Senait and Dr. Carl Robson bring Ethiopia to St. Clair at Empress Taytu: My Cleveland (photos)

November 9, 2017 GMT

Senait and Dr. Carl Robson bring Ethiopia to St. Clair at Empress Taytu: My Cleveland (photos)

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Senait (Shiferaw) Robson and Dr. Carl Robson own the 25-year-old Empress Taytu Ethiopian Restaurant at 6125 St. Clair Ave. Carl’s also in his 46th year of general and family medicine in the neighborhood. Senait’s a former nurse and political refugee who manages the couple’s 14 rental apartments there.


Cleveland creds: Moved from her native Ethiopia in 1986, lived in Cleveland Heights before St. Clair-Superior

Age: 64

Schools: Gondar Public Health College, Ethiopia

Family: She and Carl have a grown daughter, Ainslee

Favorite locally owned restaurant besides Taytu: L’Albatros


Cleveland creds: Raised in New Jersey and Chicago, moved to Hinckley in 1969 and St. Clair in 1989

Age: 77

Schools: College of Wooster, Western Reserve School of Medicine

Family: Three children by a previous marriage

Favorite locally owned restaurant besides Taytu: Nighttown

What’s Ethiopian food like?

Senait [pronounced suh-NIGHT]: We make our food mild, medium and hot. It’s more flavorful than burning hot. We use beef, chicken, different beans like lentils, yellow split peas, collard greens, cabbages, sauces.

We make lamb sauteed with onions, garlic, ginger, rosemary and spice butter. It’s served in a clay pot with charcoal underneath.

For vegans, there are so many things. We make our own cottage cheese, plain or spiced.

There are blends of 13, 14 spices we buy straight from Ethiopia. Some additional spices I get from Chinese, Italian, Indian and Greek stores here. Most of the meats we get locally...

Carl: ... all grain fed.

Senait: But we get Australian lamb

Carl: There’s a bread they call injera.

Who eats here? Ethiopians?

Senait: There are only a couple hundred Ethiopians here. Almost 100 percent of our customers are from the suburbs.

Would Taytu draw better in the burbs?

Carl: Sure. We’ve known right from the beginning that it would be more successful anywhere but here. But I have a medical practice here. We have property here. We’re living here.

Senait: People call and ask if we’re open in the daytime. [The restaurant opens at 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.] They’re afraid of the neighborhood. Once they come, they’re OK.

Who works here?

Senait: Mostly Ethiopian students. We’ve sponsored students through Heights Presbyterian. In the late ’80s, we started cooking dinners as thank-you’s for helping these kids. People said, “Why don’t you start a restaurant?” “No, I’m not a business person.”

Carl: We sponsored her brother Mike. He saw the old shoe store here and said we could make that a restaurant. Their mom used to run a restaurant in Ethiopia. I said, “No, restaurants always go belly up.” But Mike managed that thing...

Senait: ...while going to school full-time.

Carl: My son Shane worked with Mike.

Senait: Now our daughter Ainslee does the social media. There was huge free labor from me for years. Now I get a salary.

Have your workers and tenants gone on to other careers?

Carl: A couple doctors. A couple nurses. We also rented an apartment to Yohannes Haile-Selassie, who’s made incredible finds at the Museum of Natural History.

What are your properties like?

Senait: We have 14 different rental units.

Carl: We like to have a map of the world in each place. Sudanese refugees leased from us for a couple of years. Their families had been shot. The guys had raised each other from as young as 8.

Our house is an old auto repair shop. We have four dogs, one from St. Croix, one from Ethiopia.

What else do you do for Ethiopians here and over there?

Carl: We have a nonprofit called Menelik Hall. Menelik was the emperor who defeated the largest colonial force ever on the African continent. We’ve sent medical textbooks back. We were trying to start up a department of family medicine. We sponsored a sister-city relationship with Bahir-Dar.

We’re working on a cultural garden. We have a plot. We have a plan. We don’t have money. We’ll need about $250,000.

Have you two been to Ethiopia together?

Carl: Ten or 12 times. And I’d gone to Ethiopia twice. My mother was always an African history buff. Senait and I have gone together 10 or 12 times.

Tell us about your other lives.

Carl: After Western Reserve medical school, I opted to go into the Public Health Service on a Chippewa reservation in North Dakota for two years. I loved it. But my then-wife’s father, a surgeon in Ashland, got sick, so we came to the area in ’69. I worked in ER’s and joined what was called the Hough-Norwood Family Health Center. It was part of the war on poverty, I left for two years for a residency at Metro, then came back.

In 1976, I started a private general practice at the Eliza Bryant Home. In ’82, I bought a building on St. Clair and remodeled it. I practiced there for 23 years. I would make house calls and hospital rounds, chiefly at Mt. Sinai. I opened offices at Shaker Square and on the West Side.

In 2005, I went back to Hough-Norwood. They had long ago changed their name to the Northeast Ohio Neighborhood Health Services.

Senait: I worked in Ethiopia. I met a doctor and his nurse wife from Cleveland, Dan and Jane Reynolds. After [Emperor] Haile Selassie was deposed, we had wars and so many soldiers and militias in our hospital.

My friend and I were taken at gunpoint because we did not attend the Socialist political meetings. After seven or eight hours, our medical administrator came to police headquarters and said there was a huge shortage of nurses. They let us go.

Then I got a letter one day saying to report to the head of the ministry of public health. I had my passport ready and got my exit visa.

I came here and stayed with Dan and Jane at first, then got my own place in Cleveland Heights.

Dan introduced me to Carl. I did home visits and hospital visits with him while studying for my state board examination. We married in ’92. I worked at different hospitals, including Mt. Sinai in surgery and Kaiser in ob-gyn at Fairhill, then Beachwood.

How’s your neighborhood doing?

Carl: Sterle’s closed. Dot and Beanie’s closed. Zak’s Funeral Home is still there. The Sheliga Drug store is doing fine. Martin de Porres High is building a huge addition. You keep looking for signs of hope.

We’re Ward 10. Across the street is Ward 7. Aren’t wards supposed to be like communities?

How’s Cleveland doing?

Carl: I like Cleveland. There are a lot of good, progressive people in this town.

Senait: I like Cleveland lately because the natural disasters don’t affect it.

If I leave Cleveland and want to say something about it, I always say, “Ethiopia—oh, I mean Cleveland,” even when I’m in Ethiopia. Cleveland’s ingrained in me as my home.