The city’s dining scene is now flooded with pop-ups, and the pool continues to beget brick-and-mortar spots as concepts amass followings. About to make that success-fueled leap is Bunna Cafe (1084 Flushing Avenue), a vegan Ethiopian dining experience and one of the most interesting players in the industry (and one of our 10 best pop-up restaurants in NYC).
Sam Saverance and his partner Liyuw Ayalew initially bonded over their experiences in Ethiopia — Ayalew is a native; Saverance spent time in the country — and two years ago, they began tossing ideas around to channel the culture of a place they loved here in New York. “The idea was to start something that would reflect the culture in a positive, creative, and genuine fashion,” Saverance explains.
They settled on vegan Ethiopian food, Saverance says, because they wanted to pay homage to the rich vegan religious heritage, which revolves around sacrificing, fasting, and forgoing meat during holidays. “We’re not vegan, but we thought there was something beautiful and healthy and wholesome about the tradition, and we wanted to celebrate it.”
They enlisted chef Kedija Srage, a vegetarian, who worked within the framework of traditional Ethiopian food and ingredients while innovating, creating new dishes that fit within the canon. But because the partners had no resources when they got rolling, they launched not with a restaurant but with secret dinner parties and what Saverance calls “DIY under-the-table events.” They’d serve their menu, and they’d finish with an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, an important ritual in Ethiopian hospitality. “Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee, and we wanted to bring that out to the forefront,” Saverance says. “We do a coffee ceremony: We make coffee from raw bean to roasting to grinding to brewing to pouring” from the height of one foot, per tradition.
From there, Bunna quickly garnered fans, and the team soon found itself popping up beyond the Bushwick neighborhood it called home, serving Harlem, Queens, Smorgasburg, and beyond. “We built an awesome DIY system,” says Saverance. “People sort of follow us and look for us.”
The duo began looking for a permanent spot a year ago, but it took awhile to ink a lease. “We were doing lunches at this spot called Mama Joy’s,” says Saverance. “Back in November, Mama Joy’s officially its closed doors, and we started talking about taking it over. We closed the deal in December and started building it out. It’s all completely DIY, and we didn’t get a loan, so it’s been by the seat of our pants.” Saverance and Ayalew also launched an Indiegogo campaign to help with the costs, and they hope to be done with their work by the end of the month.
When Bunna opens its doors, says Saverance, it’ll become the first vegan Ethiopian restaurant in the city. (Most Ethiopian spots have a number of vegan dishes on the menu, he says, but they tend to focus on meaty fare.) The eatery will roll out with lunch, dinner, and that coffee service, though the owner says it’ll eventually add late night (Bunna will have a full liquor license) and breakfast. “Ethiopian breakfast is to-die-for,” he says.
And the partners plan to maintain their pop-up culture, though they’ll be more selective about where. “We’ll always be at Smorgasburg,” says Saverance.
Look for an opening near the end of January. If you’d like to sample Bunna’s food before that, it’ll pop up at The Drink (228 Manhattan Avenue, 718-782-8463) this Thursday and Friday from 6 until 10 p.m.