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11 years of 16-hour days pays off for DIA coffeeshop owner

Muluye Hailemariam dedicated years of hard work to saving money to open her coffee business.

DENVER — Every time someone lands at Denver International Airport, they bring their stories and dreams. Some people don't bring very much, at all.

"I came (with a) very small amount, under $100," Muluye Hailemariam said.

The woman everyone calls Mulu came to Colorado from Ethiopia. She worked a minimum of 16 hours a day at DIA selling jewelry at a kiosk. Though she worked in an airport, she never took a vacation – for 11 years.

"I have to tell you the truth. Many times, I tried to quit,” she said.

She sacrificed because she was motivated, both to serve travelers and to save money to make her vision a reality.

The hard work paid off. In January, Mulu and her husband, Berihun Chibsa, celebrated the opening of their coffeeshop, Kabod Coffee, in DIA’s main terminal.

Mulu got an assist from a program called the Airport Concession Disadvantaged Business Enterprise, which she became part of in 2011. The program aims to help more women and minorities open shops inside the terminals.

RELATED: Woman, POC owned coffee shop, Kabod opens second location in DIA

"Coffee's birthplace is Ethiopia,” she said. “All over the world now, everybody drinking coffee.”

Mulu and Berihun created what they call a farm-to-cup process, using organic ingredients to serve up coffee blends with an Ethiopian twist.

"This is a longtime dream, but this take a long journey," Mulu said.

Her journey is far from over.

Credit: Denver International Airport

Every day, she walks miles through the airport, back and forth to her second location the end of Terminal B. The 16-hour days continue. She said it's a good thing she sells coffee.

With no office at the airport, she sets up in the seating area with her employees to work on payroll and schedules. She struggles with having enough employees and personally covers shifts that are left unstaffed.

"To build a business in the airport is not easy," Mulu said. "It's expensive, as well."

“Every day, I try my best,” she said.

Now, she has a different problem with a third location outside of DIA, at a Denver strip mall called Northfield Commons. She said she signed a 10-year-lease with a noncompete clause guaranteeing that no other coffee or breakfast business would be placed in the same mall.

"The previous landlord, he agree,” Mulu said. “He already signed it. That's agreement."

The video below aired in January when Kabod Coffee opened in DIA's main terminal:

But a company called 1046 Munras Properties bought Northfield Commons, and the new owners said Mulu violated her lease.

"I just close temporarily, and the landlord, they took me within less than two weeks,” she said. “They just sue me, and they take me to court.”

The court sided with 1046 Munras Properties. Within 48 hours, Mulu tore her store apart and moved everything out.

"All of the fridge, espresso machine and the coffee brewer," she said.

Attorney Christopher Young provided a statement to 9NEWS that reads in part, "Both prior to and after the Denver District Court's entry of its Order for Possession, we made every reasonable attempt to work with Kabod Coffee – all but begging Ms. Hailemariam to reopen after she voluntarily closed the business in January 2022 without any prior notice to the Landlord."

Mulu said she planned to close for only a few weeks to make renovations and hire more employees, but she said she believes 1046 Munras Properties wants to force her to sign a new lease without the noncompete clause.

"And, is that fair? I try to work, and I try to stay, and I beg them, and they walk on me," Mulu said.

The statement from 1046 Munras Properties questions Mulu's assessment:

"Even though she claims to have closed for staffing reasons that could not be remedied due to COVID, those claims are contradicted by the fact that she simultaneously opened a new, fully staffed location in DIA. Unfortunately, the Landlord could never get a solid commitment or plan from Kabod Coffee to reopen at this location."

The statement from 1046 Munras Properties places the blame on Mulu:

"Even after the Court announced its ruling that Kabod Coffee had breached a material term of its Lease by shuttering its doors, Landlord (within minutes of the ruling) again reached out to Ms. Hailemariam to plead with her to reopen her business. The simple truth is that if Ms. Hailemariam had wanted to remain as a tenant in the shopping center, she would still be in there today."

Credit: Denver International Airport

Mulu is expected to continue to pay rent even though the store is closed. She said she plans to take the matter back to court.

"That's why I'm fighting," she said. "This is part of it. Part of one chapter of my life."

While she’s upset about the situation, she said she draws strength from God.

"A lot of people give up today,” she said. “I don't think so. Tomorrow is gonna be better."

She said she's ready to take on this next challenge because that's what she's been doing for decades.

"More than anything else, I found myself, and then you know where I belong, and then purpose of life," she said.

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