Introducing you to Elias Gurmu, Co-Founder of Buunni Coffee, with his partner in life and business Sarina Prabasi. His welcoming face is seen most days around Buunni in Washington Heights and now at the newly opened Buunni Coffee in Riverdale. Elias is a native of Ethiopia. He likes his coffee strong, and specializes in the Ethiopian macchiato - Buunni’s signature drink. If you've seen Elias at the coffee shop, he may look serious and intent on getting his work done (which includes carefully selecting Buunni’s coffee offerings). But if you say hello, a wide smile breaks out, and if you’re interested in learning more about Ethiopian coffee have a chat with Elias. I asked Elias six questions to help you get to know him a little bit better:
#1 What do you love most about NYC?
The diversity of the people. I spent my entire life in Ethiopia, yet when I came here, I never felt like I didn’t belong in New York. I’m an immigrant and I am surrounded by many others just like me. I love New York City because I felt welcome from the moment that I arrived. Also, I love the neighborhood in which we live, Washington Heights. When I was growing up in Addis Ababa, I imagined NYC to be all tall and shiny buildings. Living in northern Manhattan, we have smaller buildings and we can see the sky and hear the birds sing. Fort Tryon Park is a big part of my happiness and life, and I love to run there in the morning to start off my day. Living here, we have the opportunity to go downtown and be a part of the hustle and bustle of the New York City I had imagined, but then head back uptown to a true neighborhood. I love living near the George Washington Bridge, the Hudson River, and having a wonderful local community of friends and neighbors.
#2 What do you miss most about Ethiopia?
I don’t even need to think about it for long; I miss my friends. I lived my entire life in the same neighborhood. I knew everyone and everyone knew me! I miss the familiarity and the innate understanding of tradition and culture that comes living in the same place my whole life. When you grow up together with people, it’s so easy to communicate, you have a shared experience, values and priorities, a continuity of place and memory. In Ethiopia, life moves at a more relaxed pace, allowing for spur of the moment social interaction to happen all the time. My friends and I hardly scheduled our get-togethers for coffee or drinks; just going about your day you would run into friends and decide it was a nice time to stop for a macchiato. Time moved more slowly for me in Ethiopia. I cherish my memories of home. I am grateful for technology in that I can maintain relationships with my Ethiopian friends and family, regardless of distance.
#3 What is the last book that you read?
The Monk of Mokha. The story is captivating. It is about immigrants and specialty coffee. (Elias laughs. “Does that sound familiar?”) The book is a collaboration between Mokhtar Alkhanshali and the author Dave Eggers. While reading The Monk Mokha I was reminded of what we went through in many ways. I identified with so much of Mokhtar’s real life story. It is a journey filled with life-threatening adventure. Luckily, my own story is not nearly that exciting. But for me, I read it and felt Mokhtar’s pride for his country and his coffee. I feel the same way about Ethiopia, and this pride is what inspired us to start Buunni Coffee in 2012. It was also thrilling to be reading The Monk of Mokha and come across names of people that I have met. A coffee exporter we have worked with and the founder of the farmers association that Mokhtar speaks of both come to mind. I enjoyed Dave Eggers writing so much that I’ve just started reading his novel The Circle.
#4 What hobby would you have if time and money weren’t an issue?
You would find me either traveling or watching football (club soccer). As for travel, it would be adventure travel, the most beautiful nature hikes I could find. Exploring forests. Climbing mountains all over the world. Then, I would love to attend the games of the football clubs. I am a life-long Liverpool Football Club fan and would definitely go to see their games, and other English Premier League or the Spanish leagues. Since time and money aren’t an issue in this scenario, I would travel to watch games all over the world. I would even play a little football myself.
#5 What is your ideal way to spend the weekend?
I just want to relax with my wife Sarina and our two girls. What I enjoy most is a casual weekend, that is not overbooked or over-planned, cooking a nice meal at home, spending time outside in nature. I do love to watching soccer if there’s a good match on TV.
#6 What are you most looking forward to in the next 10 years?
Growing and deepening Buunni, and continuing what has really been a labor of love. We just opened our second location - Buunni Coffee in Riverdale, and we have been working towards a location in the George Washington Bus Terminal for a long time. I hope these locations are just as successful and established in the community as Cafe Buunni on Pinehurst. I’d love to start roasting coffee, and Sarina and I often joke about retiring on a coffee farm.