Colorado-to-Ethiopia pt 1: Denver Cafe

Listen Now
4min 59sec

Last fall, reporter Megan Verlee traveled to Ethiopia on a journalism fellowship. While that country is half a world away from this state, she managed to find many Colorado connections there. This week we’re meeting some of them. Today, a business owner who gave her a small sip of home.

REPORTER MEGAN VERLEE: How is this for surreal? I stepped off the plane at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa prepared for five weeks of adventure in just about the most foreign country I can imagine -- a place of unfamiliar languages, clothing, customs. And what’s the first thing I see as I leave the airport for this teeming, mysterious city? A huge lit-up sign advertising ... Denver Cafe. I couldn’t resist: Denver Cafe quickly became my main hang out. It was where I’d meet up with my translator, the landmark I gave to taxis. And I was dying to know who the heck in Ethiopia named their cafe after my home town.

BERHE KASSE, OWNER, DENVER CAFE: "My name is Berhe Kasse. My job is coffee shops."

REPORTER: Not just coffee shops; Berhe’s being modest. In less than five years he’s built a mini-empire of three Denver Cafes and his latest project is the ten-story Denver Tower, already half built. Why Denver? Turns out this is where a lot of his family lives.

KASSE: "My wife’s brother, he told me, if you open, promise me you’ll call it Denver Cafe. I told him yes and he give me a gift, one coffee machine.”

REPORTER: “So the price of the name was one coffee machine?”

KASEE: “One coffee machine, yeah."

REPORTER: It may have started with a espresso machine, but Berhe sees a lot of connections between Ethiopia and Colorado. His hometown, Axum, has long been a sister city to Denver, and the dry, abrupt mountains that surround it remind him of the Front Range. Then there are the Broncos, whose blue-and-orange horse-head he’s adopted as a logo. Problem is, American football doesn’t have much of a following in Ethiopia.

KASEE: "People ask me, what is this horse? I sometimes, I told them, it goes fast. So my business is like that, I told them, we are working fast, we are working fast."

REPORTER: Berhe’s visited Denver enough to pick up some passion for the pigskin. We met in the garden of the Addis Ababa Hilton, where Berhe comes to watch the games when he can.

KASSE: "When Denver Broncos come, I am very shouting, you know?"

REPORTER: It’s no accident that when Berhe decided to go into business, he picked a cafe. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee and Addis Ababa is a cafe city. People here drink it like they invented it. Which they actually pretty much did. Every street seems to have a dozen little coffee shops like Berhe’s, each with a row of metal tables and chairs out front to watch the world, or at least the occasional flock of sheep, go by. In a country where few people own more than a change a clothes, meeting up for coffee is an affordable luxury.

KASSE: "It’s very good to entertain, have a meeting withe friends, something."

REPORTER: Berhe had a career as a civil servant, but now he’ s riding a wave of entrepreneurship that’s sweeping Ethiopia. The economy is growing rapidly and people like Berhe are opening businesses and throwing up buildings right and left. It’s still one of the poorest countries in the world, but any city in the US would envy the number of construction cranes on the Addis Ababa skyline.

REPORTER: “What do your relatives back in the United States think of all this?”

KASSE: “They are thinking of come to Ethiopia. Because they know me in small cafe. Now, within a short time, I am owner of building. So they are very surprised. And always they think to come back to their country, to work.”

REPORTER: Berhe says he’s gotten franchise offers from other cities throughout Ethiopia, but there aren’t any plans to bring his cafe to its namesake city yet.

Megan Verlee's reporting in Ethiopia was supported by a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.

[photo: Megan Verlee]