By Sarah Thompson
When Tequanna Tyson was a little girl, she remembers her grandmother, a Southern woman, cooking all the time. Her meals were the epitome of good food. When her mother and grandmother began teaching her how to cook, she never dreamed she would one day have her very own restaurant.
During the onset of the COVID pandemic in 2020, Tyson was living in New York City. She decided to pack up and find a new place to call home that wasn’t being hit as hard by the pandemic, eventually making her way to Torrington, Connecticut. That’s when she discovered that there were very limited options when it came to soul food restaurants.
“I was baking and cooking in New York City and would do festivals and pop-up shops on the weekends, but I never thought about having a store. So, when I moved out to Connecticut two years ago, I was driving a bus,” she shared. “I thought, let me try to see how difficult it would be to open an actual restaurant here where we can have soul food because there is none in the area.”
Tyson was on a mission to bring something new and fresh to the area—a mission that didn’t always come easy. In early August 2021, she opened the doors to Tequanna’s Soul Food & Sweets.
“It’s very hard to open your own restaurant. Especially having to deal with all the permits and stuff I didn’t know about. It’s a lot of money,” she said.
“It makes me really happy because you can tell is someone is really enjoying your food. It makes me feel really good and want to stay here and keep going.”
Plus, Tyson’s commitment to serving only the best food is one that comes with a lot of dedication and hard work.
“Everything is actually home-cooked, from cleaning the chicken, seasoning the chicken, everything,” she explained. “Nothing we serve is off a delivery truck and you just heat it up and it is ready. Nothing is pre-made.”
While her mother helps Tyson every other weekend with cooking for the restaurant, most days she’s on her own.
“It’s challenging because right now me and my mom are the only cooks,” she shared. “I have another job. I usually go cook every morning and then by noon my employees come in and we have everything set out on tables.”
She’s doing something right by bringing a great new option to the area. Tyson’s menu includes the best of soul food—BBQ ribs, pork chops, black-eyed peas, collard greens, mac and cheese, fried chicken and so much more.
“Everybody likes the food,” said Tyson. “It makes me really happy because you can tell is someone is really enjoying your food. It makes me feel really good and want to stay here and keep going.”
Her specialties also include desserts and sweets, like banana pudding, and she creates custom-made wedding cakes. Tyson also offers catering, and her restaurant has a bar with special drinks.
As the only female, Black-owned restaurant in Torrington, she’s faced some unique challenges, but those obstacles are what keeps her motivated.
“I keep going because of the people that said we wouldn’t make it out here because I’m a Black-owned business,” said Tyson. “Right now, I have so many people on my side—the mayor and everybody else—everybody just supports me a lot. So that helps me. They don’t make me feel like I’m not supposed to be here.”
And with roots setting in place for her restaurant in Torrington, Tyson is looking to expand her business.
“I’m working with other businesses to have a whole bunch of events and eventually some time in the future I do want to open another restaurant in New York,” she shared.
What started as a tradition in one family’s kitchen from generation to generation is now being shared for everyone to enjoy. What a delicious thing she’s done!
Tequanna's Soul Food & Sweets is located at 21 Main Street, Torrington, Connecticut and is open Tuesday and Wednesday from 12:00-7:00pm, Thursday-Saturday, 12:00-9:00pm and is closed on Sunday and Monday. Learn more on their Facebook page, website or by calling (646) 956-0221. Veterans receive a discount every Wednesday.
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* Food photos courtesy of Tequanna's Soul Food & Sweets
11/11/2021 0 Comments
JUST MAD VEGGIES: GROW WHAT YOU EAT
By Lajeune Hollis
“Grow what you eat, then you will be satisfied,” said Elijah Boles, owner and mastermind behind Just Mad Veggies, a gardening and apparel brand based in Oakville, Connecticut. “If you grow fruits and vegetables that you actually like to eat, chances are you won’t stop there.”
While still a child, Boles’ father inspired him to garden by sharing how to tend to a small garden his father and landlord took care of at their first apartment home. His father weeded the plants and then handed Boles the tomatoes and cucumbers. This simple act fostered a passion that would follow him throughout his life and eventually inspire him to start his business in December of 2020.
Boles started by growing organic and chemical-free vegetables, which led him down a health and wellness path as he and his workout buddy looked for better ways to fuel their bodies after track practice. While figuring out what to eat, they would often say “Let’s have grilled chicken and just mad veggies”—and the name stuck.
Now married, Boles is passing on the knowledge he learned from his dad two his two young daughters through gardening lessons. And it’s working–his three-year-old daughter can already distinguish between fruits and vegetables.
“If you grow fruits and vegetables that you actually like to eat, chances are you won’t stop there.”
Boles also encourages new gardeners to start off small—with just a tiny container on the window ledge—in order to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Through helpful tips, pictures and tutorials on the Just Mad Veggies website and social media, Boles brings a fun, modern approach to gardening. He shares advice on how to eat organic, healthy food without the expense, how to save and grow organic food, and how to grow urban gardens. He also shares how to change over gardens during season changes and highlights the therapeutic benefits of growing fruits and vegetables and even has a Gardener of the Month program.
In May 2021, Just Mad Veggies branched out to offer apparel, including baseball caps, t-shirts, tank tops and stickers. Boles will eventually offer seasonal apparel and plans to have Just Mad Veggies booths as festivals, markets and events throughout Hartford so he can interact in person with novice and veteran gardeners.
When asked what’s in his garden, Bole shared, “Last summer I grew three varieties of tomatoes, six [kinds of] peppers, three varieties of garlic, zucchini squash and yellow squash. From these vegetables I will make homemade salsa, bread and butter pickles and homemade pasta sauce. I have found that canning [food] not only helps to preserve your crops but also allows you to chill [foods] so you can use them later on in the year—I do not believe in waste.”
Eventually, Boles would like to grow sweet potatoes in his garden so he can make sweet potato pie and surprise his mother on a not-too-distant Thanksgiving Day.
Learn more about Just Mad Veggies or browse their online shop on their website, or follow Just Mad Veggies on Facebook or Instagram.
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By Lajeune Hollis
Sasha and Ian Fay first met in a philosophy class at Central Connecticut State University in 2011 it was love at first sight. Years later, they stayed on the beautiful island of Jamaica in the Blue Mountains before getting married. At the time, although she is of Jamaican descent, Sasha had never heard of Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee. But she was soon to become fascinated by its rich history.
The newlyweds explored a coffee farm in the Blue Mountains and learned in-depth facts about the famous and rare coffee while they were there. They were so captivated by the smooth taste, the lack of acidity, chocolatey notes and the health benefits of the coffee that they decided to bring it back to Connecticut.
In 2020, the Fays launched their West Hartford home-based business and began operating online. They named it The Ovelle Coffee Company, after Sasha’s middle name. Sasha moved from working in corporate America to starting her dream job managing front end operations full-time for her own business and Ian, co-founder of Ovelle, began working part-time for their business.
