Local Biz: Zed’s Cafe

Zed Mekonnen
Photo courtesy of Pete Tan

My name is Zed. I’m the owner and manager of Zed’s cafe, here in Silver Spring.

How did you end up in Silver Spring?

I ended up in Silver Spring by accident. I traveled overseas. I went to Europe, and then I went to Africa. On the way back from Africa to the States, I wanted to go live in Hawaii, but they didn’t have a direct flight. I had a family friend who was living in DC. He said I could come there and stay with him, then catch a flight from there. I stayed a couple days, weeks passed, I never made it to Hawaii, and I stayed in DC.

Tell me about Zeds’.

I opened this coffee shop in June 2011. The concept came about because many people were being laid off. My friends and I were pretty much hanging out at a coffee shop. My daily routine was I would go to Caribou coffee, walk down Fenton Street and go to the office. I would get a coffee every morning and sit on the patio; maybe get a cappuccino and a croissant. That was my day. When we were laid off and the market tanked, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity. My friends were saying, “Oh, the market’s going to come back. We’ve got a new president coming in. He’s going to change everything.” Years passed, so we’re sitting at Caribou and money was dwindling down.

Zed's Living Room
Photo Courtesy of Jonna Huseman, www.jhphotograph.com

I remember my friends saying, “Mr. President, there aren’t a lot of jobs. The market’s not coming back. The economy is doing horrible, especially with the employment rate so high, even in the DC area. What are you going to do about it?” The President then said, “Americans have to go out and create jobs for themselves. Some of the jobs will never come back.” So he was right, and I had to laugh at my one friend who always said the market would come back. He said, “Oh, man! Now we have to go create jobs. Maybe we can chip in some money and open up a coffee shop.” We were spending most of our days in a coffee shop, and a lot of people have a need for this kind of non-corporate coffee shop. My other friends laughed. They said, “You need investment capital to start a coffee shop.” We didn’t have that kind of capital. I thought maybe we could do it in a small scale way. It doesn’t have to have big machines and refrigerators. We can trade skills. All my friends still laughed, but I kept it on my mind. If I could find a hundred people like me who want to grab a cappuccino and a croissant in the morning, I might be in business. I saw this place, and I went and spoke to the landlord. That’s it.

You’re a coffee house, but you have homemade teas?

Zeds Hot Chocolate
Photo courtesy of Jonna Huseman, www.jhphotograph.com

Yes, well, we don’t grow them. We don’t have a tea farm. Next year.

We buy them at wholesale and make different fusions to see how they work. In the process, we discovered a few that make customers really happy, and they keep coming back for them. Prior to that, I had no knowledge about tea. The only tea I knew was Earl Grey and English breakfast.

How have you seen Silver Spring Change?

Silver Spring has changed substantially. In the last eight years, it has changed completely because of the development and Discovery, especially. When they were doing the development downtown, they were also creating new residential buildings on East-West Highway. The interesting thing is you see Mom and Pop’s mingling with corporate, as well. It makes it more interesting than just corporate entities.

What do you love about Silver Spring?

The fact that I see how we evolved. It makes you feel like you’re actually from here. I’ve seen it grow incrementally. A new establishment will open somewhere, and prior to that there was no building in that lot. I got the chance to see it happen. In addition, prior to opening the coffee shop, I had a circle of friends that I would hang out with. Since I opened up the coffee shop, though, I go somewhere, and I’ll see people I know. That made it more interesting for me. It’s changed me, too, in terms of how I perceive people. It gives me and everyone a sense of identity.

What do you dislike about Silver Spring?

It’s expensive to live here, in terms of rental properties. As a small business owner, I should be able to afford a reasonable apartment for a reasonable price. But I’m not sure how affordable it is for a lot of folks. It seems like it’s extremely expensive. That probably drives out locals. I’m not sure how that affects everybody. If someone who owns a small business can not afford to live in one of these luxury apartments, with extremely expensive rates, how can you keep the community and locals here? I’m curious how affordable it is for a lot of people who have traditionally lived in the community.

Zed's Menu
Photo courtesy of Jonna Huseman, www.jhphotograph.com

What would make Silver Spring better?

It has to become a getaway place for people who live in DC. Many of our customers come from Georgetown or GW as a weekend getaway because it’s a quiet suburban city kind of life. DC’s hectic, so people can catch the metro and come up here and feel like you’re in a different city. Like Crystal city or Pentagon City, people go to Virginia for a suburban feeling to it. The metro makes that accessible.

In Silver Spring, you’re also in a very close proximity to almost any type of establishment. That makes it very interesting. There’s art and entertainment in Silver Spring. What you could add more to it is development that brings more creative people to town. As development has happened, creative people have come and invested or created something. For example, we have The Fillmore, the theaters, Pyramid Atlantic. We have pretty much everything here. It has a neighborhood feeling to it, a sense of community. The people who live in Silver Spring are very great people. Sometimes when people come here to the coffee shop, they’ll bring a flower and leave it on a table, or all sorts of mugs. People donate books or display art here. We haven’t done any advertisement for years because people think you’re worthwhile if you’re working hard. People sense that, and it’s worth it to know people and how genuine they are. That makes me feel really happy.

When you go out in Silver Spring, where would someone find you?

I wish I could go out. I practically work 12 hours a day. If I get time between the shop and errands, I’ll eat at a few Vietnamese restaurants downtown. Over here, I’ll go to Sidebar to grab a beer or Quarry House. They’re very close and it’s laid back and relaxed. I go to lunch next door at Olazzo. I like to go to all the businesses. I don’t like to go to the same place all the time. Sometimes I’ll grab Thai food, or a Latin place. You don’t see me much at corporate establishments. I have a sense of feeling for small business.

Any hidden gems in Silver Spring?

We have everything you would look for. There’s one building, though, near Cameron Street, with a park. At night, people bring their guitars and play out there. The Plaza at United Therapeutics. On a Spring night or Summer night, you can just hang out there. People will bring their guitars and they’ll have random kinds of music.

Zed's Music Calendar
Photo courtesy of Pete Tan

I think I’ve already talked too much. I’d like to see more green companies bring green technology, like solar energy and such.

In addition, our sister city, Takoma Park, is full of residents who are champions of Silver Spring. Over 70% of our customers come from Takoma Park. When we have music night on Friday and Saturday night, we get like 30-40 people. They pack the place.

Banner image courtesy of Jonna Huseman. www.jhphotograph.com

Pete Tan
A DC Native, people say I'm rude and abrasive; I say I'm passionate. I've been working in marketing since 2005. My brothers and I paid Geppi's rent through the 80s and 90s. My relief at an indoor wavepool never materializing in Silver Spring is balanced by my disappointment that City Place has dozens of shuttered storefronts. I love what you've done with your hair.

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