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Coffee Fans Love Ethiopian Roasts. Avole Wants Them to Embrace Ethiopian Cafes, Too.

Founder Solomon Dubie aims to create a community hub and educational experience at the cafe’s upcoming location in the historic Liberty Bank Building

Three bags of Avole coffee beans against a bright white background
Avole’s roastery operation is based on Georgetown, but a new cafe is coming to the Central District in summer 2021.
Avole [Official Photo]

Solomon Dubie, the founder and co-owner of Avole Coffee, still remembers his first attempt at making coffee for his mother. He was 8 years old, growing up in Queen Anne in the mid-’90s, and he set an alarm for early in the morning. He intended to copy what he’d seen his mom do many times before — roast raw, unwashed beans slowly in a pan. Instead, he burned the coffee and woke her up. Undeterred, Dubie kept at it. “I just remember her showing me and I just remember doing it over and over again, and getting better at it,” he says. Eventually, his mom taught him the intricacies of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, and after some practice, Dubie became the primary coffee maker of the household.

In the years since, that ceremony has played a key role in all of Dubie’s important life moments — birthdays, times of loss, family gatherings. Some of his earliest coffee memories are of his mother having friends over or talking on the phone with her best friend while getting the coffee prepared. 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. “The coffee roasting is the biggest highlight of energizing the space,” Dubie says, describing how his mother would turn on the stove, put the beans in a pan, and let them fry and pop. Once they’d changed color, she would grind the beans by hand and place the grounds in the jebena to brew. From a technical perspective, it demanded precision: She had to roast the beans deeply enough to draw out their character and complexity, but know how to pull them just before the toasty aroma that perfumed their kitchen turned to acrid smoke. But the ceremony had always involved more than just the mechanics of making coffee; it was about sharing food and connecting with people and had been a vital part of the 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), now aim to honor that legacy with a highly anticipated new project that promises to be Seattle’s biggest cafe debut of the summer.

The original Brighton location of Cafe Avole recently closed after Dubie was unable to renegotiate a lease with the building’s new landlords. In its five-year run, the cafe established itself as an integral part of Seattle’s vibrant Ethiopian cafe scene alongside such mainstays as Kaffa Coffee and Wine Bar and Adugenet Ethiopian Kitchen & Bar.

Soon, a new Cafe Avole location will open in Seattle’s Central District at the historic Liberty Bank Building, right next to the nationally acclaimed Communion Bar and Restaurant. When it debuts, the shop’s revival will emphasize single-source roasts like its predecessor did, while offering a simplified version of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony and selling the spouted clay jebenas for people to use at home. In this way, Dubie says he wants to create a community hub and educational experience, where people can have an intellectual conversation while also learning about the cultural significance of Ethiopian coffee.

The front of the Liberty Bank Building, with white and orange colors and the building’s name across the facade
The historic Liberty Bank Building will be the future home of Cafe Avole.
Kevin Scott

The origins of coffee itself can be traced back to Ethiopia. Legend has it that around A.D. 850, a young Abyssinian goatherd named Kaldi (also spelled Khalid) noticed that the animals he tended to were more energetic after eating certain berries from certain trees growing on the Ethiopian plateau. Curious about the nature of the fruit, Kaldi tried the berries himself and felt the same invigorating effect. He then approached a local monastery in Kaffa, where the monks, intrigued by Kaldi’s discovery, produced a beverage from the boiled coffee cherries that eventually spread throughout the Arabian peninsula and the world.

“Some families in Ethiopia have been producing coffee for thousands of years,” says Dubie, who continues to develop close relationships with small producers who understand the deep history and nuances of Ethiopian coffee. He’d like to ensure that regional varieties are better understood in the coffee world, such as Guji coffee from the southern part of the country, which Dubie describes as more fruity with citrus notes (the flavor profile also depends on the year and the specific crops). In the past, Dubie has offered subscriptions for the roasts he retails, and he has future plans to bring single-origin Avole K-cups for coffee drinkers to brew at home.

