This Ethiopian-Jewish restaurateur is nourishing Harlem community through pandemic

Beejhy Barhany has had to get very creative during the pandemic to continue her mission of bringing food, art and music to the people.
/ Source: TODAY

Tsion Cafe in Harlem, New York, isn't just a restaurant — it's a cultural center. Locals cherish it as a place where you can go not only to nourish your body with fresh, vegetable-heavy food, but also your mind, with live music, art exhibitions and film screenings.

Now, as thousands of restaurants across the country shutter amid the COVID-19 crisis, owner Beejhy Barhany is more determined than ever to uphold the traditions of her culture and her home.

Beejhy Barhany is the owner of Tsion Cafe in Harlem, New York.TODAY

With dishes like doro tibs and shakshuka on the same menu, the eatery is an homage to owner Barhany's upbringing. But for the restaurateur who was born in Ethiopia and raised in Israel, Tsion is also a celebration of Harlem, the neighborhood she has called home for 20 years. The cafe is housed on the site where the legendary Jimmy's Chicken Shack, a eatery and jazz spot, used to be. In its heyday, Billie Holiday, Art Tatum and Hazel Scott used to perform at the venue. Malcolm X, Charlie Parker and Redd Foxx also used to work there.

"Showcasing the musician, the artist is celebrating the beautiful, vibrant Harlem Renaissance here at Tsion Cafe," she told TODAY Food. "And, you know, Harlem, at large, is the mecca of Black culture. And for me, it's an honor to continue that and be part of it."

The menu at Tsion Cafe is an homage to upbringing, having been born in Ethiopia and raised in Israel.Courtesy Beejhy Barhany

Since opening Tsion in 2014, Barhany has dedicated herself to the community that lovingly embraced her when she moved from Israel in 2000. In addition to from providing New Yorkers with nutritious dishes and showcasing the various talents of local artists, she also employs immigrants, refugees and asylees in the area.

But in March, when COVID-19 caused nationwide shutdowns, everything — the food, the music, the art, all of it — came to a dramatic pause.

"It was a disaster," Barhany said. "Everybody's leaving the city. People are dying."

Barhany has donated over 800 meals to front-line workers and people in need.Courtesy Beejhy Barhany

So at the beginning of April, for the safety of her employees, herself and potential customers, she decided to close down her restaurant. After laying off her staff, she was closed for about a month.

Instead of giving up, Barhany was determined to find alternative ways to keep her business afloat. After Paycheck Protection Program loans didn't come through — many of them going to big chain restaurants — she spent the month of April applying for various small business relief grants. Thanks to $24,000 in grants, she was able to reopen Tsion and rehire some of her workers by the end of month. She started feeding front-line workers and those in need. Since then, she's donated over 800 meals.

"Since the pandemic started, we had to be very creative and find different ways to implement the different things we used to do before," said Barhany.

Barhany showcases artwork from local artists inside and outside of her restaurant.Courtesy Beejhy Barhany

She couldn't open Tsion's doors to the community again, but she could get her food into people's homes through takeout. She couldn't host live music in her space, but she managed to treat people to live performances through Instagram and Facebook events.

In non-pandemic times, Barhany regularly has local musicians perform in her restaurant.Courtesy Beejhy Barhany

At the end of May, when George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, sparked mass protests against police brutality across the country, as well as calls to support Black-owned businesses.

"A lot of people wanted to support minority-owned businesses, Black-owned businesses," said Barhany. "And that helped, in a way. We appreciate it very much for people going outta their way, coming from the Lower East Side, Upper West Side, driving or coming from Connecticut just to support us and buy a meal."

More help came, on July 14, when Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray granted Tsion $30,000 in payroll reimbursements as part of their $3 million Restaurant Revitalization Program with One Fair Wage, giving Barhany the ability to hire back even more workers, on a $20 hourly wage subsidized by the program.

According to the program application, participating restaurants must commit to paying "full minimum wage, not inclusive of tips, to all workers within 5 years of returning to regular business practices" and make their food "accessible to essential workers and low-income residents in their communities," for example, through meal deliveries to seniors or free meals to grocery workers.

Tsion Cafe was one of the first restaurants to be selected as part of the Restaurant Revitalization Program in New York City.Courtesy Beejhy Barhany

The grants were awarded to 100 restaurants in "target neighborhoods" as identified by the city's Racial Inclusion and Equity Task Force, with a preference for "'restaurants who commit to high road' employer practices that promote livable wages, greater race and gender equity in recruitment, hiring, promotion, training and evaluation practices, and other worker-friendly conditions, and that are able to serve fellow New Yorkers in need."

And then, later in July, Barhany was able to reopen her outdoor space to the public — in the back, where she had always had a patio, and in the front, where city legislation granted her a temporary sidewalk license.

With the new outdoor cafe, she brought back the live music and painting. It wasn't back to normal, but it was something.

In July, city legislation allowed Barhany to put outdoor seating in front of her restaurant.Courtesy Beejhy Barhany

"From maybe 30, 40 tables, now you have about 10 tables. It's a big difference in terms of revenue intake," said Barhany. "But are we gonna give up? No. We gonna still keep fighting and make sure we are feeding our community and the doors are opened to make sure that all employees can come and work and sustain themself."

On Sept. 9, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that indoor dining would be allowed to resume in New York City at 25% capacity starting Sept. 30. So, on Wednesday, Tsion will be opening its doors to let customers inside its historic space for the first time since March.

"It's all about giving back to the community, celebrating our diversity and, you know, in this pandemic time, hard time, if we can uplift people's spirit, if it's music, healthy food, our job is done," Barhany said.