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At Q House, Food Business Alumni Take Flight

Lucy Gellman | September 29th, 2022

At Q House, Food Business Alumni Take Flight

CitySeed  |  Collab New Haven  |  Dixwell  |  Economic Development  |  Arts & Culture  |  Food Business  |  Culinary Arts  |  Arts & Anti-racism  |  Dixwell Community Q House

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Top: Silvia Loney of Chef Sil's Vegan Kitchen. Bottom: Gov. Ned Lamont talks to CitySeed's Community Outreach Manager Frankie Douglass. Lucy Gellman Photos. 

Vegan crab cakes peeked out from one table, drizzled with a spicy plant-based mayo that still packed a punch. One tent over, a tiny version of the “Light and Sweet” cupcake made its autumnal debut. In another, Maria Torres and Saul Flores drizzled salsa verde, cotija cheese and onions over bean tlacoyos crisp at the edges. At least once, a golden tray of mac and cheese made its way across the patio. 

Each of them came with a backstory steeped in generations of family history, late-night beta testing, and a culinary leap of faith. 

Those sweet and savory stories surrounded the Dixwell Community Q House Wednesday afternoon, as Collab and CitySeed held their first Food Business Accelerator (FBA) Showcase to celebrate three cohorts in a single afternoon. Spread across the patio beside the Q House, the event featured six graduates of the FBA program, all of whom have gone on to create small food businesses in greater New Haven. The event took place during CitySeed’s weekly Farmers Market at the Q House, which the organization started this year. 

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CitySeed Managing Director Ashley Kremser, CitySeed Food Entreprenuership Program Manager Cara Santino, CitySeed Community Outreach Manager Frankie Douglass, Collab Executive Director Dawn Leaks, and Collab Venture Manager Ndubisi Okeke. Lucy Gellman Photos.

It included a special visit from Gov. Ned Lamont, who stopped by the Q House before a “Black The Vote” event at the Canal Dock Boathouse in the city’s Long Wharf neighborhood. More on that below.      

“This is the first time that we’re doing an alumni event, and it feels great,” said Cara Santino, food entrepreneurship program manager at CitySeed. “We’ve worked out the kinks. I feel like we’re confident and have learned a lot for the 2023 cycle.”

FBA participants included the 2020 hot sauce venture Oh Shito!, 2021 ventures Alegría Cafe, Gorilla Lemonade/EatUp LLC, Je T’aime Cupcakes & Cocktails and KDCrop Farms, and 2022 ventures Chef Sil’s Vegan Kitchen and Momma Kiss Kitchen Cuisine. They represent just a small fraction of the FBA ventures that have graduated from the program in those three years. 

Santino added that it was the first time several ventures had gotten to share the building’s kitchen at the same time, giving them a rare opportunity to meet and learn from each other. Even before attendees arrived, that was on full display, as Torres ran trays of still-warm “Krab” cakes over to Chef Silvia Loney’s table.

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Emma Silva, Saul Flores, and Maria Torres of Alegría Café. Lucy Gellman Photos.

A little after 3 p.m., the six tables sprang to life, chefs chatting with regular market-goers and foodies who had come out specifically for the event. Beneath a tent for Chef’s Sil’s Vegan Kitchen, Loney showed off her vegan “Krab” cakes, made from hearts of palm, chickpeas, and her own blend of furikake seasoning. A full-time paralegal, she runs Chef Sil’s on the side as a catering company.

For Loney, the act of cooking is an act of love—so much so that “it’s in my DNA.” As a kid in Elizabeth, New Jersey, she grew up around food, in the kitchen of a Colombian restaurant called Cuchifrito. It was a family affair: her grandmother, Edelmira Cardenas, ran it until she died. Under Cardenas’ watchful eye, she was surrounded by the bustle of a small food business that told the story of migration and lineage dish by dish. When her grandmother passed, her mother and aunt took up the mantle, and taught her how to cook. 

Across moves from New Jersey to Florida to New Haven, she built a repertoire that included some of her family’s traditional dishes, and some of her own. Five years ago, Loney went vegan for health reasons, after watching several members of her family die from cancer. While she has dreams of a brick-and-mortar storefront, she said, she currently operates Chef Sil’s as a catering company and series of pop-ups. She said that the Food Business Accelerator has helped her grow tremendously as a small business owner. 

