NYC’s Café Buunni Pours Ethiopia’s Spirit of Community in Washington Heights

For Elias, among the earliest memories of his Ethiopian childhood is being with the neighborhood children whose job was to call in all the locals for the daily coffee ceremony. In Ethiopia, the two hour ceremony isn’t just a time to drink coffee, but for people to catch up over not just one, but three distinct rounds of the brew. It was an important part of chatting, whether about the day’s news and politics or to share information—most importantly for Elias he knew the ceremony was the heart of building community in his town.

Today together with his wife Sarina, both big travelers, Elias Gurmu is the owner of Café Buunnii a shop featuring micro roasted Ethiopian coffee in NYC’s Washington Heights neighborhood. He is also getting ready to open Buunni’s second location in Riverdale. Drawing on his influences as a child, Elias took on his first job after high school as a barista, Sarina shared. She continued to say that today coffee is still a part of his daily life and an important way to highlight the positive aspects of Ethiopian culture beyond the focus of contemporary culture like famine or poverty or other topics that try to overshadow the country’s inner beauty.

Cafe Buunni in NYC’s Washington Heights serves micro brewed Ethiopian coffee.

Growing up in a heavy Southeast Asian tea culture in Nepal and south Asia, Sarina’s experiences in Ethiopia were her introduction to coffee’s place in daily life. Not only how much time goes into the farming—but its where she also developed an appreciation for its preparation.

“The name, Buunni, is based on the Amharic word for Buuna, which is the Ethiopian word for coffee and Buunni is both a playoff and representative of the brown color of the coffee bean,” said Sarina. Connecting both the country and the authentic coffee culture of Ethiopia was important in the concept for the shop.

Two very Ethiopian beverages can be found on the menu at Café Buunni, including the Buuna, which is served in a little glass exactly as you’d find in a café in Ethiopia. Second, the Makiyato, or Macchiato as its commonly known, is also served in glass after being layered beautifully with milk, although familiar its portion is smaller than what you may be used to in the U.S.

buuna macchiato makiyato ethiopian coffee Cafe Buunni
A cup of Buuna and Makiyato (Macchiato) are both part of Ethiopia’s strong coffee culture.

Both coffee beverages are very pervasive in Ethiopia, especially in rural areas—in fact, for the shop it’s often that patrons will stop in for a makiyato and say, ‘This is just how I remember,’ or they’ll have the Buuna and comment on how they haven’t had it in years, Sarina described the conversations. “It can quickly transport you to a place, and for people who haven’t been to Ethiopia those two drinks can really bring it home.”

The shop uses the Ethiopian Arabica bean, including the Sidamo, Yirgacheffe, and Harrar coffee beans which come directly from Ethiopia. Coffee first originated in the country, which features locally differentiated types of beans with unique flavor profiles depending on the soil and altitude. Sarina explained to us that the varietals are from different regions and the names of the coffees are named for the places they originate from.

Cafe Buunni serves Ethiopian Buuna in a traditional cup.

“It’s specialty coffee and very much rooted in the culture of the country. In many places, there’s large scale farming, but a lot of people have coffee growing in their backyards and drink and share it as a family, so it’s very much a local tradition.” In a global city like New York the universal concept of the culture can be easily understood.

One thing you won’t find at Café Buunni is rush hour. “The experience [at Buunni] is not a fast, quick jolt to get you started; it’s slow coffee,” Sarina laughed. While it’s not to-go coffee New Yorkers expect in their jaunt through the work day, the coffee shop does strike a balance between a true Ethiopian coffee experience and the New York City lifestyle. “We really try to stress the aspect of community, and coffee being a vehicle for getting the community together—for quality time with friends and family.”

Elias (far right) with team members of Cafe Buunni

“The café doesn’t try to overtly be Ethiopian, but there are elements we use [like] the traditional Ethiopian coffee pot, the art, and the sound of the machines we use. It’s a blend—it’s an Ethiopian experience in a way that’s translated to this context [of New York City].” Buunni Coffee is very much a NYC café, but it’s infused with the values of what Ethiopian culture brings to the city.

In a sense, the shop sort of serves like a bridge to a broader sense of the city’s local culture—rather than walking in and saying it looks like Ethiopia, patrons walk into something familiar that they know, like familiar décor and baked goods, and then take a step further to meet something new that they didn’t know.

Cafe Buunni supports local suppliers of its familiar baked goods.

The café hosts both people who come in to take coffee to-go, but the defining feeling of the space is for those patrons who like to linger, to sit, to sip and to chat. The couple’s value for a sense of community is also a part of the reason they deliberately source and support local businesses in their shop—from displaying handmade scarves from a women’s co-op in Ethiopia’s capital and largest city Addis Ababa, to a rotation of local art including Ethiopian artists, and even the chocolate they get from a local supplier to use in their coffee drinks.

