Relatives and friends reacted with shock over news of the death of Lateefah Curtis, 52, a popular Center City bartender and entrepreneur, who was found Monday, April 26, in her Germantown apartment.
The city Medical Examiner’s Office listed the cause of death as atherosclerotic heart disease and diabetes. A cousin, Sadeka Wood, said Ms. Curtis had messaged her and her sister, Norah Wood, over the weekend to say that she had begun feeling sick on Friday, April 23.
Ms. Curtis, who grew up in West Philadelphia and graduated from New York University, was hired at Vernick Food & Drink, one of the city’s most highly regarded restaurants, in 2012, a few months after its opening. When the pandemic forced the restaurant’s closing in March 2020, she started doing Zoom happy hours and founded Paxon & Penn, a company that created craft cocktail kits and hosted corporate cocktail events. The restaurant has since reopened.
“She was my world,” said her mother, Saleema Curtis, describing her as “a spiritual matriarch. Even though she was my daughter, I learned so much from her.”
After studying wines in California, Ms. Curtis had a ready-made cocktail clientele — a huge extended family including her sister, Nia-DayO Taylor, and dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins. She knew the right red wine for her mother and supplied just the right cocktails and cigars to her father, Caswell Curtis.
“One thing I can say about Teefah: Her laughter,” said her cousin Sakeda Wood. “She was the life of the party. Everywhere she went, everyone loved her laugh.” Ms. Curtis also was known for wearing shorts and flip flops in all sorts of weather, balking only in snow, her cousin said.
“Ten years ago, Teefah sat at the bar I worked in and chose me to be her friend,” said Catherine Manning, who works at a.kitchen. She mentioned Ms. Curtis’ “power laugh.”
Manning and Ms. Curtis shared the frustration of the lack of women working behind bars. “It was instant friendship,” Manning said, describing Ms. Curtis as “wise, bold, and an awesome person. You were truly blessed if you had Teefah calling it as it is.”
Hope Cohen, a chef, author, and restaurant consultant, had taped a cocktail-theme episode of her “CravePhilly” web series at Ms. Curtis’ apartment in December. “Lateefah was larger than life, her personality both electric and magnetic, that mischievous smile easily drawing you in,” Cohen said. “Her badassness was second only to her intelligence, and depth as a person.” On the video, which is expected to be released soon, Ms. Curtis talks about her use of fresh fruits as well as the challenges of being a Black woman in the industry.
In a message on Vernick’s Instagram, the restaurant said staffers were ”completely devastated ... feeling such sadness trying to process a world without such a joyful soul.”
“She was very much a part of the life and spirit of Food & Drink,” the post said. “Lateefah put people at ease, she made them feel extra special, and she always made dinner at the bar a craveable experience that people wanted to come back for. ... What many couldn’t see from a seat at the bar was the effect she had on the staff at the restaurant. She nurtured new employees, gave guidance from her breadth of experience to the whole team, and was a source of quiet encouragement — sparking confidence in those around her.”
Besides her parents and sister, she is survived by a large extended family. Her funeral will begin at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, May 6 at Batchelor Brothers, 7112 N. Broad St. The service also will be streamed on Zoom; passcode 92050290998.