“There is a rarity to Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee, the production of coffee in Jamaica is actually very limited. It’s delicious and you are providing for the Jamaican farmers livelihood while receiving a better cup for your money.”
Ovelle Coffee Company’s mission is to promote sustainability, diversity and equity throughout Connecticut’s coffee industry.
“Coffee is a male-dominated industry like many others. I want to promote more women in the industry and give women the opportunity to get into the growing speciality market,” shared Sasha. “I also want to share my knowledge of being a Black women-owned business, especially when 8 out 10 minority-owned businesses fail within the first 18 months. We want to assist in decreasing those statistical odds.”
As with any start-up business, the Fays have faced some challenges, specifically around funding.
“When you are a start-up business it is difficult to get funding for the start-up costs, which are typically $50,000 to $100,000 for almost any normal business. For us creating a budget, business plan and knowing our numbers has greatly assisted us in remaining a debt free company,” she shared.
Ovelle Coffee Company has gone beyond fair trade and procured a direct trade partnership with the local Jamaican farmers.
“This way, we build the relationship and that sense of community which causes the farmers to find value in their product,” explained Sasha. “They also have an ability to diversify their market to have other buyers and other vendors. This allows the Jamaican farmers to have a better wage. Cutting out the middleman so they can reinvest in their own farms, reinvest in their employees and make a better cup of coffee.”
Sasha is particularly proud to be doing business this way.
“There is so much behind this quality cup of coffee that we are getting especially during the pandemic – Jamaica is being hit hard. For example, the curfews and lockdowns being imposed, have a negative impact on some of the smaller farmers. The way we are operating our business invites these farmers to still maintain a quality price for a quality product,” she said. “There is a rarity to Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee, the production of coffee in Jamaica is actually very limited. It’s delicious and you are providing for the Jamaican farmers livelihood while receiving a better cup for your money.”
In fact, 80% of Blue Mountain coffee gets shipped to Japan while only 20% gets dispersed to the rest of the world.
A coveted treasure, it also has multiple health benefits. It is naturally alkaline – it is low in acidity, which means it is gentle on the digestive system.
“It assists in lowering your risk of type 2 diabetes, reducing depression by nearly one-third and it contains vitamins and minerals that are beneficial to you. It also decreases the feelings of jitters and it doesn’t exacerbate stomach issues,” she explained.
And who knew that coffee is actually a fruit?
“It’s a cherry that has two beans inside and that is what we consume – the two beans. The reason why you can pull different notes out of coffee is because it is a fruit. Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee has rich chocolate and blackberry tasting notes which makes it very smooth and very sweet,” she said.
You can find the Fays at various vendor shows and events greeting their customers and educating the public on the differences between commercial coffees like Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks, which can be blended together from different parts of the world and roasted at the same place, and specialty coffees like Ovelle Coffee Company, which originate from specific single origins or single estates and where there is more of an emphasis on taste and on supporting the farmers.
Ovelle Coffee Company truly believes in giving back to the community. They donate a portion of their profits to Side with Love, a non-profit that aids in promoting sustainability, diversity and inclusion. They also host free Hope Out Loud events in partnership with the Quaker Meetinghouse in West Hartford to promote open communication and conversations through musicians, poets and artists to speak out against hatred and violence and speak more positivity to the world. And of course, they provide their delicious coffee at these events.
The Fays have their eyes set on big things for the future with hopes to acquire a warehouse space, get their products onto grocery store shelves and partner with wholesale vendors. They also hope to expand their reach.
“We want to scale up and get our product out to more of a region wide shipment,” said Sasha.
No matter how big Ovelle Coffee Company grows—and they’re bound to because of the quality of their product—they remain steadfast in their dedication to working to ethically sustain the farmers that pour their heart and soul into harvesting the beans.
Sasha’s biggest motivation? “Waking up every day knowing we are make a difference and seeing the smiles on our customers' faces!”
Find Ovelle Coffee online via their website (click here to shop!), on Facebook, Instagram or YouTube.
Ovelle Coffee at their first vendor show, the Hill-Stead Museum Juneteeth event in partnership with ShopBlackCT. Ovelle Coffee had a successful event and sold out of coffee! Photo courtesy of Ovelle Coffee.
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By Kerry Kincy
Yolanda Hart, owner of Carrot Top’s Sweet Potato Treat, and I grew up in the same town and shared many of the same larger circles of community—a sort of “my people know your people” epiphany. And yet, I’m not sure we had ever had a real conversation outside of me ordering one of her sweet potato Bundt cakes just shy of a year ago.
Just as the reality of the global pandemic was about to sink in, folks were lining up for toilet paper rolls and cleaning supplies. Me? I was looking for all the comforts that a sweet potato Bundt cake could bring and came across beautiful pictures of Hart’s mini pies and mini cakes.
Hey, we all cope differently, right?
Hart bakes mostly to keep a balance between her teaching job and love for baking.
In fact, she’s been teaching English, biology and math to high-school students in Middletown for more than 20 years and holds two Masters of Education in Urban Leadership and in Special Education and Teaching. She’s held many leadership roles in education, including Coordinator of the Minority Student Coalition at Middletown High School. Most recently, she transitioned from teaching high-school students to differently abled junior high students in the Intensive Case Management Program. Hart works tirelessly to uplift and empower her students and absolutely loves her work.
For many years, Hart’s mother, Carolyn, owned a sweet little café in Middletown called 3 Sister’s Place. I don't think there is a soul that walked through those doors that didn’t feel welcome and at home upon entering. Having had their bellies filled just right made their visits even more incredible. In retrospect, I remember the restaurant being an unassuming experience in all things feminine, an experience of sisterhood, of food and in Black family culture. Of course, back then, I didn’t have the awareness of that concept nor the language to articulate of all that. However, the palpability of it was enough to keep returning for a dose of that which only can be felt: home.
This sense of home is what you taste in every one of Carrot Top’s Sweet Treats. The name “Carrot Top” was given to Hart’s Mom, Carolyn, from her grandfather. In the summer months, Carolyn’s hair would beam a beautiful orange and her father gave her the sweet nickname. Like most Black families, these terms of endearments stick to you forever. It’s special for sure and even more special when looking back in the totality of someone's lifetime. My grandmother called me “Peanut Butter,” and, like peanut butter, it has stuck to me and my memories of her. These seemingly simple things about Black culture keep my own ideas of Blackness appreciated and adored. Nicknames, in a sense, feel like “ours.”
In November of 2014, Hart’s mother, Carolyn, passed away. A few years later, Hart decided she would try to make one of her mom’s sweet potato pies. Her first attempt rendered the most perfect sweet potato mixture and crust. She wasn’t sure if she just wanted to believe so badly that it tasted just like her mom’s, so she brought the pie to her dad and older brothers to taste. With their collective confirmation, it felt as if they were all back together, and a sense of all the love Hart’s mother had for her family enveloped them. It was home again.
