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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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.
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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By Arianna Velez
Mind, Body & Soul Food is a new restaurant located in Meriden, Connecticut. Owners Deja Durant and chef John Small are longtime family friends who share a love for soul food. Family-owned, together they follow recipes that have been passed down for generations. Offering a variety of dishes including seafood, chicken, mac and cheese, collard greens and more, their quality meals are made with the freshest ingredients. And, they will soon be offering daily specials and desserts, including delicious cheesecakes.
Durant is not new to owning a business. He recently closed his clothing store and wasn’t expecting to open a restaurant. When the store closed, he took some time off to reflect about what he really wanted to do, and this new opportunity just presented itself. After driving by the location daily and seeing the for-rent sign in the window of where Mind, Body & Soul Food now operates, he started thinking that he could do something. With many cooks in his family, he decided to give the number in the window a call. The result? What was once a Subway that sat empty for quite some time is now the new home of one of the best soul food restaurants in Meriden.
Durant is well known in his community, not just for his business endeavors but also for the role he plays in giving back. At his previous store, he held events for coat and back to school drives and more. Co-owner chef John Small was in business with Durant when he owned his clothing store, and he would regularly contribute 60 backpacks to the drives. Recently, Meriden held a Black Lives Matter rally where Durant and Small gave away free food. They made chicken and mac and cheese—which were a big hit.
“The line was like a mile long,” said Durant.
Both Durant and Small are just the type of people who naturally like to give back. For Durant, his daughters are what motivate him. Not only is he building a legacy for them but he’s also showing them what it means to uplift those in the community.
“For me, it’s my kids,” he shared. “I got all daughters. I have 4 of them. I’m trying to provide for them and also, like it’s legacy too. I want to leave them with a piece of something.”
Customer service won’t be the only thing to set Mind, Body & Soul Food apart. The cozy aesthetic filled with portraits of Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Lauryn Hill and others create a warm vibe.
Aside from their amazing food, customer service plays a role in customers coming back to Mind, Body & Soul Food. Durant believes in always being polite and remembering everyone has their good days and bad. At the end of the day, he says, “we’re all human.” He believes in customer satisfaction and if the customer’s experience isn’t the best, he wants to know how he can make it better.
Customer service won’t be the only thing to set Mind, Body & Soul Food apart. The cozy aesthetic filled with portraits of Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Lauryn Hill and others create a warm vibe. Chef Small, who learned to cook from his grandmother, relocated from New York to Connecticut when he was 17. He loves sharing his love of food with those around him and knows his food will make the difference when it comes to people coming back for more. Home cooking in a restaurant made with love and with the help of his wife is the perfect recipe for hungry guests to feel right at home.
Small and Durant believe that guests will be surprised, comfortable and satisfied after visiting their restaurant. Upon entering, the beautiful aesthetic will surprise guests and make them feel comfortable. The food will absolutely satisfy. And, Small and Durant make sure all meals are double checked even before leaving the kitchen, to ensure orders are correct and presentable.
Mind, Body & Soul Food held their grand opening on Saturday, July 18, 2020. Their first day open they sold out of food completely and even had to close two hours early—a complete success!
Owning a restaurant is a completely new experience for Durant, but it is clear he has a lot of support and his food already has received many amazing five-star reviews. With lines wrapped around the building, wait times may longer due to COVID restrictions, but guests are being understanding and staff is doing the best they can. The food and service are truly amazing, welcoming and satisfying.
One customer shared, “Mind, Body & Soul Food had great customer service from ordering to pick up! Food was amazing! Place is really nice inside! Kept it simple with fish, mac and cheese and corn bread. My very picky eaters devoured every crumb. We will back soon to try more stuff!”
While they’re closed on Mondays, guests can visit the restaurant Tuesday through Saturday, from 11:00am to 8:00pm and on Sunday from 12:00 to 6:00pm. They will soon be offering delivery.
Mind, Body & Soul Food is located at 511 West Main Street, Meriden, CT 06451. Learn more about Mind, Body & Soul Food on their website.
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Pictured: A Sweet Equations candy cake. (Photo courtesy of Sweet Equations)
By Allison Reynolds
After impressing New Year’s Eve party guests with a homemade candy cake several years ago, Sade Owoye took the nudges from her friends and family to start a bakery and, along with her mother Vanessa Owoye, Sweet Equations was born.
“Growing up, I always loved baking and making my own candy,” shared Vanessa. “With Sweet Equations, I can combine both of my passions, while sharing the gift of sweet treats with our customers.”
Nestled on Route 4, within The Farmington Inn & Suites at 827 Farmington Avenue in Farmington, this hidden gem is the only bakery in Connecticut specializing in candy cakes.
Pictured: Co-owners of Sweet Equations, Vanessa and Sade Owoye. (Photo courtesy of Sweet Equations)
"Great customer service is all about providing a warm and welcoming experience to each customer. We enjoy seeing them and hearing their stories—they have become like family."
