MINT HILL, NC – Tucked away in the strip mall opposite The Hill on Lawyers Road is Irene Cafe. Owned by Mint Hill resident Kidane Sayfou, the small European-style cafe, and creperie dishes up coffee, wine, and crepes in a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
Sayfou grew up in the restaurant business in Paris where his father did the “big cooking” while his mother, for whom the cafe is named, made the crepes. Sayfou has fond memories of fighting with his eight siblings to get the first crepe to come off the griddle. Sayfou himself has been making crepes since he was a child and developed the small menu of sweet and savory crepes offered at Irene Cafe himself.
The only crepe artist in Mint Hill, Sayfou takes pride in the food he serves. “It’s filling and they’re huge!” he says. “Nobody can finish them. I have only one guy; that’s his name here,” he says, gesturing to the savory DAR crepe filled with eggplant, red and green peppers, zucchini, onions, and garlic. “I put his name on the menu, Dar, Russian guy. He has three crepes each time, and he eats them within five minutes!”
Virtually born into the restaurant business, Sayfou spent three decades working in top restaurants in New York City before moving to Mint Hill to be near his son Michael. Listening to Sayfou talk about both his son Michael and his mother Irene, it’s clear that family means everything to him.
Sayfou’s generosity extends beyond his immediate family. Covering the walls of Irene Cafe, you’ll see diverse artwork all created by local artists from within five miles of the cafe. “There’s so much talent, but people are so shy about it, so I sell them,” says Sayfou simply.
For the past two months, he has been feeding the homeless on Saturday afternoons. “I used to do it in New York City,” says Sayfou, “and it’s been on my mind for a while. Every single week, I’ve got tons of food. I don’t know what to do with it. Why throw it away? So, in December I said, let’s do it.”
Now, on Saturdays, Sayfou and other volunteers meet the homeless where they are on Albemarle Road, visiting Home Depot, Target, Wal-Mart, and other locations. For Sayfou, it’s important to treat the homeless with dignity and respect, and he does that by providing the same high quality, nutritious meals he serves and eats himself: spaghetti bolognese, fried rice, alfredo pasta, and chicken piccata, to name a few
“They love it!” says Sayfou proudly. “And I tell you, we can’t get enough. In the beginning, we started with 15; then it was right away 25; a week after that he went to 50, and we ended up now at 100. It’s a production when you come here at 2:00 in the afternoon on Saturday!”
Irene Cafe is open Tuesday through Saturday afternoons from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm and Tuesday through Friday evenings from 5:00 pm to 9:00 pm. If you want to experience its unique ambiance and delicious crepes, you might want to go soon – after over eight years in Mint Hill, Sayfou is considering a move to Wilmington soon to be near his son, who will be studying at UNC-W.
“I have a great following here, you know, I get some great people,” says Sayfou, who hates to think of leaving his customers. “I’ve been here eight, eight and a half years, and the people have been terrific. A lot of people in big cities, talk a lot and do less; here, they talk less and do a lot.”
But ultimately, it comes back to the family. “I love my kid,” says Sayfou. “I was making six figures in New York City, you know, I didn’t have to go, but I came down just for him and started from nothing. With COVID and everything, he is very unsure about the future. So that’s why I want to be next to him.”