West Philly has long provided a portal to the Horn of Africa, most often traversed by scooping up berbere-laced lentil stew with a strip of injera in one of its many Ethiopian bars and restaurants. But last year a new business brought another quintessential Ethiopian experience to the neighborhood: the coffee ceremony.
Addis Ababa native Hayat Ali gently shakes a skillet over a low flame on a late-summer afternoon. She keeps an eye on the gray-green beans inside as they begin to crackle and smoke, turning caramel-colored, then chocolate brown. The scent of roasted coffee fills the air inside Alif Brew and Mini Mart, the market/coffee shop Ali opened on Baltimore Avenue in the midst of the pandemic.
As she combines coffee grounds and water in a long-necked clay pot called a jebena, Ali explains that in Ethiopia, this process happens daily. The ceremony rotates through different neighbors’ homes, bringing together friends and family for conversation, problem-solving, and gossip.
At Alif, this tradition is reserved for the first Sunday of the month, but the year-old store has nonetheless become a daily hub for community in West Philly. Ali has regulars who stop in every morning with exact change for their breakfast order.
“People really love this place,” she says.
On weekday afternoons, you’ll find neighborhood residents plugging away at their laptops between bites of wraps and tacos made with — what else? — injera bread. Before they pack up to go, they might buy something from Alif’s convenience-store selection, which encompasses everything from almond milk to Ajax, pints of Milk Jawn ice cream, and phone charger cables. There’s a deep bench of Turkish pantry staples, too, including red lentils, bulgur, canned fava beans, pickled vegetables, cured olives, and baklava.
Or perhaps customers come in for an Ethiopian specialty ingredient: injera crisps, homemade berbere and mitmita, nigella seeds, dried koseret leaves, korarima seeds (sometimes called Ethiopian cardamom), and teff or bula flour (made from starchy enset root). The store also stocks the equipment for making and serving traditional Ethiopian coffee, including beans both raw and roasted as well as jebenas and colorfully trimmed ceramic cups and saucers.
When Ali moved from Ethiopia to Philadelphia in 1999, she knew only her husband and his family. She got a job at for University of Pennsylvania’s Steinberg Conference Center, where she worked for nearly 20 years. In the meantime, she had two daughters, and three of her sisters (Ali is one of 11 siblings) moved to the area.
Last year, Ali was furloughed indefinitely after the pandemic hit. The downtime gave her a chance to more seriously consider a dream she had been harboring for years: to open a business of her own. “A coffee shop, a restaurant, something. I always had a dream me and my sisters would do something.”
She was driving through West Philly in June 2020 when she saw the vacant corner store at 45th Street and Baltimore Avenue. The landlord was showing it to prospective tenants, and Ali knew right away she wanted to lease this sunny space with exposed stone, previously home to a location of the Nesting House children’s boutique.
“‘This space is mine,’” Ali remembers telling the landlord, who asked her what her plan was. She didn’t know the first time he asked, and he encouraged her to think more. Eventually, she arrived at the idea of the cafe-meets-market — a model she was drawn to because the market would make the business essential should there be another pandemic shutdown.
That’s how Alif Brew and Mini Mart came to be. The months after signing the lease were spent readying the interior, acquiring equipment for the kitchen, devising a menu, and buying inventory. Ali drew on the help of close friends, her sisters — Mebruka Kane, Fouz Ali, and Salw Ali — and her daughters, Aida and Emily Solomon, who work in the store.
They were ready to open on Sept. 26, 2020, but when the moment came, Ali felt nervous. “Honestly, I was so scared to open. And my sister [Mebruka] was like, ‘Open the door.’ I said, ‘No. I’m scared. I’m not ready.’ So she opened the door, and she pushed me out,” Ali says.
The neighborhood welcomed the store with open arms: All the food the sisters had prepared sold out in a day. “I was not expecting all this,” she remembers thinking of the warm reception.
Alif’s food, made from scratch and eminently affordable, has remained its biggest draw over its first year of business. Weekday customers can graze on crispy sambusas or injera wraps stuffed with spiced shredded chicken, marinated beef, or braised lentils. On Taco Tuesdays, injera becomes a “teff tortilla,” filled with specials like sweet potato and halloumi, roasted cauliflower and harissa black beans, and smoked jackfruit with carrot-cabbage slaw. And on weekends, Ali and her sisters prepare brunch specials, including shakshuka and malawah, a flaky crepe that can skew sweet or savory, depending on the toppings (think nutella, banana, and halva, or baba ganoush and scrambled eggs).
Ali has six employees, including her daughter, to staff the shop. The day-in, day-out of running it — feeding and greeting customers, providing a communal space for Ethiopians and the entire neighborhood — has fulfilled her longtime dream.
“I own something? For real?” she says, as if still in disbelief. “I’m very blessed.”
Alif Brew and Mini Mart, 4501 Baltimore Ave., is open daily from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Delivery is available via Grubhub and UberEats. Reach them at 215-315-8427 or instagram.com/alifbrewandminimart.