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A Conversation with Kareem Sami

Kareem Sami of Forest Hills recently took the reins of Café Bliss, on Penn Avenue in Point Breeze, and turned it into the latest Pittsburgh café/performance venue in the hood. Well, Point Breeze ain't actually "hood," but...

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The face of management changed rather quickly here. What happened?

It kinda worked out where [the previous manager] wanted to get out of it, and she said, "Well, why don't you do it?" I have experience running restaurants and food services, but I've never run a café specifically. So all this was new to me: the specialty drinks, coffees and teas.

 

Why do you think there aren't Starbucks in the hood here?

I don't know, especially with black people being, like, the largest consumers in America. But Magic Johnson showed them it could work [putting Starbucks in Compton and Harlem], so I wouldn't be surprised to start seeing Starbucks in the hood -- probably with, like, one-inch glass between the customer and the register.

 

Why don't we have a wider variety of businesses in Pittsburgh's black neighborhoods?

We kinda let that happen here. We allow for that. We take whatever they give us and don't say, "We want a little more or we want something else." It takes people knowing this and saying, "You know what? I'm going to put a Shadow Lounge right in this spot, where it was nothing." Right when you're in the muck of it, as opposed to "I gotta go to Atlanta or D.C. because that's where it's hot." You know what's hot. Do it right here. A lot of people don't want to be that first person on the dance floor.

 

You're situated right up against a bar. Do patrons cross-pollinate?

Yeah, we definitely get employees from there who come over for coffee, or people who've been drinking who need coffee. When we have live music or poetry, people at the bar may stop over. People here go over there, get a six-pack and come back, 'cause it's BYOB.

 

Historically, two major institutions in black communities have been the church and barbershops. Are cafes the newest?

This will be the next one. One of our original ideas thrown up was to have a barbershop café. You see the stage here? Imagine at the edge of the stage a glass wall sealed all the way up to the ceiling. Inside there are three barber chairs. This used to be a storefront church. Church groups meet here because they don't want to be around smoking and drinking.

 

Do you get the peculiar gaze from those who see you doing something other than what's typically assigned to young, heavily bearded men with short Afros?

I don't have a problem with that. You got certain people who are like, "So what made you get into this?" Basically what they're saying -- well, actually I don't know what they're saying, but I can feel what they're saying. I hear it from black folk: "A black guy owning a coffeeshop with a healthy menu?" I've had black people tell me it's unusual for a black guy who ain't selling something typical like a chicken shack or fish fry or some unhealthy foods.

 

Do you get offended by that?

No, I'm used to it. It's rare in Pittsburgh, so I understand why they're saying that. It's noticeable. Even if they just said, "A black guy with a café?" I still wouldn't get offended. It opens their eyes. Then they can say, "Oh, that's not an unusual thing because I know such-and-such who's over here." There are people from my experience who just don't even think in that direction, so after this they think "You know what? Why not?" Like, why shouldn't we open up a café -- or a tanning salon?

 

Black people running a tanning salon?

Why not?

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