It was Estephany’s smile that hooked me.
In a town where no one makes eye contact, the street can be a bruising place if you’re not used to it (and maybe even if you are). I walked in to Sweet Praise, a restaurant near Broadway and Isham, to her broad smile and cheery welcome. It was a bracing tonic.
The coffee is Blue Bottle—a specialty roaster from the West Coast—and each cup is individually brewed. The menu is extensive for a tiny kitchen in a small “bistro.” You can have French toast for breakfast, ribeye for dinner, and an array of sandwiches in between. Prices are more Midwestern than Manhattan. AND, small miracles, the restaurant has wifi!
Sweet Praise is only a handful of weeks old, and it is the love child of a family that not so long ago emigrated from the Dominican Republic. More than a business, Sweet Praise is meant to be a ministry and an outreach—an ambitious undertaking for Dulce and her children.
Eight or so years ago, Dulce found herself divorced and alone. Her mother lived in the heavily Dominican Inwood neighborhood of New York City, so Dulce came to the US with Estephany and younger son, Joan.
It was a struggle. The language was difficult. “I tried not to be alone. I wanted to change my whole person.” Eventually, through a friend, she did. “Jesus changed my life,” she said.
Her children also began to see the change as well. “At first, I only went to church for her,” recalls Estephany, “but she became happier and more patient.” Estephany began her own search and soon found her own faith, to which her unflagging smile is testament.
An older son, Joel, moved to New York, and the family began envisioning a restaurant. It would be a place in which everyone would feel welcome because the whole environment, every detail, would be welcoming. “We don’t talk about religion,” says Estephany, “we don’t want to create separation. This place is for everyone, not just for Christians.”
If a homeless person asks for food, “we give our best dishes.”
Part of the vision was to create a gathering place for the community. Dulce and her children would love to see the restaurant full after hours with community events, but getting the word out is a slow process in a big city.
The vision is expansive, but the fact is, a restaurant is a tough business. “I’ve run businesses before, but not a restaurant,” says Dulce, and Estephany adds that “she really worries.” The family is working hard to promote the venture. C-Town, the local grocery store, put a flyer in my bag, and the family is running ads in New York papers, but many days, the restaurant doesn’t pull in enough customers.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, however, the little bistro was bustling. Estephany’s smile was as cheery as ever, and the waitstaff was clearly trained to follow suit. Every dish, even my coffee and muffin, was presented beautifully, down to the logo rendered in cinnamon on the side of the plate.
Clearly, this family is working hard—and working together—to create a small miracle in the heart of Inwood—a successful business and a faithful ministry.
Like walking on water.