“My dad and I talked about even contacting the Oprah Winfrey show to share,” she beamed. Uncles, aunties and folks who had never tasted her mother’s sweet potato treats were equally in awe at this sort of magic that could only have been sent to Hart from the heavens above.
Then, one of Hart’s uncles found a recipe for sweet potato cake from her great grandmother and was eager to share it with her. She followed the recipe and that too came out equally as beautiful and delicious as the pies. After only a few practice cakes, she added them to her repertoire and Carrot Top’s Sweet Treats offerings. Initially, her treats were enjoyed most often by family and friends, but then, she began sharing with her larger community.
“I don't know why I was the chosen one,” laughed Hart, having only ever sat across the table and watched as her mom made her sweet potato pies and cakes, with no recipe and few measuring cups and spoons.
Hart crafts heartfelt, meaningful and thoughtful sweet treats for everyone to experience.
“It was mostly just spending time [together],” she shared. “The importance of that time became even more real after my Mom’s passing.” All too often, we both agreed, you find more reasons that you love someone when they are no longer here in their physical body. We shared how heart wrenching it is to want to tell them that one more reason, and, why you love them and cannot. Agreeably bittersweet.
Living in disbelief of many of the inequalities we live as a people, no one could ever take from us the sweet nuances that make up a visit to mom’s, watching her prepare traditional Black meals and desserts. You always know who made the potato salad and you always know, within a bite, who didn’t make it. Black culture, like Carrot Top’s Sweet Treats, is rich, colorful, royal and it carries a degree of “ours” within every bite.
Hart is now busy crafting heartfelt, meaningful and thoughtful sweet treats for everyone to experience. Her business partners include Josiah, her 21-year-old son, who helps with deliveries. Her 5-year-old son Jeremiah has become an invaluable team member, helping his mom with baking and packaging.
Carrot Top’s Sweet Treats are heaven in your mouth and provide some of the best of what Black culture offers: a sweet taste that carries the collective spirits of our great grandmothers, grandmothers, aunties and our own mothers to our kitchen tables long after they have left this physical world. Carrot Top’s Sweet Treats taste like home.
Hart has been successfully experimenting with a new Sweet Potato cookie recipe to add to her offerings and graciously shared it with ShopBlackCT.com fans.
Deacon Hart’s Delights
2 1/4 cups of flour
1 tsp baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg
1 cup of softened butter (room temperature)
3/4cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup mashed purée sweet potato (I use the batter for my pie!)
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cup crushed walnuts
1 cup shredded coconut
1 container of cream cheese frosting, melted
Preheat the oven to 375°. Mix dry ingredients together in a small bowl. All except for the sugars.
Cream both sugars and butter together until smooth, and fluffy. Add the vanilla, egg and sweet potato. Beat well. Add the ingredients from the small bowl and mix until combined. Add 1 cup of walnuts. Save the other 1/2 cup for the topping.
Scoop small balls onto baking sheets and bake for about 5 minutes. Add the coconut and bake for another 8 minutes or until golden brown. Cool completely. Lightly drizzle with melted cream cheese frosting and sprinkle with the remaining walnuts.
Carrot’s Top’s Sweet Treats is located in Middletown, Connecticut. Visit their Facebook page to learn more.
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By Brenda De Los Santos
At The Green Room, it’s all about family. The New London restaurant and bar that features a welcoming and cozy ambiance, a menu of comfort-soul food along with meticulously thought-up cocktails, opened in July of 2019 to fill a void in southeastern Connecticut. Co-owners Jonai Phillips, Tondra Bryant and Shakim Outler wanted to create something for their community by their community, where patrons could feel like they were at their home away from home.
Phillips, a 2010 graduate of New London High School, joined forces with family friend Bryant and Bryant’s longtime boyfriend, Outler, to remedy the dearth of soul food restaurants in the area. “New London was missing something like this - if you wanted to get food like this, you had to go to Hartford or New Haven - we wanted to fill that void,” says Phillips.
“Our business will always stand apart from others because we are a family and we focus on our customers and what makes them feel comfortable,” says Bryant. With offerings like their popular Rasta Pasta, a jerk alfredo dish with pasta, bell peppers and choice of chicken or shrimp, Chicken n’ Waffle Bites with house spicy maple syrup, and Eggplant Meatballs, The Green Room’s menu offers something for everyone. “We try to put choices on the menu so that people who don’t drink or who are vegetarian or pescatarian have choices too,” says Phillips.
The events that led up to the trio - whose LLC is called “Three’s Company,” a nod to the classic sitcom that featured two women and a man - opening the restaurant seem like they were meant to be. “Tondra is my best friend's mom,” says Phillips, “We got into this idea because I was working at the bistro down the street and she was cooking out of her home and wanted to do brunch, so she came into the bistro.” Phillips, who moved back to the area after an eight year stint in New York City to attend college and begin her career, looked to the future after the bistro closed. “I started looking around and this place fell into my lap. It was perfect.”
“Our business will always stand apart from others because we are a family and we focus on our customers and what makes them feel comfortable."
The restaurateurs put a big emphasis on quality, with attention to fresh ingredients and they maintain high standards when it comes to their menu. “We have a guy - Big Jim - who makes our handmade lump crab cakes, and our scallops are bought locally,” says Phillips. “They [Bryant and Outler] put their soul and family recipes into our menu,” she says.
“My inspiration has been and always will be my grandmother, who taught me everything,” says Bryant. Continuing that legacy was her motivation, “My family keeps me going. I want to have something they can be proud of and leave them in charge of one day.”
Phillips has put meticulous consideration into The Green Room’s drink menu as well. With staples like #HennyThingsPossible, a frozen Hennesy colada, and the Black Mamba, a cocktail of silver rum, blackberry syrup, sugar, lime, mint & soda, their drink menu is eclectic yet accessible. “We make sure everything is consistent and the drinks are strong enough,” says Phillips. “They are not cheap, but are not too expensive. I put a lot of thought into them. Every season has a special drink menu too.”
Greenery is featured prominently in the restaurants’ decor, and the fireplace at the center of the main room contributes to the warm and inviting atmosphere. Their staff of ten consists of mainly friends and family, and Phillips says, “Even if you’re not [friends or family] you end up being that.” That feeling of being family is passed on to patrons, due in large part to the environment that Phillips, Bryant and Outler have painstakingly created. When you visit The Green Room, you’re home.
The Green Room is located at 345 Bank Street, New London, CT. Learn more on their website, Instagram or Facebook.
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By Camila Vallejo
When you think of your typical family-owned restaurant, you tend to imagine a business brought complete from the ground up — name, menu, space, etc. But sometimes success isn’t a matter of creating but instead reinventing. That was the case for Vinith and Cassandra Keola, the current co-owners of 50 West in Plainville.
Running for about six years under a previous owner, the restaurant had undergone several concept changes. From fine dining to a noodle bar, 50 West had tried it all with little long-lasting success. But for the Keolas it provided a foundation and following. All it needed was their special touch.
In March of 2019, they took over and developed a menu that would cater to all palettes and pockets.