Their cakes are a superior dessert experience made with the freshest ingredients, and their customer experience exceeds expectations—everyone who walks through their doors is treated like family. Quality, attention to detail, care and love are the bonus ingredients put in every cake they make.
I know this to be true, because I recently needed a cake to help celebrate my Dad’s new home—and satisfy his major sweet tooth. We ordered the Nutty Buddy and we’re still licking our lips. It was absolutely delicious and a heavenly mix of chocolate and peanut butter!
One of their most popular items, Sweet Equations candy cakes are built to order—and perfectly topped off with a bow!
“Great customer service is all about providing a warm and welcoming experience to each customer,” shared Vanessa. “We greet and smile at every customer that comes to visit us. We educate them on our products and provide samples. We love getting to know what our customers like and helping them to find it in the store. We enjoy seeing them and hearing their stories—they have become like family.”
Pictured above: Nutty Buddy candy cake by Sweet Equations (Photo: Allison Reynolds)
And, these two know how to take “sweet” to the next level. As a “thank you” for helping others, they have donated to Relay for Life and Komen Foundation and many other local non-profits. They also donate to the local food pantry, schools, and several charities and causes. They even treat their employees with a complimentary cake on their birthdays!
“We look forward to continuing to make an impact in our community,” shared Vanessa.
The pair are reaching out by offering online cake decorating classes, a slight change from their pre-COVID popular (and fun!) in-person classes. Classes include Buttercream 101, Cake Meets Candy (Kat Walk So Special), Baker's Dozen, Let’s Decorate Cookies, My Pretty Unicorn.
“We can still be together even when we’re apart,” explained Sade. “And any experience level is welcome.”
Classes must be booked in advance, and more information is available at this link.
Photo courtesy of Sweet Equations
Favored by locals on Yelp, Sweet Equations is featured this month in “The Top 10 Bakeries Near Farmington, CT.” The bakery offers gift certificates, private pickup times (Saturdays), curbside pick-up and shipping. Visit www.sweetequations for information or to customize your order.
Sade and Vanessa will always ensure that your day ends on a sweet note!
Sweet Equations has been making headlines for years. Learn more at these links:
Cakes Plus Candy Make 'Sweet Equations' (Hartford Courant)
Small Business Spotlight: Sweet Equations (Innovation Hartford)
Photo courtesy of Sweet Equations
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Pictured: Owner of Crab Shack King - A Touch of Soul, Reginald White. (Photo: Brenda De Los Santos Photography)
By Brenda De Los Santos
For Reginald White, opening his Middletown, CT-based food trailer, The Crab Shack King - A Touch of Soul, was the culmination of years of hard work and determination.
Crab Shack King, which officially opened as a food trailer in March, offers seafood with a touch of soul. Some fan favorites on the menu are the deep fried lobster, crab cakes, poboys and his signature “King Sauce.” You can get your seafood fix at 840-900 Washington Street from 11:00am-5:30pm Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 11:00am-7:00pm Fridays and 2:00-9:00pm on Saturdays. Occasionally, White will have a pop-up location in Meriden as well.
Previously a truck driver, White was on vacation with his wife when he got the call that the company he worked for was filing for bankruptcy. Instead of being defeated by it, White, who has a certificate in catering, attended Lincoln Culinary Institute for a time, and has a family who all love to cook, took it as a sign that he had “finally gotten the green light to move forward with cooking.” With previous entrepreneurial experience as the former owner of Knockerball CT, starting his own business serving food “the way he likes to be served” was a natural next step.
“When I get up in the morning knowing that people love our food, it drives me to never go back [to the streets].”
Searching for nine months to find the perfect trailer for his business, White finally met two Black women who owned a marketing firm and were looking to sell their trailer. White says, “they felt his passion,” for creating delicious food and their trailer became Crab Shack King’s new home.
White’s expertise in the culinary arts is paying off—his popular menu of mouth-watering seafood often sells out, and his “King Sauce,” which is dairy-based and features all natural herbs and spices, is on the verge of being sold in local stores. He has experimented with creating a dairy-free version and has also played around with recipes for a vegan “crab” cake. He is continually expanding his knowledge, noting that he also learns from an employee who has been in the business for 30 years.
A self described “military brat” growing up, as a teen the streets called him, and White left home at 15 years of age. A former gang member and drug dealer, he spent time in both state and federal prison. It took determination and help from others for White to turn things around. In 2014, he founded Total Man Inc., which is geared towards providing alternatives for at-risk youth who are subject to the difficulties of gang membership, incarceration and much more. He said that his passion for mentoring comes from his desire to reach young men and women to help prevent them from making the same mistakes he did.
