Kefa Cafe survived the mid-1990s, when Silver Spring was a wasteland of empty parking lots. As the city boomed at the turn of the century, the tiny Ethiopian coffeehouse weathered the expansion of Starbucks and other Big Coffee outposts.
And even after a fire in March left the place a gritty, smelly shambles, Lene and Abeba Tsegaye said they knew their customers would be back.
Many of them returned this weekend to celebrate the reopening of a place they regard as a piece of Silver Spring’s civic soul — a brew of grass-roots activism, diversity and entrepreneurial zeal.
“This is not really Abeba’s and Lene’s cafe,” said Lene, the older of the two sisters. “It belongs to the community.”
Long hours of conversation at Kefa’s eight tables have helped launch nonprofit groups and election campaigns stretching back two decades. A back room, dubbed “Space 7:10” for the broken clock that once hung there, has featured the work of local artists, including homeless sculptors and painters.
A recent fire temporarily closed the popular Kefa Cafe in Silver Spring. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
There’s a tiny lending library and a book for sale, “They Call Me 299-359,” an anthology of essays and poetry from juvenile inmates at the D.C. Jail, published by the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop.
The Tsegaye sisters, who fled Ethiopia in the 1980s to escape violence and political upheaval, say they wanted their independent coffee shop to be a place where people talked to each other, not just another cafe where people buried their noses in laptops.
There is no WiFi at Kefa, named for the southwestern Ethiopia province where, the 9th-century legend goes, a goat herder named Kaldi saw his animals become so energized after eating coffee beans that they couldn’t sleep.
“There is a history about coffee,” Abeba said. “It’s not just about getting caffeinated. People make big decisions around coffee.”
Any doubt that Kefa’s customers would return after a nearly 10-month closure quickly dissipated Saturday. Well before the scheduled 10:30 a.m. ribbon-cutting, a crowd had spilled out of the cafe and onto Bonifant Street.
Customers line up outside the Kefa Cafe on Saturday, when it reopened 10 months after sustaining smoke damage from a building fire. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
“It’s emblematic of what people love about Silver Spring,” said Montgomery County Council member Tom Hucker (D-Silver Spring), who started coming in 1998 when his office was around the corner.
Kefa is at the hub of a flourishing continental African immigrant presence in Montgomery, now home to an estimated 68,000 residents from Ethiopia, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya.
The county has the Washington region’s largest cluster of residents claiming Ethiopian ancestry (13,000), three times as many as in 2000, according to an analysis of census data by Silver Spring blogger Dan Reed. Silver Spring has at least a half-dozen Ethiopian coffeehouses and twice as many Ethiopian restaurants.
Regulars say the shop would not be Kefa without Lene and Abeba, who greet them with hugs and an ear for what they might need beyond hot drinks.
Laura Lewandowski, who brought her children in when they were toddlers, said she’ll always be grateful that the Tsegayes took her daughter on as help behind the counter one summer when the young woman had “nothing going on.”
“We’ve lived a part of our lives here. It’s a family and a home,” Lewandowski said.
Long before last year’s widely derided Starbucks campaign, featuring baristas who inscribed “Race Together” on cups as a way to initiate conversations, the Tsegayes — who serve their coffee in real mugs — were discussing big issues with customers.
“It’s almost a political act to get your coffee at Kefa,” said Dolores McDonagh, a professional fundraiser. She allowed that the coffee might be better elsewhere, but she said visiting another neighborhood cafe felt like a betrayal — “like I was having an affair.”
In the 1990s, before Silver Spring’s development boom, Kefa was one of the few spaces where groups could meet. Frankie Blackburn, founder of Impact Silver Spring, a nonprofit group that organizes low-income communities to more effectively advocate for themselves, made the place her de facto office as she launched her venture.
“I had to have literally hundreds of coffees with people to get them involved,” Blackburn said. “I had two to three meetings a day there. I should have paid them rent.”
In Space 7:10 there is a small memorial to another Kefa regular, the late Richard Jaeggi, founder of the Gandhi Brigade, which helps young people use video and digital media as tools for change.
