Dawit Wubie has run a coffee roasting company from his southeast Calgary home since 2019.
In June, Bono Coffee will have a Calgary storefront, and Wubie will no longer have to deliver his coffee beans himself. But transitioning a business like this is no small task while the city is gripped by the pandemic.
Wubie’s coffee journey began when he was a child in Ethiopia, where coffee was a big part of growing up. He grew up seeing coffee beans roasted in small batches, ground, and then brewed.
“My mom would do that almost every day. I grew up seeing the way she roasts,” he said.
The journey that led to coffee
Wubie moved to Canada in 2001 and attended college for Business Administration in Vancouver. He worked at Costco for 14 years, eventually becoming a store manager. In 2012, he quit his job at Costco to travel back to Ethiopia, helping his sister with her coffee roasting business. When he returned, he found another job at Home Depot as a manager.
“I ended up saying, ‘You know what, I’m gonna roast coffee on my own,’” Wubie said.
“2017, I started roasting by hand, the same thing that my mom taught me.”
Starting small, Wubie gave coffee beans to neighbours and friends. While he was in Ethiopia, he got into contact with organic coffee farmers and exporters.
“They sent me the first two kg in 2018, and then I started roasting,” Wubie said.
Family and friends enjoyed the samples Wubie was handing out, so he began looking for farmers’ markets. His first stand was at Bridgeland Farmers Market.
“The guy told me, ‘If you come at six in the morning, I will see. If a vendor does not show up, I will give you a spot,’” Wubie said. He arrived in the morning, but unfortunately for him, all of the vendors showed up.
“The second Sunday, I got a spot. And then I sampled there, and people loved it,” he said.
“The Farmers Market manager’s name was Roger, and he sampled the coffee, and he liked it. And then every weekend I’d go, he tried to fit me in.”
2019 brought great success in the farmers’ markets, and Bono Coffee started selling at more of them. In 2020, a friend from Vancouver visited to observe Wubie’s roasting methods.
Wubie wanted a $5,000 machine that would roast three pounds of beans at a time. The process remained similar to hand roasting.
With the new tools and packaging, demand for Bono Coffee perked up. They started a website and business has been growing ever since.
Wubie said he’s worried farmers’ markets will not be the same as they were before COVID-19.
The pandemic’s hold on the summer of 2020 caused Bono Coffee to lose business. Thankfully, Wubie has made sales online and personally delivers the coffee beans to his customers.
“It was tough at the beginning, but right now, we are seeing a benefit, and we are growing. Even though COVID-19 slowed it down, we see a big potential for it,” he said.
Opening a storefront at peak-pandemic
Not only does is Wubie facing the adversities of running a business during a pandemic, he also has yet to make a big name for Bono Coffee. The process of getting his store ready for customers hasn’t been an easy one.
“We don’t have that much history, so we had to put in an advance on rent,” he said.
“We know it’s going to work, but nobody will trust you. I know my business, but they don’t know. They needed some advance payments, so we did that.”
Aside from the typical start-up jitters, Wubie knows there’s a lot more to think about than just coffee. He has to have customer health in mind.
“When the store opens, we have to be careful, and we have to follow the procedures.”
Another reason Wubie is looking forward to opening his store and coffee shop is the ability to give customers a taste of what they are buying. In 2020, he was unable to give samples of his coffee and had to ask people to have faith in his roasting methods.
“When you sample it, you have something to refer to,” he said.
“They had to buy by trust.”
While some customers may have had a hard time buying something they were unable to taste, Wubie has lots of encouragement from those closest to him.
“My wife, she’s technically involved 100 per cent. She’s very supportive, and we do everything together,” he said.
The family that roasts beans together, stays together
Wubie and his wife, Danait Tesfay, met in Vancouver. She is also from Ethiopia and said hand roasting coffee is a big part of her life.
“It’s part of the culture that we grew up with, and we still carry that even here. Back home in Ethiopia, that’s pretty much what everybody does,” she said.
“It brings people together for good conversation and getting together with family and friends. They call it the Coffee Ceremony. It’s nice that coffee is part of our culture; us dealing with coffee here, now, that makes it really special.”
Tesfay said she’s a hygienist by profession. With three kids, Bono Coffee, and her career, she said life can be challenging at times. However, she said working with her husband is special.
“The fact that we get to work together on something that we’re both passionate about, and also introducing it to our community feels great,” Tesfay said.
“We feel like people in Calgary are very supportive when it comes to small business. It’s very rewarding that we get to share something that we love.”
Wubie said that large coffee companies roast a massive amount of coffee at once, leaving some batches tasting burnt.
“If you start roasting 100 kg at once, you have no control over the machines. Coffee needs personal control,” he said.
Even if Bono Coffee has the opportunity to open multiple stores, Wubie said he would never change his hands-on process.
“Keep it small, but keep the taste going,” he said.
“The same way that I started with hand roasting.”
Wubie hopes the storefront succeeds. Either way, he has a backup plan to ensure the business’s survival.
“Technically, I can survive without people coming to the store and focus more on selling the beans to stores and that kind of stuff. When the pandemic calms down, it will be OK.”