“We offer high-end dishes, but without the high-end prices. We just want full bellies and full smiles,” Cassandra Keola says.
The Keolas describe their food as American comfort with an Asian flair. Some fan favorites include buffalo bleu wings with bacon crumble ($11- $20), drunken noodles with pappardelle pasta ($14) and sauteed clams in a wine sauce with chorizo ($14) — just to name a few. The menu also offers other classics like burgers, salads, flatbreads and, of course, crafted cocktails.
Vinith is the mastermind behind the menu with over 20 years of experience in the industry.
Prior to 50 West, he owned a catering business and a restaurant in West Hartford which he conceptualized on his own. The West Hartford locale eventually closed because he says he went “too big too fast,” an experience he now keeps in mind when making business decisions.
Today, his focus is not so much on the big picture, but instead on the little things that contribute to a great restaurant, Vinith says, like ingredients, flavor and customer satisfaction. He shops locally for produce two to three times a week and 90% of the food is made from scratch.
“My food is my art and my pan is my canvas. I love taking a simple dish, deconstructing it, and making it into something I would eat myself,” Vinith adds.
While Cassandra works a full-time job at UConn Health, she can attest to Vinith’s passion by just the looks of the kitchen on a daily basis. She says the amount of fresh vegetables and spices makes it seem like Vinith goes foraging in the backyard.
“We offer high-end dishes, but without the high-end prices. We just want full bellies and full smiles.”
“There are so many different spices in the world that people don't know about. We like to highlight them in our dishes. America is so used to starches and salty food that people are often forgetting about pungent, bitter, savory and spicy flavors. When you take a bite, you should taste one part and in the other bite, another.”
Good food and hospitality are in their blood, says the husband-and-wife duo. Vinith migrated to the U.S. from Laos in 1980 with his family. While his parents worked, Vinith took care of his older brother and learned his way around the kitchen. He may not have a formal culinary education, but he knows cooking is all about trial and error.
Cassandra’s mother is Scottish and Native American and her father is Barbadian. She says the mix provided her an appreciation for different cultures and, more importantly, cuisines.
Vinith uses their different cultures as inspiration for his dishes. One example is 50 West’s Cubanh Mi — a fusion between a Cubano and Bahn Mi sandwich with grilled marinated pork, Asian slaw and spicy aioli.
While creative dishes are at the center of 50 West, the Keolas pride themselves on customer service above all else.
“You can go to a restaurant every Friday and order the same thing. But, it's different when you're greeted by warm and welcoming staff. You might enjoy your food more, eat a little slower and taste things a little differently, ” Cassandra says. “We create an environment where customers feel like they’re eating with friends whether they’re dining alone or with others.”
Like many others, the COVID pandemic has not been easy for the Keolas. The state-wide shut down and restrictions came at a time where 50 West was just getting started. Nonetheless, the Keolas have been able to attract a regular customer base by providing authentic dishes in a warm and friendly environment. They and their staff of nine hope to see the end of this pandemic soon. And in the meantime, they’ll work towards the future.
“We’d like to see another location one day,” Vinith says. “There are so many things you can do with food and to stick to one location or kind of food it’s just limiting the creativity.”
50 West offers indoor and outdoor seating and catering is now available for family-style packages and special events. COVID hours are Wednesday to Saturday 4:00pm to 9:00pm and happy hour specials are from 4:00pm to 6:30pm.
Find 50 West online at 50westrestaurant.com, on Facebook and on Instagram. 50 West is located at 50 West Main Street, Plainville, Connecticut.
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By Natasha Samuels
Craig Wright is beating the odds. His Vernon restaurant, Craig’s Kitchen, recently celebrated its third anniversary, and despite navigating a global crisis that has had an enormous effect on restaurants, his is on track for continued success.
Why? Wright believes that self-reliance is key to weathering storms like the pandemic.
“I am able to do most of the work myself,” he explained. “And not have to pay other people to do it.”
Like most businesses, Craig’s Kitchen was forced to pivot quickly to survive the pandemic and subsequent economic slowdown. The dine-in area is now closed, and a newly constructed takeout window allows patrons to place and pick up orders with no contact. Wright is also offering a paired down menu and has partnered with mobile food delivery services like Uber Eats and GrubHub.
Wright currently manages all aspects of the restaurant, including whipping up Craig’s Kitchen favorites like fried fish, barbecue ribs, mac n’ cheese and candied yams—recipes that he says he learned from his mom.
“My grandparents were from Alabama,” he shared. “They cooked Southern food and it was passed down from my grandparents to my mother and then passed down to me.”
Despite the challenges of COVID-19, Wright plans to continue with his annual community-based programs. “Every [year] we throw a community Thanksgiving dinner [that] anyone can attend,” he said. This year his Thanksgiving feast will be on Thursday, November 26 from 12:00-3:00pm. All are welcome and COVID guidelines will be in place to keep patrons safe.
Wright sees the Thanksgiving program as his way of giving back, and it has helped him gain press in local print media as well as NBC, ABC and FOX Connecticut affiliate stations. He was also recently invited to appear as a guest on the Kelly Clarkson Show. These features have provided publicity and public relations opportunities that are invaluable and aid the success of his business.
Things are looking up now for the 33-year-old former Detroit native, but he says that his life has been a roller coaster. “I have come from homelessness. I’ve been through all kinds of ups and downs,” he shared.
It’s hard to imagine, but he says that he did not have any long-term goals during his youth and never imagined that he would one day open a restaurant. He says he was in and out of trouble through his early twenties and it continued until he was sentenced to substantial time to a Connecticut prison.
“My grandparents were from Alabama. They cooked Southern food and it was passed down from my grandparents to my mother and then passed down to me.”
“They sentenced me to three and a half years, and I ended up doing three of those years,” he said. “I never thought about the future and that's one thing that changed in me when I went to prison. I stopped and I [decided] that I definitely have to change everything,” he said.
He spent his last 6 months of his sentence living in a halfway house.
“When I was in the halfway house, I ended up getting a job in a restaurant and I worked my way from dishwasher through the ranks, all the way to a sous chef,” he shared. “I worked at different restaurants and it all culminated to this,” he said.
At one point, Wright was even working four jobs at a time.
He learned about the availability of restaurant space in Vernon from an old high school friend. “I had the opportunity to buy the business [and] as soon as the opportunity came, I just took it,” he said proudly.
But he wasn't necessarily prepared for it. “I definitely wasn't financially prepared, and I wasn't mentally prepared for it,” he shared. “I felt that the opportunity was too good to let pass so I just did it and I've been here three years now.”
His advice for anyone who is looking to start a business is to simply go for it.
“There are a lot of naysayers, [but the] bottom line is you go into business to make money. You are going to have to take a shot to do that. You can help someone else make money—that’s the safe route—or you can take a shot and try to do it yourself,” he shared.
