Business Profile – Touch of old school in Old Town

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Music plays softly from the radio at the Olde Town Gourmet Market. A few people sit on stools, using laptops, sipping coffee. Someones browsing the market shelves somewhere between the kalamata olives and the smoked paprika. Up front, a man works

the espresso machine, greeting patrons by name. “Do you want cream?” he asks one customer, mixing the drink himself despite the self-service milk and sugar counter.

One might guess this is a new employee trying to make good with the boss. But Michael Gabre-Kidan is the boss.

“Customer service,” the owner of the two-month-old cafe and grocery says of the key to his success. “We’re not looking so much to compete with Bittersweet and the grocery [stores nearby] because they kind of have the market sewed up. [But] when people realize you can come here for what I think is the best coffee …”

Gabre-Kidan, 38, knows coffee. He imports his coffee from Ethiopia under his own label, Bonga Coffee. (Soon, the markets name will change to Bonga Cafe and Market to better fit the store’s focus.) He buys direct from Ethiopian farmers, roasts the beans, then ships them freight via Ethiopian Airlines to Dulles International. Gabre-Kidan sells the beans wholesale and also serves them up at his cafe.

“We’re an international microroaster, for lack of a better term,” he says.

Wide variety to choose from
Bonga Coffee offers 13 varieties of Ethiopian coffee, nine more than are commonly seen in this country. And Gabre-Kidan sells the coffee for much less than competitors.

For example: Gemadro coffee was sold in Starbucks Black Apron line at $12 a half pound last year. Gabre-Kidans Gemadro retails for $15.29 a pound.

Still, maybe its the old-school service that keeps people coming. Deborah Matthews, of the Bartoli Cain & Matthews law firm next door, stops in for sandwiches from the markets deli. Its a wonderful addition to the neighborhood, she says. The foods very good [and] you cant walk by there and not get a smile and a warm hello.

Gabre-Kidan credits Matthews with the inspiration for another old-school touch, an honor system lending library. Gabre-Kidan couldnt afford the minimums magazine distributors wanted, so instead started a collection with two of Matthews donated audiobooks and some magazines. Now, the rack is full of paperbacks and other reading material, free for the borrowing.

Another touch is a system ? still in the works ? for old-fashioned weekly or monthly tabs. Customers will be able to pay their months bill all at once, rather than bringing cash or a card every time. “We’re trying to work out the part where we can make it billable directly to your credit card,” Gabre-Kidan explains.

The system is reminiscent of the one at the neighborhood grocery near Gabre-Kidans old home in Seattle, from where he moved just last year. Since Ethiopian Airlines flies direct to Dulles four times a week, its convenient for him and for Bonga.

This area reminds me a lot of Seattle. It’s real laid back and people are easygoing. D.C., not so much. [Thats a] little different animal, he says. But it’s nice here.

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