For the longest time, there was nothing, save for a pile of towels and a black plastic crate. It was around 8:30 at night and the linens had just been brought back from the laundromat next door. They lay firmly packed on top of each other, still warm from the dryer. Earlier they had been used to clean a greasy stove top, or maybe it was the oven. The final employee soon locked the doors for the night.
The smoke began shortly thereafter. For nearly six hours the towels sent it wafting into the air as if it were a last-ditch attempt to warn someone, anyone, what was to come. But nobody seemed to notice. A chain reaction was underway, heat begetting heat, smoke begetting smoke, until there was only one final step to take: flame.
* * *
Kate Steenstra had only been dating Yasser Aiq for around three months when she heard that Café Clavé was closing. The building was microscopic, stuck like a forgotten puzzle piece at 4305 Locust St. between the “U-do We-do Laundromat” and “PP Grocery” Oriental food market. But she immediately thought of Yasser, who was a chef at the Rock School for Dance Education, and dreamed of opening his own restaurant. She forwarded him the realtor’s phone number.
“Are you in?" he texted her.
“What?” she sent back.
“Do you want to manage the place? Do you want to manage front of the house?”
Kate told him sure, half joking. It seemed a crazy idea at first. But then she began to consider the proposition seriously–her grant supporting her work as a lab manager at the Penn was set to expire and she had worked part–time at restaurants before. Plus, she could always quit if she didn’t enjoy it, or so she thought. “I quickly found out that that wasn’t the case,” she says.
After some rapid-fire negotiations with the landlord, Yasser and Kate signed the lease on January 17, 2013. Eleven days later, Café Renata opened its doors. The restaurant was initially a café, but Kate and Yasser, both in their mid–to–late twenties at the time, harbored a grander vision for the place, one that included full–service meals and a professional grade kitchen. They began scouring Craigslist for equipment, and after three months of steady improvements were able to build their first brunch menu, which would come to be Café Renata’s signature meal.
College senior Elena Crouch first visited the restaurant around 2014 to pick up a gift card for a Penn Appetit–sponsored competition. Kate and Yasser, who were trying to tap into the nearby Penn clientele, were more than happy to donate. Crouch ate at the restaurant that first time, then soon returned with friends once more. Café Renata may have been a bit “off the radar” compared to more popular Penn brunch locations like Sabrina’s, but to Crouch, the restaurant more than held its own with its fava bean salad and shakshouka. Soon it would become a bona fide destination for Penn students–one group of fraternity brothers visited the restaurant almost every day, even introducing Kate to their parents when they graduated.
Building such a positive reputation from scratch among locals and students alike was no easy task. In the early months, Kate and Yasser would wake up at 6 A.M. every morning and work sixteen hour days. The restaurant began to acquire a personal significance to the couple beyond simply being their business. “It kind of became a part of our relationship,” Kate says.
“We learn about each other so much through just living this thing, doing it together,” Yasser adds.
Which is why it was all the more devastating when, in the stroke of a night gone horribly wrong, the young couple awoke to find everything destroyed.
* * *
Nobody heard the smoke alarm until it was too late. Its shrill beeps, pulsating with maniacal rhythm, continued for six hours straight. The neighbors in the apartment above the restaurant were somehow unaware of creeping destruction just one floor below. It was only after the flame came to life that workers at the laundromat called the police. Fire trucks were dispatched 46 seconds later.
Yasser, still in disbelief, sprinted out of the house in pajamas and boots into the cold March night. He ran along 43rd Street, passing Delancey and Spruce and then, finally, Locust. It wasn’t until he reached the CVS Pharmacy just across the street from the restaurant that he saw the fire trucks—five or six of them in the middle of the street, sirens piercing the otherwise quiet night, their lights flashing in a deranged loop.
He stopped running. With that many trucks outside, he knew Café Renata was gone.
Kate embarked upon her own midnight run shortly after Yasser, stopping at Spruce Street where a police car blocked the road. The officer told her the laundromat had caught on fire. On that quaint little block with the buildings smushed together it could have been easy to mistake one business for another—but Kate knew Café Renata was the victim when she saw the laundromat was still open for business, its lights turned on.
She and Yasser sat in the street until three in the morning, watching a stream of firemen burst into their livelihood, destroying its windows, smoke stained and scalding hot, one axe blow at a time. They watched as their curtains were pulled down from the inside and thrown into the street. They watched as their bilco doors leading to the basement were thrust open. All the while, water gushed from the hydrants, flooding the street.
Eventually, one of the firemen let Yasser inside the building. It was humid from the smoke and fire and smelled of burnt plastic. Yasser was led to the right side of the back room, which didn’t make sense, because there was nothing hot on that side of the room. He had assumed someone left a pot on the stove or forgot to turn off the oven. The fireman gestured in the dark and said, “Here it is.” Yasser found himself staring at the melted plastic remains of a crate. There had been a stack of towels there. Now all that was left was blackened char.
Still not fully comprehending what had happened, Kate and Yasser went home, realizing there was nothing more they could do. It wasn’t until then that Kate began to cry. It was 4 a.m. and Yasser hugged her.
“It’s gone,” Kate said. “I am Renata.”
* * *
Andy Leonard visited Café Renata most days. The fifty–three–year–old had a simple routine: he would drop his kids off at the elementary school down the block, then swing by for a morning cup of coffee. But on March 12, 2015 he was greeted by a ghost of a building, plywood covering where the glass windows once were, black tendrils of smoke smeared over the entryway. Kate stood on the front steps, nearly in tears. She told him the news: everything was destroyed. The towels, which had been brought back from the next door laundromat, caught on fire. Something to do with static electricity. It was ironic, Kate said, because she and Yasser had been solicited by a cleaning service salesman before, who told them they shouldn’t wash their own linens at the laundromat due to the risk something like this could happen. They hadn’t bothered, and now Leonard was standing in front of Kate, unsure whether or not to give her a hug.
