Philly food and drink scene

The women powering West Philly’s thriving Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurant scene

Baltimore Avenue has been a culinary center for the culture since the 1980s.

Hayat Alif at Alif Brew and Mini Mart

Hayat Alif at Alif Brew and Mini Mart

Alif Brew and Mini Mart
carriehagen

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Cafe owner Hayat Alif was about 8 years old when she started preparing coffee for her parents, a rite of passage for children growing up in Ethiopia and Eritrea, the former province that became independent after a 30-year civil war.

As Alif and her 10 siblings grew, they gradually took more responsibility in the daily ritual. From the beginning stages of just adding milk or sugar to their parents’ cups, they learned to wash beans, roast them in a skillet over a flame, grind them with a mortar and pestle, brew the grounds with boiling water in a clay pot, pour the coffee, and serve the adults.

Alif credits that experience with inspiring her to open a coffee shop. In October of 2020, she launched Alif Brew and Mini Mart, a combined restaurant, cafe, and market that brought the traditional coffee ceremony to Baltimore Avenue.

The commercial corridor that stretches across West Philadelphia has been a center for Ethiopian and Eritrean businesses since the early 1980s — with many of them run by women.

Nazaret Teclesambet, co-owner of The Wine Garden, attributes much of the professional success of Ethiopian women to their heritage. Unlike some other African nations, it was never colonized by Europeans, she said, and women raise their daughters to have a “fierce independence” and a “very tribal” belief in one another.

“There is a misconception of foreign women being behind the scenes,” Teclesambet said. “I grew up with a lot of women around me, hard-working women who operated corner stores and hair salons.”

She drew inspiration from them when she decided in 2019, after a career working with food trucks, to open a seasonal outdoor wine bar. People told her, “Nobody is just going to come drink wine. You need other things,” Teclesambet said, but she and daughter Favian Sutton persisted. They saw so much success on Baltimore Avenue that they expanded with a second location in Center City.

Teclesambet has lived in Philadelphia since the early 1980s, when she arrived with her Ethiopian father and Eritrean mother as part of the first wave of about 30 families fleeing their home country’s civil war.

“We were the first ones then,” reflected Teclesambet, now in her forties. “It was such a small community.”

She remembers admiring Neghisti Ghebrehiwot, who opened Dahlak right around that time as West Philly’s first serious Eri-Ethiopian restaurant.

As the war in East Africa raged and separated families, Ghebrehiwot used Dahlak to welcome both Ethiopians and Eritreans by serving and showcasing traditional dishes. The restaurant still offers these staples — dishes like injera bread, wat, shiro, kitfo, and firfir, prepared with tomatoes, onions, cabbages, and a host of spices ranging from cardamom to chili pepper.

Following Dahlek, other Eri-Ethiopian restaurants began popping up along the same stretch. The 1990s brought Queen of Sheba and Gojjo. Last summer saw the addition of Buna Cafe, co-owned by chef Belaynesh “Bella” Wondimagegnehu.

Saba Tedla, who opened Booker’s Restaurant and Bar on Baltimore Avenue five years ago, grew up with an Eritrean single mother. She chose a menu of American food with Southern influences for her venture, but purposely chose the community around her.

After growing up in Michigan, she went to college in DC but came to Philadelphia because it was a “magnet of attraction” with its large established Eritrean and Ethiopian communities.

Tedla, who worked as a software engineer before becoming a real estate investor, suggested another factor behind the strong drive of women from Eritrea: it’s one of few nations that regularly trains women for combat. During the 30-year civil war, one-third of the Eritrean army was female, she said, leading to a generation of women even more “self-directed and self-developed.”

She said the self-esteem instilled by her Eritrean mother was a source of resilience that came in handy as she navigated how to maintain business during a global pandemic.

For Alif, of Alif Brew and Mini Mart, starting a business during the pandemic was both a gamble and a necessity. Soon after moving to America with her husband in 1999, she took a hospitality job with the University of Pennsylvania, work that ended as COVID-19 shuttered the campus.

But the furlough brought the freedom to pursue her childhood dream of owning a cafe. “I was nervous,” she said, “but I believed in myself.”

It fared so well that within a year, Hayet Alif opened her second eatery, Salam Cafe, in Germantown. She attributes her business success to the hard work and passion that she shares with her co-workers — her sisters, her friends and her daughters — and the lessons she learned from her mother.

“She had 11 kids,” Alif said, laughing. “She was strong. She didn’t complain. She made things happen.”


Alif Brew and Mini Mart, 4501 Baltimore Ave.
The Wine Garden, 5019 Baltimore Ave.
Dahlak, 4708 Baltimore Ave.
Queen of Sheba, 4511 Baltimore Ave.
Gojjo, 4540 Baltimore Ave.
Buna Cafe, 5121 Baltimore Ave.
Booker’s Restaurant & Bar, 5021 Baltimore Ave.

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