Bunna Cafe: An Interview with Sam Saverance

If you’ve ever visited Bunna Cafe in Bushwick, you know it’s an impeccable blend of healthy cuisine and serious comfort food. It’s perfect for warming up during the cold winter months. The staff and customers are some of the friendliest in the neighborhood and their live events keep us dancing. Located on Flushing near Knickerbocker, it’s close to our Bushwick office and the Morgan L, so we’re always stopping in for some shiro, misir wot, cocktails and good times.

This week, we spoke with Sam Saverance, one of the owners of Bunna Cafe, to get a peek into the restaurant’s history and pick his brain about how they keep their food and atmosphere so wonderful.

 

Tell us about Bunna – what is it and why did you choose it as the restaurant’s name?

Bunna Café is an Ethiopian restaurant and Bunna is the Amharic word for coffee. So our name translated is Coffee Coffee. Which I guess would have worked in some hipster ironic way as well. But yeah, we serve vegan Ethiopian food and use coffee – which has its origin in Ethiopia – as our brand, namesake, and aesthetic muse. We aren’t a coffee shop, you can’t get an espresso or a caramel macchiato here (yet) – but we hand roast coffee on our stage daily and perform traditional coffee ceremonies 4 days a week, to depict the cultural importance of coffee to Ethiopians. And we serve the end product in a strictly traditional manner, strong, dark roasted coffee mixed with cardamom and cloves.

Coffee Ceremony -- Photo by Sunrise Winburn

What’s Bunna’s background story? How did it come to be? What changes has it gone through?

I was (am?) a lost suburban Dallas, Texas boy who had grown up in Europe. I moved to New York and dove deep into Ethiopian culture, eventually traveling there to see what it was all about and what could be done. I came back with some healthy inspiration and tried some things out, before eventually meeting my partners Liyuw Ayalew and Kedega Srage in 2011. Liyuw had moved to the USA a few years before after being an excursion guide in Ethiopia and truck driver in Alaska (we named a cocktail after him, the Ethiopian Ice Road Trucker). In addition to studying architecture, he had spent his time in NYC managing cafes and restaurants and was hungry for his own venture. Kedega was dispatching at a limo company in 30 Rock. She had never set foot in a commercial kitchen but was a natural culinary artist. Her dishes hit the mark in both look and flavor. We had no money and were still forming the idea of what we were going to do, so we hit the pop up circuit for three years. We did everything – secret dinner parties, dance parties, bar popups, street fairs, music fests – most of them our own solo events. We served in the rain, in the snow, on the beach, on the roof – sometimes three events in a day. Our two big breaks came in 2013 – we landed in Smorgasburg, and we worked a deal with this southern food joint Mama Joy’s to do a daily lunch counter. Four months later, MJ’s closed and we took over the space. Everything was designed and built by us. After a 6-week renovation in the dead of polar vortex winter, we opened doors in February 2014.

Two years later, we are still changing. New backyard, new storefront, new dishes, new ventures. People like us never stop building.

Interior facing front -- Photo by Aregawi Gebrewahid

What originally got you interested in Ethiopian cuisine?

Who knows… I was a geography nut when I was young. In college I started getting into African cultures. I would hang out with Nigerian classmates at the one West African spots in Austin, TX. One day the owner experimented with a side menu of Ethiopian food. I was hooked. Over the years, the more I learned about Ethiopia and it’s rich and deep culture of unity, intimacy, and hospitality, the more I saw that their food was really the most basic depiction of its cultural depth. To sit together and share a plate of tasty, sexy, healthy, and filling food – to Gursha (hand feed) your neighbor – it is the best cuisine for first dates, make ups, and probably diplomatic summits. We’re working on the last one. By the way, Nigerian food is fantastic, too.

Espris -- Photo by Theo Johnson

Why did you decide to make Bunna vegan?

Many reasons. Cleaner, cheaper, healthier, more sustainable, and easily accessible to non-Vegans. In Ethiopia, people who worship the main religion, Orthodox Christianity, go vegan during their fasting periods. So everyone abstains from meat products for more than half the year overall. Since it is such a deeply rooted tradition, they have had many centuries to perfect their vegan cuisine. In short, it’s f***ing fantastic, and it has everything you would want in a cuisine, without the meat.

 

How did you meet Kedega and Liyuw? 

I ran into Liyuw at Think Coffee on Union Square one rainy day. I had recognized him from one of the restaurants I had frequented. We sat and talked and three hours later we decided to go into business together. Done. We spent a year trying out a few different concepts, but we could never really get the food right where we wanted it. That’s when Liyuw met Kedega through a friend and we decided to try her out. Originally we were looking for someone that could perform the Coffee Ceremony in a dinner party series that we were putting together, but then we found out she knew how to cook as well. Her food did it – it put us where we knew we needed to be. It still does it.

Storefront -- Photo by Aregawi Gebrewahid

What’s your favorite dish on the menu?

Come on, that’s like asking a Dad which one is his favorite kid.

Shiro, obviously.

 

There are always live events happening at Bunna. How do you find the artists? What kind of shows are coming up?

I know people. They know people. Etc. We do live music every Wednesday, with more days to come. Our shows are a mix of Ethiopian, African, Reggae, Roots, Jazz, Indie, Folk, Middle Eastern, Ethio-Nepalese Fusion, Persian Pre-Revolutionary Funk, and so on.

We also do afterhours parties. Ethiopian dance, eskista until dawn.

This Friday the 15th, we are having our best show to date. Fendika, the best dance troupe in Ethiopia right now, is coming to perform after close. Checkitout: bunnaethiopia.net/fendika

Music -- Photo by Theo Johnson

Apart from Bunna, what are some of your favorite restaurants in Bushwick?

I deeply respect any restaurant that dares to do something unique yet takes the time to curate it. I don’t see it in many of the new restaurants that have opened in the past year, but the folks that started in the post-Robertas restaurant boom have it. Julian Mohamed’s Dear Bushwick and Yours Sincerely are pristine works of art, both in cuisine and ambiance. In both places he created immense depth in very tiny spaces. Phil Gilmour does it with Momo and Mokuhis vivacious personality and creativity is the life and pulse of both places. Keith and Nick’s King Noodle went through a few iterations but now it’s a fave among Ethiopians and white boys that hang with Ethiopians. Henry Trieu’s Falansai is a quiet, meditative, and delicious Vietnamese joint that loops Planet Earth docus during dinnertime. Bushwick has so many new fantastic Vietnamese-inspired restaurants – Johnny Dep’s Lucy’s Kitchen and Linda Thach’s Little Mo make their own ridiculously good versions of Pho and Banh Mi. Oh man, and the best lunch place is Alex Luncheonette on Putnam and Knick. The Godfather of $5 Dominican lunch specials. What else — there’s Maite, Mominette, and in the 3am drunk hangry category, Archie’s Pizza. I shouldn’t even eat cheese but I don’t give a fuuuu…..

If you were stranded on a desert island and could bring three things, what would you bring?

Well I’m on my way to South East Asia so by the time this gets published there’s a very good chance I will be stranded on a deserted island, in which case I have brought absolutely nothing with me and have no way of knowing that this has been published.

Wait is it “desert island” or “deserted island”? Or “dessert island”? If it’s dessert island, I am bringing vitamins, protein powder, and a board to surf the gently rolling dunes of cream cheese frosting. Yes, this was a dream I had. Everybody shut up.

What’s your spirit animal?

John Maus.

 

Stop by Bunna Cafe this winter and say hi to Sam, and check out our neighborhood listings in the area.

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