The cafe regularly features a rotation of local art and Ethiopian co-op wares to support local community.

While ceremonies for groups aren’t possible in the shop due to its size, the couple does perform coffee ceremonies by request at offices or in people’s homes—a way to share the experience with others. But that doesn’t diminish the defining qualities of the coffee shop, especially for Elias whose personal story and shop embodies the cultural aspects and hospitality of how the coffee is traditionally served.

“He’s very much a part of the [Ethiopian] story, and people like to talk to him about the coffee and the coffee culture, for recommendations and to try something new,” Sarina told us about her husband. “He very much enjoys that and making drinks for people.”

Attention to people is at the center of their operation at Buunni, especially the people in the process of getting coffee-to-cup. The couple pays close attention to the fact that coffee farmers in Ethiopia run small farms and there are a lot of people involved in growing the coffee. “There is a lot of respect for the people who are growing this very special coffee,” Sarina explained.


“All of the passion that goes into the coffee—it’s essentially one coffee cherry that’s picked at a time, and that takes passion, time, love, and expertise.” The couple tries to always, even when training their staff, be extremely mindful that coffee is not just the commodity contemporary culture makes it out to be.

“A lot of people will comment that there is a self-respect and pride in Ethiopia—in the culture, the history, and the quality of things like the coffee. But it’s not an arrogant pride, but rather the satisfaction of being proud of something that you’ve cultivated to able to share.” In other words, it’s that kind of pride that communicates the value of Ethiopian coffee culture, and not for the farmers themselves but rather so that they can pass it down to others. It’s about community.

For more information on Café Buunni, visit


Go See These 11 Texans Rockin’ International Music

A few months ago, the SXSW Music Festival and Conference took over Austin, Texas, and 11 Texan performers joined over 150 internationally-inspired acts that converged from more than 30 countries to showcase their music. Plus, the city enjoyed live performances from several Texan musicians and performers of international music.

But, world music lovers in Texas don’t have to wait for next year’s music festival to enjoy live performances from these Texan musicians and their ensembles. Take a journey into numerous cultures through music in your backyard through the sounds of the world near you. Here are the bands to check out from across Texas and several international music genres.

1. 1001 Nights Orchestra, Austin, Texas, describes itself as a “buffet of colorful music showcasing Middle Eastern cultures’ diversity and unity,” and beyond; known for music including Arabic, Greek, Turkish, Armenian, Russian, and more.

1001 Nights Orchestra, Austin, Texas

2. Atash
, Austin, Texas, creates a powerful, worldly and original sound through it’s use of musicians from around the world, as part of spreading it’s message of love and peace.

3. Eddy Kenzo, Dallas, Texas, a Ugandan native, music was a safe haven for Eddy, whose life story was short of magical, and bred a talent that led him to an international audience of thousands.

4. Gina Chaves
, Austin, Texas, Gina’s band has won audiences throughout the U.S. and abroad, as a multi-ethnic Latin pop artist, who is also Austin’s 2015 Musician of the Year.

5. Hard Proof, Austin, Texas,
an Afrobeat ensemble that’s become known for its great sense of rhythm and melody, this group is internationally-inspired from Nigeria to Ethiopia in its adventurous jazz.

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#Austin its your own fault if you missed this magic.

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6. Intocable, Zapata, Texas, 
creates music because of its belief in it’s power to transcend boundaries- of genres, of borders, of languages, and that’s what we love to hear. You can catch the Mexican-inspired band play Norteño Tejano style of music.

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Coqueta desde Bryan, TX. Gracias por un #llenototal

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7. Joel Laviolette & Rattletree, Austin, Texas,
 takes electronic music onto the live stage, featuring giant wooden marimbas (xylophones), customes, lights, video, and more in his trance inducing music of Zimbabwe.

Joel Laviolette & Rattletree

8. Khali Haat, Austin, Texas
, is a seven-piece collective that recently self-released its debut album of afro-beat, afro-pop and psychedelic-funk.

9. Los Skarnales, Houston, Texas
, performs a true-to-the-root mix of ska, cumbia, and rockabilly, with a punk attitude, throughout the U.S. and Mexico.

10. Henry Brun & The Latin Players
, San Antonio, Texas, a native of Puerto Rico, Henry is a Grammy award-winning Latin Jazz artist, and master at congas, bongos, timbales, and percussion instruments of Africa, Brazil and the Middle East.

Henry Brun & The Latin Playerz

11. The Chamanas, El Paso, Texas,
is a 5 member Latin Indie pop fusion ensemble possesses a unique combination of styles and genres from traditional Mexican folkore to pop, Brazilian Bossa Nova, Indie, Danzon, and more.

6 Ways to Use What’s in Your Backyard to Beat Travel Barriers

It’s vacation season in the United States, but even so Americans are often led in our culture to believe that traveling is greatest when it’s a college rite of passage, or better yet, scheduled when we’re not busy at work—or best yet, a luxury to be enjoyed in old age.

