In 2014, Sabrina Berhane often found herself jogging past a “for sale” sign in a storefront in her East Sacramento neighborhood. When she mentioned it to her sister, the pair realized this might be a harbinger of things to come.
Now the sign above the popular, 4-year-old shop on H Street reads “Tiferet Coffee House.”
The sisters, Sabrina and Makeda, also run a coffee cart in Sacramento City Hall and a café in a hospital about two miles away — and all three locations carry the name Tiferet, which means “glory” in Hebrew.
“This coffee shop was not planned,” Sabrina said. “It was a leap of faith and a calculated risk.”
The sisters were born and raised in Modesto, where they attended Congregation Beth Shalom and had the distinction of being the only black and Jewish members. The unwavering self-confidence instilled in them by their parents helped them mitigate any struggles that their multilayered cultural identities might have presented in what Makeda calls a “country town.”
“Our mom would make cultural collages of black and Jewish people who looked like us — like the first black woman who worked for NASA,” Makeda recalled, “and then put a picture of each of us on those posters. She hung them in the hallway of our house.”
Their mother, Carmen Colón, comes from a Jewish family that left Spain in the 1800s and went to Puerto Rico. Their father is of Ethiopian heritage.
Subscribing to their parents’ belief that they could do anything came in handy when the sisters started their business, since they knew nothing about how to make coffee.
Sabrina, 41, studied criminal justice and public policy at Cal State Stanislaus in Turlock and was working as a real estate agent when she began poring over YouTube videos to learn barista techniques, such as how to make foam for cappuccinos.
Makeda, 40, was working at a finance job in Washington, D.C., when the idea for the coffee shop was hatched. As she rode the bus to work each day, she studied coffee shop-related flashcards to keep up with her sister before returning to Sacramento.
Although the duo also hired a consultant, Sabrina — who often slept in the flagship location in the early days — began to grow more and more confident with the business, eventually putting her own Ethiopian-inspired coffee recipes together and inviting feedback from customers.
“When people stopped talking about fixing it, we knew it was good,” she said with a laugh.
Our mom would make cultural collages of black and Jewish people who looked like us.
Though there is no shortage of coffee shops in East Sacramento and the hip Midtown area, Sabrina and Makeda say they are not interested in the local coffee scene or their competition. They just do what is comfortable for them.
With a degree in interior design from Sacramento State, Makeda created a homey atmosphere that feels like their living room; in fact, half of the furniture came from Sabrina’s home.
Knowing their regular customers’ names (as well as their drink orders) has come easy to the outgoing siblings, who have matching wide smiles and welcome everyone as family. This is a characteristic they also attribute to their dual heritage.
The first Tiferet location is a former ice cream shop in the shadow of the Capital City Freeway (I-80 Business). Their next location opened in 2016 after the sisters were invited to open the first coffee shop in City Hall. A 120-square-foot former security closet now houses a coffee cart that is pulled out every morning and pushed back in every afternoon.
“City Hall was seeking a locally owned business as their first vendor,” Sabrina explained. “They knew of us and literally walked into our H Street [shop] to invite us to submit an RFP [request for proposal]. We went through the process and won.”
Ten months ago, the owner of the building that houses Mercy General Hospital also extended an invitation to open a Tiferet. Like City Hall, Mercy was seeking a locally owned business that served specialty coffee.
Though different in size and structure, each of the three shops reflects things that the Berhanes like (such as the small-café style) and their heritage (Ethiopian baskets scattered about and specialty Ethiopian teas). The steady flow of customers is one sign of success; the sisters report that approximately 7,000 cups of coffee are served each month.
“It’s like a community [at Mercy Hospital] and the same here,” Makeda said while seated upstairs in the H Street location. “That’s where you get the love and energy.”
The sisters celebrated the shop’s first anniversary with a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, complete with traditional dress and jewelry. Sitting outside with a gas burner, they roasted raw coffee beans, pounded them in a mortar until they were finely ground and then waited as they percolated in a jebena, a traditional Ethiopian pot. Passersby were lured by the lingering aroma.
Asked if there is a secret to their success, Sabrina replied, “Be kind and carry on! … Oh, and have good coffee, tea and food.”
As for the name Tiferet, Makeda explained, “In Kabbalah, it is the center of the Tree of Life where strength and compassion come into balance.”
Sabrina added that it also is a divine light of gratitude from within. “That was what we wanted to create,” she said, “and I think we did.”