Beyond the boarded-up windows were the remnants of a restaurant stained black. Ash dribbled down the sides of the custard-colored walls like individual teardrops. Utensils, menus and mugs sat on tables waiting for customers who would never arrive. A chalkboard listed the day’s choice of bagels: Plain. Everything. Multigrain. Poppy. Sesame. Cinnamon Raisin. Blueberry. Spinach. Cheddar Jalapeño.
The back room, where the fire had occurred, was a scene even more apocalyptic. Metal racks which had held pots and pans and supplies were melted and disfigured. And then there was the soot. Soot everywhere, coating the ground, the walls, the ceiling, in a suffocating dark gray. It covered one pile of plates, stacked in a black crate, as if it had been just unearthed at an archaeological excavation.
Kate was determined to rebuild the café as soon as possible, but Yasser was not so optimistic. “I was done,” he says. “I was so tired of that work, building the place with our hands, putting in the kitchen—it just got to the point it was devastating, exhausting, like physically.” There were also the practical hurdles: they had lost $40,000 worth of supplies—the entire kitchen, the whole food inventory, the freezers. Even Yasser’s personal computer didn’t survive. “If it wasn’t burned down it was water,” he says. “If it wasn’t water it was smoke.”
But the community’s support of Café Renata began to change his mind. In the aftermath of the fire, people would anonymously slip cash-filled envelopes under the front door. A fundraiser organized by patrons of the restaurant also yielded a huge turnout. “It was there and then,” Yasser says, “When we're like half drunk, we said ‘Okay, we have to go back and do this.’”
Yasser began to search for a new home and soon discovered a Subway only a few blocks away at 4533 Baltimore Ave. which was for sale. The location had seen a number of different storefronts over the years, from the Baltimore African Market to the Pickles & Pies Middle Eastern bodega, which, incidentally, sold neither pickles nor pies.
When Kate saw the store she instantly said, “Oh no, this is not gonna work.” But Yasser had a vision for the place, telling Kate, “Imagine this without all this crap. Without all these posters, without all these refrigerators, soda machines.” She became convinced, and a new lease was signed in May.
The couple had to work fast in order to reach their goal of opening within six months of the fire—any longer and Yasser figured “we might as well not do it because no one’s going to know who you are again.” Fortunately much of the material from the old café was salvageable—chairs, tables, artwork, the wooden bar. But despite recouping some losses from their insurance, Kate and Yasser still needed to invest an additional forty percent into the new location. The expenses accumulated in the oddest places: $5,000 just for the drawings of new electrical outlets, $3,000 for the gas.
Finally, on September 23, 2015, the new restaurant opened its doors. It had been just over six months; one hundred and ninety-five days. Kate and Yasser decided to use the opportunity to rebrand—Café Renata became Renata’s Kitchen. It seemed appropriate, a combination of old and new, much like the restaurant itself.
“It was as if we didn’t miss a beat,” Kate says. “We opened the doors and it was…”
Yasser completes her sentence: “Flood.”
* * *
On an early Sunday afternoon in November, only three small tables are empty at Renata’s Kitchen. The clientele is mostly families and their children. Around 9:30, two separate groups of Penn students enter the restaurant. A shift begins as college students begin to awake from Saturday night slumbers and replace more and more of the quiet families who make up the early brunch-goers.
From the kitchen, Yasser hustles through the kitchen with his four coworkers—a dishwasher, a prep cook, and two line cooks—looking perfectly culinary in a black chef’s cap and a white apron singed and stained with brown specks. He passes a large plastic laminated Subway guide hidden on a side wall, the only evidence of the building’s past occupant, which gives cheerful health advice: “Use your head, stop germs before they spread. Cover your cough or sneeze.”
In the aftermath of the fire, Yasser and Kate used the opening of Renata’s Kitchen to expand upon the old menu. The food has moved far beyond the pancakes and eggs that first made Café Renata so popular; now Yasser has added falafel and other Middle Eastern food, paying homage to his own childhood spent in Israel. “At home we would eat food from East Europe and North Africa, simply because that’s the surrounding around you over there,” Yasser says. “These are the neighbors. And that sometimes gets interpreted in the menu we have over here, a little bit from this, a little bit from this.”
A Palestinian growing up in Acre, Israel, Yasser was no stranger to such diversity. “The whole idea is like we are a mixed couple, diverse couple,” he says of him and Kate. “The restaurant itself, it’s a whole region. We look at our neighborhood, our neighborhood itself, it’s also a whole region. If you look at the body of the students, it’s multiple regions.”
None of this would have come to be if Café Renata had not burned down in the first place, and in a roundabout way, the fire has been a blessing to Yasser. His goal was never to run a café, which is ultimately what Café Renata was. “The fact this is an actual restaurant, I have to be 100–percent chef–ing it out. It brings you back to your dream,” he says.
But for Kate, the pain of losing Café Renata in the fire still resonates. “We poured so much of our hearts into it,” she says. “I still remember how much it hurt.” She remembers waking up the morning after the fire and thinking, half asleep, that she had to get to the café to make the day’s croissants. It had all felt like a dream. Then she realized it was gone.
To this day, she avoids walking down Locust St. where the café once was. The space is empty now, all evidence of its past life having been erased. Even the once–inviting yellow walls have been painted a cruel, pasty white. It is nothing more than an anonymous For Rent sign in a city full of them. Still, the memory lingers. And in that building, Kate can still see the long communal table where patrons once sat, the orange juice and coffee and pancakes, the students. In it all, she sees a reflection of herself.