BIZ BUZZ • BY SARAH KRAUT
After watching him work until late into the night for weeks, Zed Mekonnen’s friend finally asked him “Why don’t you just go home?”
“Why would I go home?” replied Mekonnen. “What would I do there?”
“You can just sit in your living room and watch some TV,” replied his friend.
“Well, this is kind of like a big living room for me,” said Mekonnen—and just like that, Zed’s Café found its niche: the coffee shop that will be “One Big Living Room” for its customers.
Mekonnen has lived in the Silver Spring area since 1994, though he is far newer than that to the restaurant owning business. He started out as a bartender when he moved to the area, then shifted gears and began work as a mortgage banker.
“[With the recession] I figured the mortgage industry wasn’t doing very well, so I became the event coordinator at Georgetown University,” said Mekonnen. “Then, I decided since I spent most of time doing work in a coffee shop anyway, why not open one up myself?”
Zed’s Café is a little coffee shop on Georgia Avenue with a lot of personality. Each piece of furniture inside is unique — with chairs ranging from a stool from Guinea to a rocking chair Mekonnen got from his friend’s mom — and the coffee mugs follow suit. Mekonnen phrased it perfectly when he said that it is “disorganized in the most organized way.”
“The coffee shop is here to provide what you want to get out of it, depending on the person” he said. “People who want to be comfortable and relax will sit on the sofa; people who like art will sit and look at a piece of art on our wall; other people will roam around because they like to just see what’s going on.”
Mekonnen admits he has been lucky with his café’s enormous success just six months after opening. The atmosphere that attracts his customers was not even intentional; things materialized in such an eclectic fashion through his attempts to save money on decorations and other initial start-up costs.
Zed’s is about the “coffee experience” and the “community” it brings about. On Friday and Saturday nights, Mekonnen opens his shop to host live local jazz musicians. He has even received a few visits from local legend Warner Williams, a Takoma Park native who recently became a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Award recipient. The live music nights started accidentally as well.
“I had a guitar sitting here with a broken string, and someone walked in and asked if he could fix it and bring it back,” said Mekonnen. “So he fixed it and he was playing outside, when another musician joined him. I told them they could come inside and play — and before you knew it other musicians came in and joined them too,” he continued, adding that this all happened just a week after opening.
Part of the “coffee experience” Zed’s provides is an outlet for people who just want to hang out and enjoy the little things in life. Mekonnen has a book lending policy, in which people can take and bring books as they wish. He also allows local artists to display their work on his walls. One of the most unique art displays in the shop is a big chalkboard covered edge-to-edge in bright, chalky colors that make up a beautiful piece of modern art.
“We have the chalkboard, and every month a different local artist will come in and draw on it to display their art work,” said Mekonnen.
More than anything, Mekonnen wants Zed’s to be a place where people feel at home. He knows most of his customers, always saying hello to them and warmly greeting any friends or family they bring along. His customers’ comfort is so important to him that he has specifically opted not to do any advertising for fear of his shop becoming too busy and hectic. He has yet to have put out a single flier or send out any social media blasts.
“People started referring us to other people and bringing in their friends,” he said. “Others would just wander in and be surprised that we were here because we never did any advertising—and then they would keep coming back.”
Mekonnen said Zed’s Café has become exactly what he envisioned. He has a vision to expand his business into a local chain, with each shop being individualized with a different personality.
“This is like my big living room, and if you were to open one it would be like your living room and what you wanted in it” he said. “It’s not like a corporate coffee chain.”
At the end of the day, Zed’s Café is mostly about the community it fosters.
“What we want is to provide the feeling of belonging,” said Mekonnen. “It’s about creating a different venue for people to do what they want to do. It’s been good so far — it’s been wonderful.”
Zed’s Café is located at 8225 Georgia Ave. in Silver Spring. 301-495-5614.