“It’s been great,” she said. “You learn that there are a lot of bumps in the road.”  

Eyeing the cakes with suspicion, self-described “crab cake connoisseur” Carolyn Scott approached the table, and examined the food in front of her. After taking a bite—soft and salty, then spicy, with a pepper-flecked and plant-based finish—she nodded approvingly. It wasn’t like the real thing, she said, but it wasn’t bad either.  

“It’s different,” she said. “It’s good, it’s just different.”   

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Roz Douglass and chef Kismet Douglass, founder and owner of Momma Kiss Kitchen Cuisine. Lucy Gellman Photos. 

Just a few feet to her left, chef Kismet Douglass and her mother Roz watched as a crowd formed around her, studying the wide warming pans of mac and cheese, char-kissed corn ribs, rice and peas, greens and jerk chicken that she had prepared for the event. Directly across the patio, the Alegría Cafe team turned out vegetarian tlacoyos, their spoons working their way through deep, fresh containers of red and green salsa. 

Born in New Haven and raised between New Haven and Georgia, Douglass started her business five years ago, while also working her way up the culinary ranks at Yale. She arrived in its kitchens in 2012, and now supervises chefs at the university’s Schwarzman Center on College Street. Because her day job ends by 5 p.m., she’s found that she has time for Momma Kiss Kitchen Cuisine on the side. 

“It’s not just soul food,” she said of her catering work. As the head of the production kitchen at the Schwarzman Center, Douglass is constantly experimenting. Most recently, she’s been trying out different dishes that have their roots in the Middle East, including cauliflower dusted and baked with za’atar and variations on the sabich sandwich, complete with the addition of amba and soft, smoky eggplant. This fall, she’s sharing her knowledge in cooking classes at the Q House as she grows her footprint.   

While Momma Kiss Kitchen Cusine may be relatively young, its name goes back to her years in Georgia, when she was learning to cook for her then-young children. When anyone else suggested food that Douglass hadn’t made, they protested, asking for “Momma Kiss” instead. Now, it’s a nickname that her colleagues use too. While Roz Douglass said she doesn’t cook, she’s proud of her daughter and happy to help.    

“I just feel like it’s God’s plan,” Kismet Douglass said. “My pleasure is cooking.”

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Maxine Harris and Laurren Robinson of Je T'aime Cupcakes & Cocktails. Lucy Gellman Photos.

As small, handheld containers of mac and cheese multiplied across the patio, Je T’aime co-founder Maxine Harris served up bite-sized samplers of the group’s fall menu, a pairing of cupcake flavors including “Hold The Caramel,” “Autumn Delight,” and “Light & Sweet” (“based on my Starbucks order,” Harris said with a laugh). Each offers a different symphony of flavors, from French vanilla and coffee to dark chocolate and butterscotch. No sooner had she finished neatly plating a trio than they disappeared, whisked up by eager market-goers.  

For Harris and co-founder Laurren Robinson, this summer and early fall has been one of transition. Earlier this year, the two moved from Sanctuary Kitchen at CitySeed’s 190 Legion Ave. kitchen space to the Q House, where they’ve been able to streamline operations with the help of industrial-sized stand mixers. Instead of mixing each batch by hand, they are able to produce five to ten batches of cupcakes at a time. “It’s been a godsend,” Harris said. 

Months ago, they also opened and then closed a storefront in the Connecticut Post Mall in Milford. While the shift was unexpected, Harris said, it opened new opportunities for the cupcake duo: they are now brewing an IPA based on their “Early Mornings” cupcake with Reverie Brewing, where Harris also now works. 

She described it as fruity, with notes of orange, peach, cranberry and vanilla that balance sweet and tang. It’s doubly sweet in the ceiling she has shattered: the IPA makes her the second Black woman brewer in the state, after Rhythm Brewing Co.’s Alisa Bowens.

“It’s so amazing,” said Robinson, who arrived later in the afternoon. “She turned it into magic.”

