by Howard Kohn
Let the blessings of coffee be upon you
When State Senator Jamie Raskin won approval of his landmark law in the Maryland legislature this spring, creating a type of socially responsible business entity different from for-profit and non-profit entities, he did not have Tebabu Assefa in mind, only someone like him.
“On second thought, no one is quite like Tebabu,” Jamie said, amending the notion a bit more, a few days prior to a flurry of signatures and hand stampings in Baltimore on October 1 when Tebabu became the second person in Maryland to incorporate under the new Benefit Corporation option. “I don’t know if the head of any company has started out by offering to give away half his profits.”
City Councilmember Terry Seamens, State Senator Jamie Raskin, hopeful tycoon Tebabu Assefa and strategic planner Amy Kincaid celebrate Blessed Coffee’s debut.
Tebabu’s business plan – to bring premium Ethiopian coffee to Takoma Park and Silver Spring — is still at the twinkle-in-the-eye stage and will take at least a few years to come to fruition, so it will be a while before his generosity is tested. His attitude, though, is what Jamie had in mind when he pushed forward the so-called B-Corp legislation.
“The whole idea is for a B-Corp company to give back, not keep and hoard,” Jamie explained. “When you file under B-Corp you’re signaling that you have a greater purpose than profits alone.”
Tebabu named his company Blessed Coffee, a phrase borrowed from a tradition-rich Ethiopian ceremony.
One part of his plan, probably the least profitable, is a Bohemian-style coffeehouse that he hopes to locate in Takoma Park as a social niche for poetry readings, live music, WiFi hookups and other homey features. “I want it to be everyone’s favorite hangout. Come and drink coffee and eat funky foreign food and see your friends,” Teabau said.
The other part is a roasting factory where, if the roasters meet expectations, beans will take on a high-end appeal and be sold to coffee shops in the area. The ingredients will come from the mountain slopes of Ethiopia, the place coffee beans were discovered centuries ago.
Short, round-figured, exuberant to a high degree and often a charming host of the native coffee ceremony, including a few he has arranged for audiences on Capitol Hill, Tebabu was essentially unaware of the prime industry of Ethiopia (coffee is 60 percent of exports) until a visit to his homeland in 2002. He had fled Ethiopia at age 15, dressed incognito as a peasant boy, leaving behind his well-to-do home in the capital city of Addis to escape a spree of executions and imprisonments that followed the overthrow of Haile Selassie’s government by a military junta in 1974.
“I assumed I’d go home in a year or two, but I didn’t,” he said. “I lived in Kenya, then in Europe, and then came to the States. I never went back.” But an epiphany of sorts overtook him after his son was born in 1999. He quit a 9-to-5 marketing job and, while freelancing to pay the bills, he entered a soul-searching period that finally brought him full circle. “Deep down I’d always felt there was a mission I was supposed to accomplish, and I was trying to figure out what it was.”
On his homecoming trip he encountered and befriended the coffee farmers who climb the mountainsides and can spot the right hue of bean for harvesting from verdant bushes into straw baskets. “They work hard and are passionate about growing coffee, but they live in huts and are paid in pennies,” he said.
They get but a fraction of the $1.90 a pound that coffee, which ranks only behind oil as an international commodity, brings on the wholesale market and an even smaller percentage of the $13.00 a pound that it routinely sells for in U. S. stores.
“As we talked, I realized I could be the connection between these farmers and the American consumer,” Tebabu said. A unionized farm group, Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union, about 140,000 strong, subsequently pledged $1.5 million as startup funds for his American enterprise, and in return he pledged to subsidize schools, health clinics and other social programs in rural Ethiopia.
In the intervening time Tebabu, who lives with his wife and two children on Maple Avenue, has continued to survive off consulting gigs and has honed the outlines of Blessed Coffee through a series of mixed-result meetings with bankers and investors. Then, this past summer, Jamie heard about Tebabu’s ambition and alerted him to B-Corp.
When they got together Jamie was immediately impressed. “Businessmen like to negotiate. That’s their nature,” Jamie said. “But Tebabu is different. He operates from the heart.”
The promise Tebabu made to Jamie is to distribute 50 percent of his earnings from coffeeshop sales to the Takoma Foundation, various PTAs and groups that care for the needy. He downplayed this bonzer gesture by saying, “There’s a lot of money in coffee.”
A day after filing the incorporation papers he stopped by Jamie’s house on Holly Avenue, where the state senator was recovering from a recent surgery. “Obviously I haven’t completed my mission yet,” Tebabu said. “But I believe I will. I truly believe it.”
NOTE: The first company to file under B-Corp was Big Bad Woof, a pet store in Old Takoma that is well-regarded for animal adoption efforts and is setting up franchises in the mid-Atlantic region.