But Cafe Avole’s new location isn’t just connected to Ethiopian coffee history — it will be a part of local history as well. It was specifically selected for the Liberty Bank address through Community Roots Housing, a public development authority that manages the property in collaboration with other local organizations, including Africatown Community Land Trust, Byrd Barr Place, and the Black Community Impact Alliance. Beginning in 2018, Dubie started a pitch process with Community Roots, a group with a mission to develop affordable housing opportunities across Seattle through community-driven efforts.

Once Cafe Avole was chosen for the available retail space in the residential building, Dubie and the shop’s co-owners had to go through additional rounds of discussions to sort out the lease and work through design plans. “We were committed to bringing in local Black-owned businesses that also met the vision of empowering the African American community and building a vibrant hub for the community,” says Yiling Wong, communications manager for Community Roots.

A photo of a dark brown jebena, next to a coffee mug of the same color and a white container used for creamer and milk
A jebena used in the Ethiopian coffee ceremony
Cafe Avole [Official Photo]

The Liberty Bank Building once housed a bank of the same name that gave loans to Black businesses and homeowners when other banks turned them away. Established in the late 1960s in response to redlining, Liberty was one of the first Black-owned lending 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 that supports Black-owned businesses. There are also apartments serving low-income families, a project coordinated by Community Roots Housing as part of an effort to bring more equity to the neighborhood, which has seen the impact of gentrification in recent years.

Having grown up in the area and experienced the challenges of starting a business as a Black entrepreneur, Dubie appreciates the efforts of such community organizations to foster greater diversity. The coffee scene in Seattle, says Dubie, “has been dominated by white males at every level.” There wasn’t much representation for people of color, or even specifically someone of Ethiopian origin. “For the longest time I was buying Ethiopian coffee from a white person,” Dubie says, because others had already established their ability to purchase in volume and were able to do the roasting, which requires more access to capital. “I was shopping my idea for years, and I couldn’t get the funding because it was too new,” Dubie says.

Now, he’s starting to see more opportunities for Ethiopian coffee — sold by Ethiopians. “We’re actually being recognized for enduring some of these challenges and being a person of color in business,” he says. “Nowadays there’s a different energy in the city.” Dubie has been talking with bigger hotels, restaurants, and grocery stores about carrying Cafe Avole coffee. Hotel Interurban, Central Co-op, and the Sea-Tac Airport restaurant Africa Lounge — which recently switched to a restaurant that serves Congolese cuisine after years as a standard gastropub — have already begun selling his roasts.

It’s in a similar spirit of community support that Dubie originally founded Cafe Avole in Brighton, driven by a desire to bring people together and provide a space for people to collaborate. Part of that work included offering free produce for neighborhood residents in need through partnerships with local organizations such as Nurturing Roots Farm and Rainer Farm Stand, and hosting 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 collaborated with Paradice on a special Yirgacheffe roast, which highlighted South End artists and sought to educate consumers on Ethiopian coffee origins. “I saw it as a first step,” Dubie says of the since-closed Brighton shop, adding that he hopes some of the young entrepreneurs he worked with will become community leaders in 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 food program that looks to innovate on “direct product sourcing,” Dubie says (info on the official website is still forthcoming). Meanwhile, the partners will continue to work on collaborations at the new Central District space. The cafe’s design is laid out so customers can sit at the espresso bar, but it will also be a multipurpose room, and Cafe Avole plans to host community events once the business is fully up and running. “We’re focused on coffee. We’re also focused on representing Black people in coffee — African folks in coffee,” Dubie says.

Though Cafe Avole had to close the Brighton location, Dubie is upbeat and fully focused on the promising future in a new neighborhood. “Right now, the anticipation to open and see the community turnout is exciting,” he says, “the sun is coming out finally.”

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 New York Times. Find her on Instagram, Twitter or somewhere in a field talking to a beekeeper.