A Portland Coffee Shop Shuttered Days After Opening Finds New Customers as it Reopens

An interview with the couple behind Burundi Star Coffee in Portland

Unlike many businesses that reopened after coronavirus restrictions were lifted, Burundi Star Coffee didn’t yet have a dedicated customer base. Just days after Jocelyne Kamikazi and Andre Nzeyimana first opened the doors to their Portland coffee shop, the statewide shutdown forced them to close the business. On top of that, Kamikazi had just left her full-time job as a translator at Maine Medical Center. But once they reopened at the start of June, customers began trickling in. They got a boost when Portland Food Map posted a list of black-owned businesses in Portland and an online resource guide, Black Owned Maine, sprung up in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

The couple, who moved Maine from New Hampshire in 2006 after originally fleeing Burundi as asylum seekers, wanted to start a coffee company to provide higher prices for coffee farmers in their home country. They don’t yet buy coffee directly from the coffee growers, but they purchase coffee beans from specific regions in Burundi and plan to eventually buy the beans directly from farmers. Time and Tide Coffee in Biddeford roasts the beans for them, and they sell bags of their coffee to go at their shop on Saint John Street. Along with drinks, the shop offers savory sambousas, avocado toast, banana soup, and baked goods from Norimoto Bakery.

Why did you move to Portland?

Andre Nzeyimana: When we first came to the U.S., our destination was New Hampshire. We lived in Manchester, New Hampshire, for a little bit. We came here just visiting Maine because we didn’t even know Maine existed. A friend talked to us about Maine and Portland, and we said let’s go visit. They said there are some other Africans here and people from Congo, which is next to us. We visited and we liked it, and then we moved to Portland.

Jocelyne Kamikazi: We got help from Portland. They helped pay for housing.

Nzeyimana: We were in a shelter at first and then we moved on to an apartment because we didn’t have work authorization—being immigrants didn’t help. When we got work authorization, we started working. We appreciate what Portland did and Maine in general. Portland is a good community, and Maine is a good state. So far, 14 years later, we still like it. We feel home.

What led you to start a coffee shop?

Kamikazi: When I went back to visit my home country two years ago, I noticed that my dad and their neighbors were destroying their coffee trees because they weren’t getting enough fair trade. Because I know how much the coffee costs here, I thought, if I buy it directly from them maybe they might be able to get more in their pockets so they can have the courage to keep their coffee trees. It’s good coffee, and it’s one of the only things Burundi can export and get money. I talked to my husband and said ‘Why can’t we do something?’ If we buy directly from them and have a store here, it may change their lives.

How did it feel to have to close your shop so soon after opening?
Nzeyimana: We were shocked. She had just left her job. We had been paying rent for four months, and then we were ready to open and start making some money, and we had to shut it down. It was scary at first. Right now, we are starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Portland is a really good community. Everybody takes care of everybody. Now we can see people coming in and trying to support, and that is good. It gives us hope that we can stay in business somehow.

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