The ability to persevere and ingenuity can also take you far, and something that many business owners need. “Everyone [doesn’t] succeed. Owning a business is not easy. Everyone does not own a business. That's for a reason. It's hard work. No one cares about it but you. You have to treat it like a baby. You get out of it what you put into it,” he explained.
As for Wright, he’s putting his all into his business and hungry patrons keep coming back for more.
Craig’s Kitchen is located at 13 West Main Street in Vernon, Connecticut. They are open Monday through Friday 11:00am to 8:00pm and Saturday and Sunday from 8:00am to 9:00pm. Find Craig’s Kitchen online at www.craigssoulfood.com and on Instagram.
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By Sarah Thompson
After tasting the food at My Wife Didn’t Cook, you might think that owner Deivone Tanksley’s number one goal is to make your mouth water. After all, his fried chicken or deep fried whiting fish with mac and cheese, collard greens and cornbread or the wing plate with his signature barbeque Hennessey sauce will captivate you in no time. And while there’s truth to his goal of serving only the best food, the reason behind his restaurant runs much deeper—it’s bringing people together, one plate at a time.
Tanksley, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife Jaci—who Deivone says is his biggest supporter—has deep roots in New Britain, where My Wife Didn’t Cook opened its doors in 2019. Having lived in the city his whole life, Tanksley knows firsthand how difficult it was to overcome some of the generational challenges so many of his friends and neighbors face.
“I was brought up in the projects where my dad was in and out of jail and my mother was on drugs. They are both doing wonderful now and have changed their lives around, but it was at age 11 when I was first incarcerated—I was sent to juvenile detention,” he shared. “Then [the mistakes I made] kept trickling to 14 years old, 16 years old, and the system engulfed me. At the age of 20, I started reflecting. I had two kids and I kept thinking, this is the status quo. I was able to see how the culture repeats a cycle for generations after generations—and in that moment my eyes opened and everything changed. From there I said I have to cut the cycle, so I started working and people would laugh at me. I went from the kid on the corner selling weed to a kid with his shirt tucked in. I was like, you can laugh all you want. I have a family to take care of.”
And, thanks to his self-described “relentlessness” and creative brainstorming and partnership with his wife Jaci—who is a whiz in the kitchen--he was able to continue turning the pages in the next chapters of his renewed life journey, inspiring countless people along the way.
In 2016, Tanksley started New Britain Legacies, a youth basketball mentoring program. Not too long after, he recognized that there was a market for a soul food restaurant in New Britain, so he opened My Wife Didn’t Cook. Perhaps surprisingly, the non-profit and restaurant often work hand-in-hand to make a positive impact in the community.
In fact, three alumni from New Britain Legacies worked at the restaurant before heading off to further their careers, and several other youth are currently working at My Wife Didn’t Cook, building their job skills and receiving mentoring support.
“We feed each other--the restaurant feeds the program, whatever the program needs, and we use the restaurant platform to provide. We try to give the kids that outlet. If we can’t hire them or fulfill something, we use our resources and reach to point them in the right direction,” he shared.
Last year, Tanksley’s felony record was expunged. While he lived through some dark and challenging times, he’s committed to sharing his story to help others, and to amplify that story through his business.
“It’s my purpose—I can reach more people with my story, I can help more people with my platform, I can continue to be a philanthropist and invest in the community, and this is where my relentlessness comes from. I feel like I’m that one person that people look at and see that people can change and people can be something in their life. If I quit now, I’m not just quitting on me. I’m quitting on my whole name and history—my kids, my community, my people. I feel that my sacrifice of my time is worth it to help thousands of people,” he shared.
Tanksley proves that there are people with stories behind every business, people who have experienced setbacks, struggles and sacrifice--but he hopes to inspire other people to pursue their passions and open a business, too.
“Because of the status quo of Black businesses and Black entrepreneurs, there’s not a lot of us who are in this game for ownership; there aren’t a lot of us who are creating our own,” he explained. “We had so much setback, so when we do either try to sit at that table or challenge the status quo we are questioned--do you belong here or do you not? And we can’t make as many mistakes and not be criticized. We have been miseducated, we’ve been misguided, we haven’t had certain resources, we don’t have generational wealth, so we’re literally setback. The challenge that we face is probably double or triple as opposed to another person facing that same thing.”
"I feel like I’m that one person that people look at and see that people can change and people can be something in their life. If I quit now, I’m not just quitting on me. I’m quitting on my whole name and history—my kids, my community, my people."
When another enormous setback—COVID-19—struck, Tanksley chose to use it as an opportunity to help the community. He and his crew were able to provide free meals for nearly 2,000 people in just a few days, earning a “Think Beyond Yourself Award” from New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart.
“I’m real big on community and providing for the community in times of need. If we didn’t have this platform, we would not be able to give away so many free plates during COVID,” he said. “During the first week of COVID when everyone was really struggling, we prepared about 900 plates—we had a line out the door. Within a half an hour all those plates were gone. Over the next couple of days, people around Connecticut heard about this story wanted to help. They started sending me and my wife checks from all over, so we did another barbeque again and another 1,000 meals were out the door.”
Free meal or not, Tanksley works hard to make sure all who visit his restaurant receive fantastic customer service.
“It’s the main thing I train my staff on,” he explained. “I love people so for me to have [good] customer service is all I care about—when that customer walks in, whether they are having a good day or a bad day, I want to make sure they leave happier than when they came in. Customer service is number one, and the food has got to be consistent and excellent, which it is. It’s not just customer service because we want their business, but it’s when I’m walking down the street, I want a customer to say--that’s a good guy.”
Bringing people together is at the heart of My Wife Didn’t Cook. When customers step inside, they are transported into a place that inspires and comforts. From the cozy lounge area to the bright colors throughout and motivational quotes on the walls, happiness is evoked.
“When [you] come into our restaurant, you get more than food. You get an experience. People come to get inspired. And it inspires us to hear their stories. We didn’t want to just bring a restaurant--we wanted to inspire the youth, adults and the community to let them know that we’re here. That’s our whole purpose.”
My Wife Didn’t Cook is located at 89 West Main Street, New Britain, CT and will soon open a second location at the Buckland Hills Mall in Manchester, CT. Click here to visit their website for hours, menu and more.
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9/1/2020 0 Comments
DUTCH'S: ETHICALLY DELICIOUS
By Brenda De Los Santos
When Tiffany Shultz’s son was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis (MG), an incurable neurological autoimmune disease in 2016, she had no idea that it would lead her to opening her incredibly popular new Pawcatuck, Connecicut vegan cupcake and ice cream shop, Dutch’s.
In 2018, Shultz, who has followed a vegan diet for over eight years, was fundraising for MG, and decided to offer vegan cupcakes in exchange for donations. People loved them, and Shultz, who always dreamed of opening a restaurant, decided to pursue her own business selling her vegan confections. She named it Dutch’s, which is her son Jake’s nickname.
