Laura Hayes
Laura Hayes

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Sidamo Coffee and Tea, theEthiopian coffeehouse on H St. NE, has held about 500 so-called “coffee ceremonies” since opening in 2006, one every Sunday at 2 p.m. “If I was at home … I would have a ceremony every day—I’ve reduced it to once a week,” says Kenfe Bellay, who co-owns Sidamo with his wife, Yalemzwed Desta. An employee roasts beans, grinds them, and brews coffee in a traditional pot before pouring the potent java into small cups for customers to sample.

“All Ethiopians if you see them, they will have a coffee ceremony in their home once a day,” Bellay continues. “Whether early in the morning or late in the evening, they come together. There’s no City Paper like yours. Where they exchange information is through coffee—whether there’s a tiff in the area, a marriage proposal, or a hyena problem.”

After 10 years, Bellay is still enamored with the neighborhood where they chose to set up shop, and he’s optimistic that the influx of new residential living spaces and the incoming Whole Foods will be positive.

“The neighborhood is changing and so many new businesses are coming,” Bellay says. “But, still in the daytime, there’s not too much traffic in the area because there are no clothing stores, or book stores, or those kinds of things.” He makes a comparison to both Dupont Circle and Georgetown, which both see foot traffic, thanks to high-density retail options. “When Whole Food opens, it will change,” he continues. “It will help the whole neighborhood, it’s a beautiful neighborhood.”

One of the new businesses is a Starbucks set to open at 625 H St. NE, barely two blocks away from Sidamo. The coffee shop, which appeared to be in the final stages of construction on Sunday, will be on the first floor of the Anthology building. The opening is currently slated for Aug. 11, according to KLNBretail. 

But Bellay isn’t worried.

“I’m not against Starbucks,” he says. “I’m happy they introduced coffee to so many people, but otherwise, we’re completely different businesses. We serve only single-origin coffees and it’s fresh. We roast it here. It’s a very high-end quality of coffees. I don’t think there is competition in the area.”

Eric Smith, who resides off H St. NE, estimates he has visited Sidamo once a week on average for the past nine and a half years for both the coffee and the company. “It’s really good coffee, it’s fair trade, organic, save-the-whales type coffee, and in learning about coffee, those things all bring out more flavor,” Smith says. “There’s complexity because the plants have to try harder.” He adds that, unlike Starbucks, which “burns their beans,” Bellay roasts coffee for taste instead of maximum caffeine.

Sidamo was the first place Smith and his wife came after the birth of their first child in 2007. “The block didn’t have much at the time, so this was the thing to do, the place to be,” he explains. “Over the years, we’ve met dozens of neighbors here, and that’s how we became a part of this community.” He says he will not be frequenting Starbucks.

Nor will Justin Cook, who is also an H St. NE resident. “Sidamo has always made fantastic coffee, and their courtyard is a shady oasis,” Cook says. “Even if it were 20-30 percent more, I would still pick Sidamo [over Starbucks].” He adds that Starbucks’ beans are too oily for his home high-end espresso maker, a Miele.

Observing Sidamo on a Sunday afternoon reveals they have a posse of regulars. Bellay stands by the door greeting customers with “nice to see you,” instead of a simple hello. There are handshakes and hugs, even though it’s sweltering. Despite the bump of new coffee options, including Maketto, there probably won’t be a need for a #SaveSidamo hashtag anytime soon.