Why? Because we’re taught that at any other point in our life, exploring so greatly is simply inefficient. We’ve been led to believe we don’t have enough money, time or courage to be curious about other people, or that travel is a hassle best for when it least disrupts us.

These are self-imposed cultural barriers. Now, here’s hoping the half of Americans with passports don’t mind elbowing their way through another 150 million peers who haven’t traveled abroad, but let me share 6 reasons why it’s important. Whichever half you fall into, when was the last time you took the euphoric plunge into something new?

If you haven’t ever or even recently stepped off a plane—or into your backyard—and into a different culture or country, then these 6 tips are for you.

Me, scared sh*tless until she saw the view with Europe’s tallest mountain behind her.

1. Change routines to put more time on your side.

Our American work culture makes it hard to take long vacations, and it’s easy to feel guilty or even too busy to be far away or out of touch for long periods. So, try changing the way you treat the time you have outside of work. Find unique ways to break away from the typical afternoon or weekend by getting to know the world through authentic cultural experiences locally.

Dream of the Caribbean? Start salsa lessons. Find out what you want to learn more about, and you’ll covet your free time. It’s up to you to live beyond the nine-to-five. Time can’t be saved, but it can be invested.

2. Examine activities that improve the value of a dollar.

If you’re constantly letting costs and logistics prevent you from experiencing new things, then you don’t know one simple truth. Logistics are a part of everything we buy, and by getting hung up on every little decision, you’d never buy anything. Look at the money you do have, and then a closer look at your philosophy for living life. Ask yourself if you’re fulfilled in your current lifestyle investments. Reevaluate what investments are truly worth your resources.

For $20 you can go to Cuba—try a Cuban restaurant nearby, ask the owners about their culture, and try some new flavors. These types of new activities can inspire you to travel with the money you do have.

Check out upcoming exclusive events for exploring cultures in Austin. More »

3. That’s it, take a couple more steps out of your comfort zone.

If unknown flavors and cultures pique your curiosity, but you aren’t courageous enough to be adventurous, take a deep breath in and ask yourself why. Then tell yourself that every person and place you know today was once a step outside of your comfort zone. What you enjoy eating and doing today was something you once tried for the first time. Friends and acquaintances, at one point were strangers to you.

To get to know the world, take a couple steps and start locally. If you saw a show on Mexico, then find the nearest Mexican restaurant. Explore your city for people and things from around the world that you’ve heard about; you just don’t know you’ll love yet. Do that enough, and you’ll realize just how small this world really is, and that your backyard holds a lot of it.

4. Use your passions to overcome your circumstances.

Our circumstances set easy stumbling blocks in the way of travel if we don’t examine them closely. What notions of the future may not be leaving any room for you to explore today? What you chose to do today may be leaving more exciting doors unopened. If you love coffee then stop settling for the chain, and find an authentic Italian café or coffee class nearby tomorrow. If you’re seeking triumph up the corporate ladder, take another minute break and keep reading.

As Americans, we need to stop graduating, working and retiring to travel. Don’t become complacent because of daily—or worse, cultural expectations. Don’t settle for chain coffee. Open a new door, and you’ll add cool memories and quality to your life starting today.

5. Look for people eager to share something with you.

Don’t just try a new international restaurant, salsa class or espresso bar. Step outside and now ask yourself what else you can’t do. As Americans, we are fortunate to live in a beautiful, vast and very diverse country. It could take a lifetime just to see all of the regional and geographic diversity of the United States alone. Make that a goal, but you don’t have to go far to experience our cultural kaleidoscope.

Nearly a quarter, over 80 million of us recently immigrated here. Open the eyes of your soul and you’ll start to see the wealth of experiences, destinations and people eager to share their talents, heritage and firsthand international experiences from abroad right in your own neighborhood.

When you travel to celebrate something, that feeds your senses. When you go somewhere for no reason, that feeds the heart. Cross the boundaries of your own city for something new and fun, and you’ll find that people smile in the same language.

6. You don’t know what you don’t know, so find it.

If you’ve got a global outlook on travel, you’re almost ready to go. Look around you first. People around you might minimize the importance of world travel because, well, they don’t know what they don’t know. To them, other people might seem scary, strange and unapproachable—because of what they have only perceived. By traveling you can help to dispel myths and break down these barriers.

Once you truly see the cultures and traditions, languages and faces around you, they are no longer left to your imagination. Maybe that’s why it’s been said that travel is the ultimate form of diplomacy. Get out there locally and find something new in your own backyard.

True triumph over travel barriers comes when we learn to value the experience—not after we return but before we step on the plane. By relishing in travel’s enriching authenticity beforehand, traveling is simpler. Americans can change our outlook on international travel simply by changing how we interact with the people, places and things that are all around us.

Go explore something new today.