in partnership
(Image Holly Check)

Jebena Cafe's customers have kept them open & thriving, in spite of a pandemic

For the sister-brother duo behind Jebena Cafe in north Seattle, owning a restaurant goes far beyond simple business and profits. When Martha Seyoum opened the Jebena Cafe nearly ten years ago (their milestone anniversary approaches in January), her motivations were those of most restaurateurs and business owners: grow the business, make a profit, and establish a customer base.

But it was that customer base that would change how she and her team would come to view the small, bustling cafe — as less of a "place" and more of a home, a community, a family.

Jebena Cafe is an Ethiopian restaurant with coffee and great food at its heart, co-owned by Martha and her brother, Mesfin Ayele, both natives of Ethiopia. Before opening Jebena, Martha worked for years in other restaurants as a waitress, not realizing she was actually learning how to run her own restaurant. The pair grew up with their mother, who Mesfin says is an amazing cook.

"She taught us how to cook from a young age," he said. And they kept cooking, whenever possible, with traditional and authentic Ethiopian ingredients and spices, creating as much of their native cuisine as they could.

When they opened Jebena, this was the foundation: their mother's wonderful cooking, imparted on them over decades, and the spices and coffee from their country. They continue to use spices brought directly from Ethiopia in every dish, and it's what sets their food apart, says Mesfin. In fact, their mother acts as their restaurant's supplier, as she now lives half the year in the U.S. and half in Ethiopia, using those months to gather fresh spices and ingredients to stock the kitchen at Jebena. The coffee they specialize in, too, is imported directly from Ethiopia.

When you eat at Jebena, every meal is fresh and packed with flavor. Those straight-from-Ethiopia spices make a difference, but so does the love and effort poured into every dish. These are mom's recipes, and each one you order is made fresh on the spot, served to the customer steaming and delicious and wholly authentic. They offer various "Jebena combos" among their dishes, each one providing an opportunity to taste an assortment of their offerings and a variety of different Ethiopian flavors. Mesfin says these are the best way to get outside your comfort zone and try something new that you're sure to love.

Over the course of this year and the unexpected pandemic that has been massively painful for many small businesses and restaurants, there has been a bit of a rollercoaster of emotions for the Jebena team as well, but ultimately, they've been reminded of their love for their community. At the start of the pandemic when everything was very new and unclear, Mesfin and Martha were scared about the uncertain future. They went from a restaurant packed with regulars every night to closed doors and silence. Understandably, they were worried about the future of the restaurant. But Mesfin said within weeks their regulars started coming by, leaving money or asking to buy gift cards to use when the cafe could reopen, instantly proving to the team at Jebena just how much their neighborhood and customers really are family to them.

To Martha and Mesfin, each customer is part of their community, whether someone new or someone who has been in countless times. Their customers know them by name, ask about their kids, and likewise, the co-owners know their customers too. They love them like their own family. And the response they received during the pandemic has proven why. It's all about the community that good meals and good people create.

Now they've got a takeout rhythm going, and while they miss seeing everyone sitting down around warm bowls of food, sharing stories and camaraderie, they know those days are around the corner someday soon. Regular or first-timer, if you stop by, you'll be welcomed in with open arms and treated to great food, even while you still have to take your meal to-go.

Looking to support more small businesses like Jebena Cafe? We're proud to collaborate with Intentionalist, an online guide that makes it easier for you to find/connect with diverse local businesses owned by women, people of color, veterans, members of the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities.