By Anna M. Drzewiecki
It’s early afternoon and Burundi Star Coffee on St. John Street is quietly bustling. A small line forms at the register. Friendly chatter. The aroma of Burundi coffee, which owner Jocelyne Kamikazi describes as specialty coffee grown and processed on small plots of land, fills the space.
“[Business is] much better compared to this time last year,” said Kamikazi, when she sat down to talk after the café had closed for the day
But she is exhausted, she said, working over 60 hours per week. And while business is improving as masking mandates lift, weather warms, and people are less wary of being indoors in cafés, running this shop still presents challenges. Plus, the café is just a window into Kamikazi’s entire project, which involves communicating directly with farmers and paying them fairly for their labor and beans, with the ultimate goal of coordinating imports.
For now, Kamikazi would like to hire another employee at the café – but that’s not possible, not quite yet. “It’s better, but it’s not to the point where I can hire more staff,” she said. “It is difficult just to survive.”
Kamikazi started serving more food options as a way to stay in business. She carries beignets (mandazi) now, along with croissants and other locally made pastries. But none are as local as the sambousa, which she prepares herself, right in the café’s kitchen. She makes vegetable and beef sambousa, though she may discontinue the veggie ones because they’re not selling well. She also started serving what she calls the Burundi Plate.
The Burundi Plate, she said, makes “people feel more at home than before.” The typical customer who tends to buy the plate is someone with multiple jobs, who works late, who can’t cook, and professionals or young people who never learned to cook this way but miss the flavors. Kamikazi also has started contributing to Cooking for Communities, a grassroots organization that raises money to hire local restaurants that need work to prepare healthy meals for people who need food.
With the dawn of tourist season in Maine – and increased local recognition for their iced coffee – Kamikazi is fairly confidentl that summer traffic will pick back up again at the café. “Summer will be busy,” she said.
Other African immigrant-owned Portland grocers and restaurants shared similar stories as spring arrived.
A new employee at the African Super Market on Washington Avenue said business has been steady since she started a few weeks ago. But the market also expects even more people in the summer,when folks who live nearby are outside more often and foot traffic on Washington Avenue picks up.
Lucie Narukundo, smiling behind the register at her business, Moriah Store on Cumberland Avenue, has had no supply chain issues and business is good. “It’s been very busy,” she said, surrounded by customers tucked around abundantly packed shelves. A few more shoppers walked in as she briefly told the same story as other business owners: business has been better, and it’s getting better again.
The Asmara Restaurant on Oak Street, serving Eritrean food, was too busy with dinner orders for a chat. But owner Aklilu Tsaedu of Niyat Catering, who sells Ethiopian fare, was able to talk by phone. “We’re hoping to open up again soon,” he said.
At Gloriose Karumuna’s Glory Store on Forest Avenue, sun lit the shelves as it filtered in over a couch, heavy bags of flour, sodas in a cooler, and Karumuna herself, who sat waiting for her business partner to return. Bags of fresh, locally made, and still warm beignets formed condensation on the counter. Karumuna has also recently started carrying more cosmetics. She anticipates the summer will bring in more customers. Already she’s seen an increase in business, if only because the warming weather makes it easier for folks to get to her.
“People are coming in more than before,” she said. “Business is good for now.”