is totally different,” Mamba said.
Baobab Fare is trying to maintain the traditional way of roasting coffee, and educate consumers about the origins of coffee.
“A lot of people don’t even know about the coffee tree,” Mamba said, gesturing to a coffee tree Baobab Fare keeps at the front counter. “They don’t even know what coffee cherries look like.”
A coffee tree produces bright red cherries with green seeds that get roasted and turn into the brown beans we’re accustomed to seeing in grocery stores or cafes.
Beyond coffee, Mamba said he’s working on a new project to share art from Burundi as well. He plans to partner with four Burundi artists to put their art on Baobab Fare’s coffee packaging, and return the money to the artists.
The coffee is sold at Meijer Rivertown Market, Mongers’ Provisions, and Marcus Market, among other locations. Eventually, Mamba said he hopes Baobab Fare coffee will be a national brand.
“This is the goal, to highlight Burundi, the country that we love, our home,” Mamba said. “So people cannot only know the country as a war, crisis country, but the beautiful country which can do a lot of things, share a lot of things with the world.”
Another roaster of traditional East African coffee in Detroit is Faust Haus. Created in 2020, the coffee pop-up is the sole supplier for Rosa, a new coffee shop in Grandmont Rosedale. Founder Derek English also sells his Ethiopian coffee at farmers markets, and it’s available for retail at Royal Fresh Market. In the next few weeks, English plans to announce additional locations.
“All coffee originates from Ethiopia, so that’s why we use Ethiopian beans to kind of go back to the origins,” English said, “to go back to the start and have that different kind of perspective.”
He founded the company with his two daughters, to introduce consumers to traditional spiced African coffee, and support communities throughout the diaspora, he said.
English offers four blends, roasted with different spices ranging from turmeric and cardamom to clove and cinnamon, to chocolate. Each bag is decorated with English’s own art, depicting scenes from the history of coffee in Ethiopia, like the Kayeni blend label which shows “an orthodox shepard offering knowledge in the form of spice.”
At Faust Haus, English donates a portion of the profit to refugees of the Ethiopian Tigray crisis. He started out donating 5% of the profits, but ramped it up last year, donating more than $4,000. As someone involved in relief work since he was young, English said that supporting relief efforts and creating really good coffee are essential parts of his business model.
“It’s a coffee like most people have never appreciated or never tried before. Being able to introduce people to that, being able to show people that different perspective, and to see the looks on their faces when they try a coffee with no sugar, no cream, just a black cup of coffee… to experience that is phenomenal,” he said.
“I really hope that we can grow up Black coffee, the culture of Black coffee. Just like Seattle, or the West Coast can be known for its coffee community, the Detroit coffee community is a beautiful scene with a great variety,” said English, pointing to not just those doing traditional East African coffee, but other Black-owned shops in the city, like the newly opened A Better Café, in Eastern Market.
“Hopefully we can expand the marketplace and show people coffee from a different perspective,” he said. “There’s such a rich variety of coffees here in the city, that I hope that we can really build something as a collective.”