By Leila Molana-Allen
UNION SQUARE — A new cafe with a strong political message has opened on West 14th Street. Bourbon Coffee is based on a direct trade model, and sells only Rwandan coffee bought straight from the farmers who grow the beans.
The cafe opened just over a month ago, on Jan. 6. Its main competition comes from a Starbucks half a block down the street.
In the windows hang posters inviting potential customers to come in and "Experience the taste of Rwanda."
Bourbon Coffee is the first commercial coffee brand to spread internationally after beginning in Africa. The company's name is taken from Rwanda's indigenous Bourbon arabica coffee bean. Bourbon grows and serves five different types of coffee from the five coffee-growing regions of Rwanda, all of which have very different soils and climates.
The facade and interior of the cafe feature a rustic, bare brick design, complemented by wooden panels and decorated with Rwandan handicrafts and paintings, many of which feature coffee husks and raw coffee beans in the design. The cafe, which is furnished with wood-veneered tables and brown and red leather armchairs, seats upwards of 50.
The company's CEO, Bosco Munga, is a Rwandan native, but the American stores are overseen by operations manager Stacey Manley. Munga also runs three coffee shops in Rwanda's capital city, Kigali, and opened the first U.S. site, in Washington D.C., in 2009.
Barista and assistant pastry chef Allie Rapp, 24, applied for a job at Bourbon Coffee after returning from seven months of traveling in South Africa because she was particularly passionate about the chain's ethos.
"I sent them a very corny e-mail saying how much I love Africa, and even wrote some words in African," Rapp says. "Our coffee isn't burnt like Starbucks. And customers say: 'It's beautiful, it’s bigger than I expected,' they love the space. They say: 'We've been waiting for a non-Starbucks place to open. We're so happy you’re here.'"
Rapp thinks the shop's message will be the key to Bourbon’s success.
"The customers think it's very neat that it's direct trade with Rwanda. Because of that, the level of pay is even higher than with fairtrade. And we know who the coffee's coming from," he said. "I think over 90 percent of Rwandans are farmers, so it's really cool that we can give them so much for their hard work."
David Sundell, a web developer who lives in the area, said he frequently comes to Bourbon Coffee.
"I’m pretty close to a devotee," Sundell said. "I prefer the coffee at Joe's but I prefer the environment here. It’s very spacious for a New York coffee place. I like the ethos and the message. It’s not the reason I come here but it’s a nice extra."
Bourbon calls itself a "Crop to Cup" chain, meaning they are involved in the entire process, from growing to brewing.
"There are coffee clearing houses that the [Rwandan] government manages," explains Hany Mohamed, 31, the store's morning supervisor. "Then we have a relationship with one of those clearing houses. The money goes right to the farmer instead of middle people. What we're trying to do is found a stable market for Rwandan coffee beans so we can help the people over there."
"A lot of people get really excited when we tell them about Rwanda, about the trade between us and them," he says.
Mohamed says the quality of the coffee is vital to the cafe's popularity.
"Rwandan beans are one of the best coffee beans in the world, they're very expensive. ... You can taste the natural sweetness in the coffee. People who are used to adding milk or sugar to their coffee usually find they don't have to with our coffee."
Real Estate Broker Tytus Ciechorski, 27, said he liked Bourbon Coffee much better than Starbucks.
"They have different kinds of coffee, they give you a choice. It's the same price, so I'd rather go here if it helps the farmers," Ciechorski said.
At $2.29 for a medium coffee, the price comes in at 11 cents more than the same size at Starbucks.
The company plans to open another Bourbon Coffee location in Boston within the next six months.
Starbucks did not immediately return calls for comment.