With one location open and the other in hibernation, the restaurant experience goes mobile as a truck-mounted recreation.
By Andre Fowles as told to Zagat Stories
All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Seamless. Celebrating the Perks of being a NYer, Seamless is delivering New York restaurants to your door with Presto! Resto! curated by The Infatuation – including Miss Lily’s 7A Cafe. Find out how to win a visit. Plus get free-delivery on Seamless orders from Miss Lily’s 7A Cafe between 4/2 – 4/11 using code MISSLILYS.
Andre Fowles is chef de cuisine at Miss Lily’s, a Jamaican and Caribbean restaurant with two locations in New York. The location in Soho awaits a grand reopening in the spring, while Miss Lily’s 7A Cafe is open for business.
The pandemic is a lot to manage, in terms of our people’s morale and expectations. Miss Lily’s has been booming for quite some time. It’s been making great money for everyone across the board. There are two locations, one of which is still currently open. That’s Miss Lily’s 7A Cafe, open Monday through Sunday. Our other location in Soho is currently closed. We’re waiting on the PPP money to come around to get that one restarted.
We’ve been trying to maneuver who takes a few days off, or which of your staff you have to lay off temporarily until things get back up and running. Managing the people has been one of the most stressful parts about pandemic. It’s been very, very difficult.
We kept the Soho location going during the beginning phase of the pandemic. We tried to make it work, but it doesn’t have a full bar. We can only sell wine and beer there. The outdoor seating is not as adequate versus 7A. The numbers weren’t playing out in our
favor. We were losing money each week. I had to pull the trigger to shut it down.
The interior design at that Soho location is amazing. The walls are covered with old-school reggae and dancehall records and speaker boxes. It’s like a mashup between 1970s and 1980s reggae dancehall with 1950s diner. When you enter, it seems like it’s a retro diner, but once you get to the back, it explodes into this Jamaican kind of vibe. It definitely ties into the story of being a Jamaican restaurant in Soho, in New York, so it’s really cool.
I saw the design for the Seamless Presto! Resto! truck based on the look of the restaurant, and I was floored. It looks incredible. It’s a brilliant idea. I love it. I can’t wait to actually see it in person. That should take over the Internet. That should go viral! It’s so original, so thoughtful. I have no words—I love the idea, and I can’t wait to watch that experience unfold.
We all want to eat healthier these days, so I’m always trying to find ways to make my dishes a bit simpler and a bit more healthy. It might be gluten-free, or more vegetarian options. I always stay true to my roots with those Caribbean flavors. Whether it’s Mediterranean, French, or Italian, I just keep growing those flavors from my Caribbean roots.
Our most popular dish has to be the jerk chicken, because it’s such a quintessential Jamaican dish. That’s a top seller. At times we were going through 25 cases of chicken each week, which is a lot. My favorite dish on the menu is the jerk ramen because that speaks to what I love to eat and my style as well. It’s evolving Jamaican-Caribbean food. You take something that’s completely Japanese in ramen, and then you put Jamaican flavors on it. That’s what I like to do—take global concepts and put in my Caribbean flavors. It works because the fermented aji, that spicy pepper paste mixed in with that broth, is really delicious. It shows that food has no boundaries.
Over at 7A we have a better setup for the pandemic situation, and it’s overall a better location. There’s a lot more foot traffic. You can see people walking by and stopping for a quick grab-and-go bite, versus the Soho location, which is more of a destination where you want to go to chat and have a drink. So we’ve kept that open to do what we can under the rules and for Seamless delivery.
I just got back from Jamaica actually. This was my first trip since the pandemic hit. It’s been over a year since I’ve been to Jamaica, and usually I’m there at least six times a year. I went back to check up on our properties there and just boost everyone’s morale. This is a worldwide pandemic, so everything that’s happening here in New York is probably 10 times worse in Jamaica because it’s such a small island. Our bread and butter there is tourism. When no one is traveling, everyone gets a major hit on the island.
I went to have a chat with the team in Jamaica, just to make sure they’re keeping consistent with the food we’re trying to do and the overall guest experience. That was a very productive trip for more reasons than one—I went to visit my family as well and touch base with everyone there.
Even with the pandemic, we’re very positive about the future. We’re optimistic that everyone is getting a little bit more comfortable with the idea of getting vaccinated. Things will definitely make a change for the better. Miss Lily’s is a fun restaurant. We have never had issues with finding good staff because we create a culture where we take away stress. We don’t want to micromanage you. Once you learn our system and the protocol of how we want you to operate, just go and have fun, create that Jamaican energy and vibe that we strive to provide for our clients and our guests. Just have fun with it.
In the meantime, we’re trying to keep our brand current, do more promotions online, and promote food safety. We’re also lowering our menu prices because these are hard times for everyone. We’re creating different packages so that people can have a cocktail, have an appetizer, and have an entree, just to maximize everyone’s dollar.
We’re planning a grand reopening for the Soho location to make it a little bit different. We want to make it more inclusive, so we’re planning collaborations with different chefs. I’ll host, and our friends from New York or Washington DC will come in and create a special menu. We can make it more accessible for everyone in that area and showcase that chef. We’ll create a menu that’s island-inspired, Caribbean-inspired. We want to give chefs of color a platform because a lot of chefs don’t have a restaurant to showcase their food right now. We can create heavy media attention around it and showcase diversity in the restaurant business.
Everyone has different comfort levels with going out. Obviously the pandemic changed our landscape of business, where it’s more on the takeout side of things. But we have to support our servers—they’ve been getting hard hit because we all know there’s not much cash flow going around. Tip generously when you can, because it makes a big difference for those people that are serving you. They put everything in that job to make it work. Even if I go in and grab something that’s worth ten bucks, I want to tip ten bucks.
In New York, we’re resilient people by nature. It’s a tough city. We all know that it’s expensive. The restaurant business is the hardest business to get into. You have to have that tough nature from the get-go. With this pandemic, we all had to adapt and do outdoor dining and try to minimize our menu, or try to work on our food costs or our labor costs. This pandemic will pass, and we’ll get bigger and better, and we’ll go back to being outside and enjoying this beautiful city and going out to our favorite restaurants.