Crab Shack King is more than just a business for him, too. “When I get up in the morning knowing that people love our food,” says White, “it drives me to never go back [to the streets].” He takes pride in serving great food and providing excellent customer service. He likes to engage with his customers, getting them to laugh and feel comfortable. And for him, serving quality food is of the utmost importance; Crab Shack King’s seafood is always fresh, and every bite bursts with flavor as he marinates everything—right down to the crab that goes into the crab cakes.
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Pictured: Owner of The Singing Sliders, James Hanton. (Photo: Corey Lynn Tucker Photography)
By Alexandra Frisbie
On most Wednesday evenings parked outside the Little Red Barn in Winsted, CT, or on other days around lunchtime on South Main Street in Torrington, or in an industrial area on the town line with Harwinton, you will find James Hanton in his silver food trailer, happily cooking sliders and sandwiches for a crowd that may include hungry and tired truck drivers, workers who just want to take a break and enjoy some delicious fresh food, or patrons of the nearby brewery who would like some tasty pulled pork to accompany the beer in their bellies. Depending on how busy he is, Hanton may be singing while he cooks, a nod to his business name and slogan.
A few years ago, after working some jobs that didn’t pan out, Hanton began to dream about launching his own business venture. The idea of being his own boss and having job security was appealing. He thought about cooking, which he enjoys. Having been raised in South Carolina on Southern cooking, Hanton noticed that while there were plenty of Italian and Chinese food options, there were not many places serving fresh BBQ pork and Southern food locally in Connecticut. He and his wife also realized that at the time, there were no food trucks in their area. So they bought books and learned about the food truck business. They visited locations with food trucks, including the Long Wharf in New Haven, to see how they were run. Hanton took the CT Food Safety Management Course and got certified. In October 2018, Hanton and his wife, who co-owns the business, opened The Singing Sliders Food Trailer in Torrington.
According to Hanton, who has worked in restaurants, the big difference with food preparation in a food truck is understanding the difference between what you would like to serve and what you can serve. Despite the limitations, Hanton says he will only cook and serve food that is fresh, not previously frozen. When asked how quality translates in what he offers, Hanton replied “I like to serve food that tastes good, is good quality—fresh, not frozen. I make it with love.”
“I like to serve food that tastes good, is good quality—fresh, not frozen. I make it with love.”
Customer favorites are the BBQ bowl and pork sandwiches and sliders. Hanton explained that the sandwiches are larger than sliders; they are served on larger rolls that are sometimes lightly toasted. These days, he is constantly tweaking and adjusting the menu, entertaining customers’ suggestions and trying out healthy options. Some have requested the return of the orzo bowl with sautéed vegetables. Hanton offers a choice of sauces in which he will sauté the vegetables. If an item becomes popular, he may add it to the menu, at least temporarily. Recently, Hanton’s grandson took a cheeseburger and topped it with the mac and cheese Hanton gave him on the side. An aspiring rapper whose nickname is “OK Nitro,” his grandson topped that with BBQ sauce and raved about it. Hanton dubbed it the “OK Nitro Mac and Cheeseburger” and put it as a special on the menu.
The success in launching his food truck business did not come easy. Hanton recalled a time when he was getting started that things weren’t going well and he almost gave up. He was not confident that he would be able to make his dream a reality. Then it occurred to him that as bad as he felt, many others were much worse off. He felt compelled to help others instead of feeling down on his luck, and began to give away food once a month, no questions asked, from his food truck. He said that when he began to look at things differently, he began to see success—yet he continued to regularly provide free food. Due to COVID-19, he had to suspend this community effort, but he hopes to be able to resume soon.
I had to ask about the name of the business. Did the sliders themselves “sing” somehow, or does Hanton sing? He said that on some days he may be singing while cooking in the truck, but it was really his wife who thought up the name. He says it refers to the food—the sliders are so good they will make you sing! As for the singing sliders on the trailer, Hanton’s daughter drew the art freehand, which was transformed into an image that could be placed on the trailer.
Today, Hanton says what keeps him going is the independence of running his own business and having a job that allows him to interact with people. He says he has many repeat customers and is starting to build a fan base on social media. He likes to use Instagram and Facebook to let his followers know where he is going to be during the week. The three words he said best describe his business are “happy, satisfying and local.”
Hanton has catered for small groups (up to 150 people), including at the Little Red Barn brewery in Winsted, where he parks on Wednesday evenings. He has traveled to Waterbury and New Milford and is willing to bring the trailer to other locations in Connecticut.
One thing is for sure—if you see the silver trailer with Singing Sliders on the side, be sure to stop right away and get a bite. You won’t regret it.
South Main Street, Torrington (at the Harwinton line)
Monday and Thursday: 11:30am-3:00pm
Industrial Park/Altra Industrial Motion, Inc, New Hartford, CT
Tuesday and Friday: 9:00am-1:00pm
At the Little Red Barn, 32 Lake Street, Winsted, CT (www.lrbbrewers.com)
View the WSFB story on The Singing Sliders
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