Featuring classic cupcake flavors like chocolate and vanilla, a rotating monthly menu that has included strawberry shortcake, Biscoff Boston cream, and lavender Earl Grey cupcakes as well as vegan soft serve ice cream, Dutch’s, which opened it’s brick and mortar location in July of this year, has proven to be a success. Their bakery case sells out regularly, and their vegan soft serve has been an unexpected hit as well. “It was kind of meant to be a side item and not a main menu item,” says Shultz, "but there are a lot of people that want that and it’s been super popular.”
Initially, Shultz would burn the midnight oil baking her cupcakes overnight after working a shift at her full time job as an 911 dispatcher, and sold her cupcakes at local farmers markets. Then, she started offering them at the now-closed Cafe Otis in Norwich, and La Belle Aurore in Niantic. Online orders followed, thanks to La Belle Aurore, who also gave her use of their kitchen to bake in, offering their location as a pickup point for her customers.
In December 2019, Shultz didn’t know what kind of future Dutch’s had, as her son faced a health crisis and her business was put on hold while he was hospitalized. By February, he was back home and doing well, and Shultz was gearing up to finally open a brick and mortar shop in Groton with the help of an SBA loan. However, the March day she signed the lease for her new location was the same day that the state of Connecticut announced shut downs due to COVID-19. With the SBA not fulfilling loans during the initial uncertainty that the pandemic brought, Shultz’s plans were brought to a dead stop. Shultz explains, “We didn’t know anything about COVID. Moving forward they didn’t know how an SBA loan would work, so I went back to work [as a dispatcher] full time in New London.”
But then in May, her business advisor called her and let her know her deal was still on the table, if she wanted it. She started her search for locations anew, and stumbled onto a Facebook Marketplace listing for a location in Pawcatuck with a commercial kitchen, equipment included. Shultz says, that it “seemed like scam,” but she went to look at it anyway. “I thought it wouldn’t be anything, but there was a full kitchen, I just had to bring in furniture and mixers.” Feeling more comfortable about taking the risk of opening a new location in the midst of a pandemic, she initially thought it would be used as a kitchen only, but as she moved forward, it spun into storefront for her cupcakes. And, feeling the supportive and friendly vibe of the neighborhood, she thought, what if we did ice cream here too?
Having had her eye on the certified vegan gourmet ice cream cones made by woman-owned and Brooklyn-based The Konery for some time, Dutch’s serves soy-based vegan soft-serve that is as, if not more, delicious than it’s dairy-based counterparts. Cones are served with unlimited toppings, and they also offer floats, milkshakes, and a secret menu that social media followers are privy to.
Shultz credits the universal appeal of cupcakes with helping her to spread the word that vegan food is delicious. While many of her customers have plant-based diets and are so excited to have a place to go where they can walk in and choose anything on the menu, there are also plenty who are not vegan. “I’ve seen every demographic from every walk of life come in here and they all have a different reason for doing it,” she says, “[Vegan food] can be delicious and fun and photo worthy.”
Even despite that, Shultz has been blown away by the neighborhood support she has seen, including a philanthropic community member who introduced her to the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, and even bought her a new oven when the oven in the shop broke a day before their grand opening. Support from customers has been overwhelming too, with Shultz saying she was not mentally prepared for how busy they would be. “If there’s a dope place that has good vegan food, I’ll drive an hour, but it’s insane to me that people will come an hour to come see us — it’s absolutely insane,” she says, “I thought there was a need for it but I didn’t know what the demand was.”
“Living out my dream is not something I thought people like me did. I’ve taken a little from every place I’ve worked and every boss I had that I enjoyed and put that into Dutch’s. I want it to be the best cupcake and ice cream you’ve ever had.”
With vegan diets becoming increasingly popular in the U.S., Shultz is part of an ever-growing cohort for whom the environment, animal rights and health are at the forefront of their decisions to follow a plant-based diet. Shultz explains “From what I’ve seen, I don’t believe our bodies are meant to ingest dairy or animal products. As somebody who has cut those things out you feel the difference. Something is better when you start eating more fruits and vegetables.” With that ethos, she focuses on quality ingredients, like high-quality vegan dark chocolate, plant butter, house made sauces and fresh fruits. She spends the time needed to whip frosting and batter so the final product is light and cakes are super fluffy.
When asked about how people see Dutch’s, she thinks that customers may be surprised, either because they are vegan and haven’t been able to find great vegan desserts locally or because they are not vegan and were expecting to not like it. She says they will be elated to have have somewhere to come in and not have to modify every order, and they will feel welcome. Shultz tries to greet every customer who walks into the shop, and strives to treat them like guests in her home and wants her customers to constantly feel appreciated.
When thinking about the future of her business, Shultz looks back to it’s beginnings as a fundraiser for myasthenia gravis. “It all started for MG,” she says, “and I still regularly donate to them personally.” She wants to start doing fundraisers, with something on the horizon next year in June, which is Myasthenia Gravis Awareness Month. She also hopes to be able to support local hospitals, who have made an impact on her family as well.
“Living out my dream is not something I thought people like me did,” Shultz says. “I’ve taken a little from every place I’ve worked and every boss I had that I enjoyed and put that into Dutch’s. I want it to be the best cupcake and ice cream you’ve ever had.”
Dutch's is located at 2 Prospect Street, Pawcatuck, CT. Their hours are 12:00-8:00pm, Thursday through Saturday. Learn more on their website, Facebook or Instagram.
9/1/2020 3 Comments
BABY J'S SPICES: GENIUS
By Sarah Thompson
It’s been quite a “season” for Lillard Royal Lewis, Jr.
Also known as “Chef Jay,” Lewis is a world-renowned chef, an insightful food philosopher, a published author and a philanthropist. He applies his philosophy and global vision of food sustainability and health disparities, plant-based economics and corporate responsibility to his Connecticut-based business, which is 100% Black-owned. His many products, which include the Baby J’s Spice label, are all driven toward two central philosophical pillars of his corporate structure: sustainability and diversity in education.
While his gourmet spice line has launched him into a class all his own, his journey started as a private chef to the stars, preparing meals for R&B legends and performers including Carl Thomas, K. Michelle, Smokey Robinson, Al B. Sure!, Styles P and Gregory Osbourne. Over the years, some clients turned into significant friends and mentors—including legendary actor and comedian John Witherspoon and business icon Curtis Robinson. Both have provided Lewis with invaluable professional guidance.
“Some of the first people to try my spices before they were even labeled were Smokey Robinson, John Witherspoon and Soledad O’Brien,” he shared. “They tasted my food, sampled the original spice blends and they were like wow, you’ve got to bottle this!”
Lewis knew early on that what would set his business apart was research and development of proprietary intellectual property. He wanted to own components and raw resources used to create in his industry.
“In the culinary world, spices and spice blends are to the culinarian as gold is to the watchmaker or platinum is to the jeweler,” he explained. “Spices are immutable commodities in my profession. Unlike raw material commodities, spice blends can be created and for the creative mind—opportunities will always abound.”
