WASHINGTON—When Kenfe Bellay fled from the Ethiopian Red Terror in the late 1970s, he never thought he’d one day own a successful café.

The cozy joint on H Street Northeast was established by Bellay and his wife, Yalemzwed Desta, in 2006. Money did not come easy for Bellay, who was a taxi driver, parking lot attendant, and owner of a small shuttle bus company. It wasn’t until the day he picked up an entrepreneurial General Mills vice president in his cab that he had the money to build his dream.

Children in Ethiopia typically grow up surrounded by coffee all their lives—observing their mothers roasting beans, and getting accustomed to strangers being invited in for coffee. “Coffee bonds people in Ethiopia,” Bellay said. “You discuss everything over it.”