It’s the morning rush at the Peet’s Coffee on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. While there’s a steady rhythm of patrons dashing in and out to grab coffee and start their day, a small group of men take part in a more relaxed daily routine.
They sit around a table casually, sipping black coffee and speaking in Tigrinya, the main language of Eritrea. Every 10 minutes or so another man grabs a chair and joins the group, chats for about 15 minutes, then leaves. They greet the few other Eritrean patrons who approach their table for small talk before slipping out. An older gentleman joins the group of about five men and is met with a friendly chorus of “Gash Menge!” (Gash is a term of respect, like “mister.”) They shake hands, and the conversation turns to a mixture of Tigrinya and Amharic, the primary language of Ethiopia.
It’s a scene that could be taking place in Asmara or Addis Ababa—men stopping by before or in between shifts at work to slow down, debate with friends and enjoy one of East Africa’s most well-known exports.“Most habesha enjoy having a coffee,” says Samuel Yihdego, using a unifying term for Ethiopians and Eritreans “Our background is something related to the coffee’s aroma. So Peet’s Coffee is one the best compared to other coffee shops.”
Yihdego, 40, is a nursing student and limousine driver. He walks to the coffee shop from his home at least once a day on weekdays, as he has for over three years. He calls Peet’s a “melting pot for habesha people.” Eritrea and Ethiopia have a tense history of border wars, but it’s their similar cultures, especially coffee (boon in Tigrinya, buna in Amharic) that bring their people together. “Most of the people who come from back home, they come here and they’re looking for habesha because they don’t have anywhere to go,” Yihdego says.
Peet’s is a central spot for employees and patrons of the many surrounding habesha-owned businesses that line Telegraph Avenue. It’s not a formally scheduled get-together, but it always happens. “Obviously if you come here, you will find someone you know,” Yihdego says.
Mengistu Gebrehiwot, the man they call Gash Menge, holds a cane and wears a denim baseball cap and yellow-tinted aviator glasses. The 83-year-old has lived in the Bay Area for over 35 years, and has frequented Peet’s locations for the last 10. (He even won the franchise’s first round of its “Customer of the Month” program.) There may be an Ethiopian-owned coffee shop down the street, he says, but can’t remember the name. Peet’s is just an established part of the community.
“We come here, meet not necessarily whom you know. Anybody from Eritrea or Ethiopia, you can talk, you can chat, you can exchange ideas. Most of the time it’s politics because we have problems back home,” says Gebrehiwot.
Gebrehiwot is new to political discourse. As a former aircraft mechanic and union leader for Ethiopian Airlines, he once lobbied on behalf of 3,000 employees for better wages. When Ethiopia’s communist military regime suspected he would encourage workers to rebel, he was imprisoned for three months in the late 1970s. He fled to the United States and made his way to the Bay Area, becoming one of the first Eritreans to settle in the East Bay. (Eritrea was part of Ethiopia until 1991.) He helped form what would become the area’s first Eritrean community center and greeted new immigrants at the airport and made sure they were aware of aid and other resources.
Gebrehiwot says it’s those experiences that have made him a respected elder among younger Ethiopians and Eritreans. “When I talk, they gather. I tell them story, even politics we discuss. So they love to hear me. They like me because I am old,” he says with a laugh.
Frezgi Gebrezgiabher, 34, a taxi driver and five-year Peet’s regular, sits outside with another group of men. For him, Peet’s is a daily stop where he can speak his mind. “It has a place, free. You can meet with friends,” Gebrezgiabher says. “Many of us, we smoke cigarettes and we have freedom here. That’s why we like it.”