Inspired by stories of spice traders throughout Africa and Asia, Lewis began to create various herb and seasoning blends—almost daily! Eventually, he created an array of reliably delicious spice blends that were hit when used for exclusive dishes for his private clients.
"I take my products around the world, around the country and around the state and use our resources to educate on social and corporate responsibility as well as feed hungry people."
What followed was the incorporation of his business, Fūd, Inc. Built completely from the ground up and self-funded, Lewis specifically chose to incorporate his business in Connecticut because he believed in how positive the future could look.
“This is our state,” he shared. “We must invest in ourselves and in our children’s future.”
And it has always been his two young boys, Jayden and Jameson, who have been by his side as his builds his company.
“Ever since I’ve started this business, they’ve been there every step of the way,” he said. “They taste-tested and helped develop the spices. I remember bringing them to the Secretary of the State’s office, meeting Denise Merrill while I was trying to set up my business, and being there when I closed the deal with Geissler’s—they were right there with their pens and papers, with their hands raised. I think it’s a phenomenal way to teach my sons what it means to be a Black-owned business.”
Lewis and his boys are delivering some phenomenal products to people all across Connecticut and beyond. Now featured at grocery stores across Connecticut and Massachusetts, Baby J’s Errr-Thang Spice—which, according to Lewis’s sons, goes great on steak and chicken—has become a household hit.
Photo courtesy of Chef Jay
Geissler’s Supermarket, a New England-based family-owned chain founded in 1923, saw value in partnering with Lewis’ brand right away.
“We took this last year as an opportunity with Geissler’s—who has been an amazing business partner with us—to understand how retail works, how having a product in grocery stores works,” explained Lewis. “It’s a field rife with challenges but enormous benefits if one is willing to put in the time, gather and listen to advisors and work toward excellence. I wanted my sons to see this process up close and appreciate what it takes to be an entrepreneur.”
Following a logistics and strategy meeting with Rob Rybrick, co-owner of Geissler’s, Lewis’s son shared that he was “going to grow up to be a genius just like Daddy.” Soon after, Baby J’s Errr-Thang Spice arrived on Geissler’s shelves in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
“The response from the community has been enormous. We’ve been getting calls for product all the way from Texas to Colorado and we’ve even shipped to California,” he said. “We have a couple of cases going overseas. We’ve gotten a really good response.” While Lewis is grateful for this uptick in business, he doesn’t want to simply benefit from the moment.
“It’s a good opportunity to fundraise,” he explained. “If we are going to get this influx in new customers and revenue streams, I think that it’s a socially responsible and corporately responsible thing to do to take some of that and reinvest it in the community so that my sons have some more tools than I did.”
Lewis has already given to his son’s schools and is currently forming an initiative that focuses on diversity in education, inside and outside the classroom.
Every bottle of Baby J’s says, “of food and philosophy,” which mirrors the heart behind Lewis’s business and the transition he’s making from the catering world to retail, business consultation and social justice education.
“In my most recent trip to Ghana, I lectured at Webster University about sustainability and corporate responsibility to a group of undergraduate and grad students,” he shared. “That’s where the company is going. I take my products around the world, around the country, around the state, and use our resources to educate on social and corporate responsibility as well feed hungry people.”
Lewis, who has a degree in Philosophy and African American Studies from Central Connecticut State University, stresses the importance of “balancing the scales” when it comes to business leadership and decision-making.
“Everything has been so data driven lately, but what we’re seeing in real time is how data-driven solutions are not necessarily the best solutions for the times,” he said. “What we need in board rooms across America is more wisdom, we need more social sciences and philosophy. Students with Liberal Arts degrees are, in my opinion, where the leaders of the future are going to be coming from. Today’s corporations, large and small, need more empathy, maturity and to be more social justice-minded.”
Lewis believes that the best way to start the day is with positivity. Often, that positivity comes from his sons, who he refers to as “living life coaches.”
“My sons have been such a phenomenal source of positivity first thing in the morning,” he shared. “When you start off with your sons believing in you—believing in themselves—and having their own ideas for the business, that’s a help!”
And, Lewis says he feels like a genius when he sees his boys wanting to start their own businesses.
What’s next? You guessed it—a new Baby J’s spice blend called Genius, which will feature young boys and girls of color on the bottles. Lewis will also feature the youth on the bottles in blog posts, sharing why they are geniuses, ultimately benefiting a charity as well.
One thing is for sure, with the next generation following in his footsteps, the Baby J’s brand is going to be just one of many great businesses to come from the Lewis family.
Find bottles of Baby J’s at Geissler’s Supermarkets across Connecticut and Massachusetts. Find locations here. Click here to connect with Chef Jay on Facebook and here on Instagram. A website featuring Baby J's Spices with purchase options will be available soon.
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By Kerry Kincy
Yes, it’s Capital with an “a” and no, it’s not a spelling error (for all our "Grammarly grammars" out there…LOL). Even though Capital Ice Cream is located on Capitol Avenue and is just two blocks from the state Capitol Building, the owners envisioned opening a place that was reflective of the beauty, positivity and diversity of the people of the capital of Connecticut—Hartford. That said, they take great pride on being affectionately referred to as the “The Happy Place in Hartford”. Chantell Kelly, who co-owns this sweet little magical place with her husband Shane, says she gets asked that question about the spelling a lot. According to Kelly, it was intentional—because when you dream you’re supposed to dream big! We hope to expand throughout the city of Hartford and beyond!
Kelly and her husband are Hartford residents. They saw a need in their community and decided to fill it.
As a Kindergarten teacher, Kelly’s students would always share stories of going to far away places to have ice cream. As a parent, she would also take her own children beyond city lines into West Hartford and other towns for ice cream. Always aspiring to open a community business, she and her husband thought how nice it would be to open an ice cream shop that local children and families could enjoy and be proud of right in their own neighborhood.
Voila! Dreams can come true if you only just believe.
She believes her little shop, with more time and resources, can be recreated in many towns across the state.
On an otherwise invisible strip just beyond the Bushnell Performing Arts Center and before the once famous Capitol Records—another hidden gem that for years stored and sold albums that would delight only the serious of vinyl collectors—this jewel is worth “the dig.” I mean, what’s more exciting than finding a hidden gem? Capital Ice Cream is definitely a treasure—glimmering and sparkling with happiness.
“I love that little brown girls and boys come inside and see someone that looks like them, that I can be a role model...It feels good being able to nourish their ideas of self and help them to see in real time, that they too can achieve anything they put their heart into.”
As soon as I walked up to the building I was taken back to my childhood when the biggest problems in the world were what flavor of ice cream to choose. Although only about 250 square feet of frontage and maybe 250 square feet more inside, the rainbow of colors all over the shop is a feast in and of itself for the eyes. Handmade tulle cones stacked high upon each other in the window complement and offer a preview of what lies ahead and colorful umbrellas and metal stools circle the outdoor tables.
I learned that Kelly enlisted the help of local artists and nearby University of Hartford art students to create the detailed menu artwork on the walls. Capital Ice Cream’s staff only adds to the brightness that emanates from this tiny shop.
