Padmore John, co-owner of Tsion Cafe
A Jewish-Ethiopian restaurant located at 763 St. Nicholas Avenue, Tsion Cafe serves Ethiopian Jewish food, creative cocktails, and live musical experiences, from a small Sugar Hill space that includes a back patio for outdoor dining.
Owner Beejhy Barhany, who was born in Ethiopia and grew up in Israel, came to New York as a young adult. She worked, and continues to work, extensively with the Ethiopian Jewish community here. Between the many Shabbat dinners, large gatherings, and other occasions at which there was always food, Barhany and her husband Padmore John realized that a restaurant would help the community meet some of those needs.
Barhany and John, who live in Harlem, wanted their restaurant to be connected to the community they’ve lived in for decades. No one could say Tsion Cafe’s location is lacking in history: the landmark building used to house Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, where both Malcolm X and Redd Foxx worked, and where icons like Art Tatum would perform. Now Tsion Cafe uses the location to serve up local art, live music, and community connections to a new generation.
What were the challenges/successes you faced as a business owner and restaurateur before the Covid-19 pandemic?
Challenges were like any other small business: being able to get funding, being able to get our name out there so that people know. We are at a slight disadvantage in that it’s not a typical storefront restaurant so we had to be innovative. We wanted to have art and music as part of the atmosphere, so being able to get artists and musicians come through and play and show their art was both a challenge and a success.
How did those challenges change as you faced the pandemic?
One of the biggest challenges for us as an Ethiopian restaurant is the Ethiopian tradition that you eat with your hands and eat communally. Another key aspect is gursha, the action of feeding someone else by taking the food and putting it into another person’s mouth. That can no longer be done because of Covid. We were a space that was heavily devoted to the atmosphere we created. We very seldom did any deliveries prior to Covid. We had to change our model to really connect with people who were just going to stop in, and work with delivery partners to figure out the best way to provide our food in a to go model.
How were you able to keep your business afloat during Covid?
We were able to stay alive in a variety of ways. We got a contract where the city funded us to provide to-go meals for frontline workers. We also partnered with organizations in the community who paid us to provide food to frontline workers. We got a grant from a group doing very localized grants for West Harlem restaurants or organizations. That meant we did not have to compete with the entire world or all the restaurants across the city. We were forced to go into delivery, which helped us out as well. We had community residents and customers who ordered food or just sent us a check to help keep us open.
How did you find out about the Columbia-Harlem SBDC loan program?
We were clients of the SBDC from the time we got started. Prior to 2014, I started doing research on small business services and ways that entities in the community could be supported. The SBDC connected us with an accelerated program that the city does for restaurants that helps with a lot of the red tape and bureaucracy.
We were always in the network so every now and then we got information. We were also plugged into a variety of different spaces sending out information about different grants like Community Board 9. We’re still working with the SBDC and will be part of the Harlem Local Vendor Program.
How have things been going as everything has reopened?
It’s been up and down, but it’s been a busy month, which is good. The challenge we’re facing is staffing and making sure we have the appropriate people in there. We are starting up some of our programming and music. We just put up new artwork. We’re also looking to pivot into selling our food items independently of the restaurant in supermarkets and other stores that the community will have access to.
What are you looking forward to at Tsion Cafe this summer? Any favorite dishes people should put on their to-eat lists?
Every second Saturday we have live jazz music, and every third Thursday we have an open mic night. The final Saturday of each month we have a DJ that plays music from a variety of genres, which is an opportunity to really get a flavor of the different types of music in Harlem. New cocktails that we’re putting on the menu incorporate a lot of the history of our community. We have a drink called the X, a drink called Redd Foxx. All of these use special spirits, including Ethiopian spirits. We have a few new items such as our chicken fried chicken wings with Ethiopian spice sauce, and brought back our lamb goulash. One of our favorite dishes is a sambusa, which has lentil and chicken options.
What can the community do to continue supporting Tsion Cafe and other local restaurants?
Come in, have a seat, taste our delicious vegetarian and vegan options. We encourage people to come and see the artwork. It’s up for sale by the artists, we get a very small percentage but goes to the artists and the curator. We’re hiring local musicians, so come to events to support those local musicians.