When the county wanted to place a a cafe on the ground floor of the new Silver Spring library — just up the street from Kefa at Bonifant and Benton — the Tsegayes submitted the winning proposal. Their 12-seat kiosk opened with the building last summer.
The deal guaranteed only a raw, undeveloped space, so the sisters went to GoFundMe.com in search of $50,000 for furniture and equipment. More than 480 people — mostly Silver Spring residents — donated $54,000.
Montgomery Board of Education member Jill Ortman-Fouse (At Large) was one of many contributors who sent mini-tributes and stories along with their money. Her first baby shower was at Kefa 17 years ago, and she planned her Board of Education campaign there in 2014.
“They set the tone,” Ortman-Fouse said of the Lene and Abeba. “They have such good karma.”
Crime writer and neighbor George Pelecanos even mentions Kefa and the Tsegaye sisters in a couple of his books. “The truth of the matter is I don’t drink that much coffee,” Pelecanos said. “I go in there because I like them. They’re just beautiful people.”
The sisters grew up in Addis Ababa, daughters of an air force colonel who rose in the ranks under Emperor Haile Selassie. When a communist junta overthrew Selassie in 1974, Tsegaye Tsadik was driven from the service, the women said.
In 1982, with his country plagued by political repression and embroiled in a border war with Somalia, he quietly slipped 19-year-old Lene out of the capital. “It was not safe for girls our age,” she says. “Everyone wanted to flee.”
Lene walked more than 200 miles with a brother and cousin in 1982, crossing the border into Djibouti, on the Gulf of Aden. She still remembers the muddy black water she drank as they made their way through desert and waist-high grass. Abeba was flown to Sudan five years later, when she was 17.
Both young women ended up with family friends in Fort Wayne, Ind. After college (Indiana University for Lene, Defiance College in Ohio for Abeba), they joined their older brother, Abiy, a graduate student at Howard University, who had the original idea for Kefa.
Much of downtown Silver Spring was still a sorry collection of boarded-up buildings and empty lots. “It was dead,” Lene recalled. “People were asking, ‘What was my brother thinking?’ ”
Abiy returned to Ethiopia to teach soon after Kefa opened in 1996, leaving the sisters to get by with a small group of loyal customers. They lucked out with an understanding landlord, the late Chuck Levin, who was owner of the legendary Washington Music Center in Wheaton.
“He would always refer to them as his girls,” said Levin’s daughter, Abbe Levin, who is Kefa’s current landlord.
The March 19 fire severely damaged two other popular establishments in the same building — Quarry House, which has moved to another spot across Georgia Avenue, and Bombay Gaylord, which remains closed.
At first, it seemed that Kefa’s only issue was smoke damage, and Lene said they’d be back in two weeks. But serious issues with the other businesses slowed the coffeehouse’s return, Lene said. Upgrades to the electrical system, insurance questions, a gas leak and other matters stretched the weeks into months.
As customers poked their heads in to ask about a reopening, Lene’s default response became “10 days.”
“One of those 10 days it will happen, right?” she said.
During the closure, they focused on the just-launched library kiosk and returned to Ethiopia to spend time with their ailing father, who died in August.
After nearly 20 years working side by side almost seven days a week (taking off the last Sunday of the month), the sisters are a little like different sides of the same brain.
Lene, who lives in Hyattsville with her husband and teenage daughter, tends to sweat the details. She is closely attuned to Kefa’s community outreach, which has included sponsoring soccer teams and volunteer work at the homeless shelter Progress Place.
Abeba, single and living in Silver Spring, is more the business mind and big-picture worrier. At the top of her list of concerns is the Purple Line, the east-west light-rail project that will sweep within a few feet of Kefa’s front door during construction.
She wonders whether the line will be the next existential threat to their tiny cafe and whether it will ultimately gentrify Fenton Village, their low-rise neighborhood of small businesses and ethnic restaurants just south of the densely urbanized downtown, out of existence. No matter what, she says, Kefa will endure.
“This is what we want to do with our lives.”