The sign on the door instructed that only three customers were allowed inside at a time. However, I think even if current times didn’t require six feet of space, any more than three feet would not provide the space needed to peruse the choices that the colorful menu just above eye level displayed. I was thrilled to be able to take it all in slowly. Just being inside Capital Ice Cream is its own enchanting experience.
As I scanned the menu, my eyes settled in and focused on the Kindness Cones. This gentle reminder in selflessness encapsulates exactly what Kelly’s intentions are and why she chose this particular location for her shop. Customers are invited to purchase a kindness cone at a discounted rate and leave a handwritten note on a paper cut out to “pay it forward.”
“So often children from the neighborhood stop and peek into the shop, sometimes just wanting to say hello, simply curious, and sometimes humbly ask for a cup of water,” shared Kelly. “The cones are for these children and families that come, sometimes ordering two cones for a family of five to share.”
We can all appreciate that not many families have extra income to purchase an ice cream cone. “Pay it forward” kindness spreads and is as delicious as the selection of Capital Ice Cream’s toppings. Of course, a Kindness Cone was included in my order and honestly, made my cone taste even better.
When creating her business model and wanting to offer top quality products, she realized the price point might fall outside the income levels of some families in the neighborhood, and rather than sacrifice quality and continue to maintain a successful business, this was a way to make her amazing ice cream accessible and available to everyone.
For those of us who cannot handle the speed at which this amazing “real” ice cream demands on a hot summer day, the cup and spoon “just in case” was a smart idea. I realized I couldn’t lick and hold another cone—and wear my mask simultaneously—so I quickly rushed outside to hand over my friend’s cone and sit down.
As I enjoyed my sweet treat, I watched as a little boy, maybe all of three years old, held tightly onto his cone as he and his dad were exiting. His eyes were filled with anticipation as he waited patiently to remove his mask to taste. I felt it deep in my heart: this new normal is not feeling normal at all.
Thankfully, Kelly and her sweet shop are helping create a place of comfort and inspiration despite these challenging times.
“I love that little brown girls and boys come inside and see someone that looks like them, that I can be a role model,” she said. “Both children and adults are surprised to learn that a Black woman owns this sweet little place. It feels good being able to nourish their ideas of self and help them to see in real time, that they too can achieve anything they put their heart into.”
Capital Ice Cream
389 Capitol Avenue
Hartford, CT 06016
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By Sarah Thompson
Surf’s up, right in the heart of Blue Back Square in West Hartford! Marked with a bright pop of blue on its exterior, Playa Bowls welcomes guests with a laid back vibe. Surfboards, egg chairs, murals of mermaids, flat screen TVs streaming surfing and extreme sports and even a cozy fireplace all combine to bring a bit of the beach right to this restaurant.
But, according to owner Mitch Jackson, what stands out the most is what he calls the best acai ever.
Jackson’s background is in corporate and private business, in the information technology space, so before taking the plunge in business ownership he knew it had to be good.
“I tried the product before I bought into it—and it’s the best I’ve ever had,” he shared. “The owners of this franchise have gone above and beyond sourcing just the right acai from Brazil. It’s blended with real cane sugar, no preservatives, and everything is all natural. It’s delicious!”
From bowls to smoothies and juices, Playa Bowls offers a colorful selection of inviting and unique offerings that are delicious and satisfying. Customers love the Nutella, Pura Vita and Electric Mermaid Bowls most. The best part? Everything is prepared fresh and right on the spot.
Playa Bowls West Hartford open its doors in November 2019. Friends since their college years at UCONN and having both grown up in the area, Jackson and co-owner Mike Bogdan had noticed an untapped opportunity to bring something new and fresh to West Hartford. Having been mutual acquaintances with the CEO of Playa Bowls—a franchise that began as a pair of blenders, a patio table, and a fridge that has flourished into over 83 stores, thousands of employees, and a mission to lead communities in healthy, sustainable living—they had a great place to start.
Jackson is also an agile specialist for Deloitte, so when the challenges of running a business come his way, he handles them with optimism and wisdom.
“When COVID hit, everything had to go to a standstill,” he explained. “Once we started getting more information about it, we were able to pivot. We had already had delivery with Grub Hub, Uber Eats and Door Dash, so that gave us a huge advantage, so people could order even though our doors were closed. We took a pretty decent hit and we were a bit concerned and worried like any business owner would be in February and March, but once people started to acclimate into the new style it was as if things were regular. We actually did better than we did when we were open.”
In fact, they adapted so well that their growth created new jobs and adding more hours.
"The customers love the product and the energy. We give them a place where they can just hang out and work on their laptops and do their homework or hang out with their kids, because we appeal to all ages, whether you’re eight months old or 80 years old."
“It was great to be able to say that we aren’t going to have to let anyone go and that we could still hire some other folks,” said Jackson.
When it comes to customer service, he says “there really isn’t a secret sauce. It starts with saying please, thank you, and smiling.”
Playa Bowls West Hartford is particular about who they hire and keep on staff, because they want to ensure that customers experience a positive energy the minute they walk through the doors.
“Everything starts from being polite to maintaining safety, and then it goes from there,” explained Jackson. “We preach safety in every way, making sure they are safe, wearing their masks properly, constantly washing their hands, and looking for things that are out of sorts with food or surfaces.”
The restaurant even has an app where customers can track their purchases to earn points for discounts or free bowls.
At the leadership level, Jackson says they try to bring a positive energy to their employees.
“It’s contagious. The customers love the product and the energy. We give them a place where they can just hang out and work on their laptops and do their homework or hang out with their kids, because we appeal to all ages, whether you’re eight months old or 80 years old,” he said.
And while Playa Bowls is new to West Hartford, they have made a commitment to give back in any way they can. “We think it’s important to give back to the people who put trust in you, the customers,” shared Jackson.
Through Dine-to-Donate, they’ve been able to work with various local organizations and causes to give back a portion of their proceeds, including supporting a senior dance concert for University of Hartford students and holding a Best Buddies fundraiser to support local students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Jackson also believes their employees should represent the people in the community and that being on the Playa Bowls team means being part of a family.
“We have a multitude of different backgrounds and representation, including a minority owner. When there were Black Lives Matter rallies and protests, one of our employees spoke at one. We allowed other employees to wear BLM shirts and speak out on social media about it. We highly encourage it. I sat down with every employee and told them that if there was anything that they were struggling with that we are here as a family – not just as owners or managers or shift leaders, but as a family to talk about this and grow through this and learn from each other. We’re all in,” he shared.
Playa Bowls is located at 51 Memorial Road, West Hartford, Connecticut. They are open 8:00am-9:00pm during the summer and 8:00am-8:00pm during other seasons. Learn more or browse the menu of acai, pitaya, coconut, green, chia, banana, and oatmeal bowls, and their huge variety of smoothies and juices at: https://www.playabowls.com/.
Click here to connect to Playa Bowls West Hartford on Facebook.
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