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Top: Kristen Threatt. Bottom, from left to right: James Chapman, Sherrill Rodman, Connie Ellison-Douglass, Vanessa Chambers and Mildred Spann. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Cupcakes weren’t the only sweet treat at the showcase. At a tent that he shared with KD Crop Farms, Eat Up LLC’s Kristen Threatt handed out ice cold bottles of Gorilla Lemonade, his cooler emptying out as the sun beat down and attendees trickled in. The past year “has been amazing,” he said: he and business partner Brian Burkett-Thompson recently leapt into mass production in North Haven. As a resident of the Hill who wants to give back to his city, he’s thrilled that profits from the lemonade will go back into feeding New Haven. 

Sitting at a cluster of patio tables, New Haveners James Chapman, Mildred Spann and Sherrill Rodman nibbled on their samples of mac and cheese, vegan fare, corn ribs and cupcakes. As residents of Dixwell, Chapman and Spann said they have both become regulars at the market, which is conveniently located an elevator ride from the Q House’s new senior center. A Fair Havener, Rodman comes to the senior center and stays for the market. She said she has come to the market every week since it started in June. 

“It’s giving us a chance to try new things,” said Chapman.

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LEAP's Daphne Saint Louis, Cara Santino and Kwame Asare. 

Back at his tent, Kwame Asare of Oh Shito! described the West African hot sauce—and the business it birthed—to those who had never heard of it. Born in Ghana, Asare moved to the United States to attend school when he was 10. While he was visiting Ghana 22 years later in 2019, he ate shito, a stewy sauce that is served with everything from meat and fish to rice and fermented corn dishes common in West Africa.  

 “It brought me back to my childhood, and now I’m sharing it with everybody else,” he said. The brand grew out of a small business dream and desire to introduce Americans to the condiment, which is made both spicy and flavorful by scotch bonnet pepper and a top-secret mix of spices that includes cayenne and curry powder. For Asare, there’s nothing like it on the American hot sauce market, which is drenched in vinegar-based sauces. 

There’s a wonderful complexity to the scotch bonnet, he added: it is spicy but also sweet, with layers of flavor that can bloom across a dish.

He was quick to say that he could not do it without his siblings, Gifty Otoo and Kwabena Asare.  Since that first flicker of inspiration, Oh Shito! has become available at 16 Stop & Shop locations and independent businesses including Atticus Market on Orange Street. He praised the FBA as essential to his growth—and the first step in what will hopefully be a long story of production.

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The market in full swing. Lucy Gellman Photos.

The brand currently rents kitchen space from Havenly at 25 Temple St. and is in talks with CitySeed around using the Q House, but has found itself expanding so rapidly that it will ultimately need more room. While Oh Shito! currently comes in four flavors—chicken, beef, fish, and vegetable—Asare said the team is constantly thinking of potential next steps.    

At his tent, Daphne Saint Louis almost squealed with excitement as she met Asare. After spotting it in Stop & Shop months ago, she buys jars of the chicken flavor “all the time.” As a senior counselor for LEAP, she’s at the Q House frequently for work, and called Wednesday’s market and showcase an added bonus.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for the community to come out and meet entrepreneurs,” she said.  

A Surprise Visit 

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“What’s important to you?” Lamont asked students. Lucy Gellman Photos.

The showcase ended with a visit from Gov. Ned Lamont, who turned the Q House into a short campaign stop and left time to nibble with FBA grads and then meet with mentors from LEAP (Leadership, Education, Athletics in Partnership), who were ready with suggestions around education policy in the state.

As he stepped out onto the patio, both food entrepreneurs and members of CitySeed and Collab’s staff made the case why they—and food businesses and farms across the state—need more support.

“We’re trying to grow, because urban areas with a deficit of urban ag[riculture] need to address food deserts,” said CitySeed board member Christine Kim, there with her daughter. “To get produce to all of our neighborhoods, not just downtown.”

“I love this market,” Lamont said. “It’s fresh food, it supports your farmers, gets fresh food to everybody—what’s the closest grocery store?”

He walked over to Asare’s booth, eyeing bottles of the beef-flavored Oh Shito! that he later took home with him. 

“You have to try it,” Asare said, cracking a smile. “Everyone’s watching.” 

“It’s spicy!” someone yelled from the knot of people following the governor.

“A little light there,” he said as Asare spread it on a saltine cracker, unfolding his life story as he prepared the taste. He described the process that goes into making it in downtown New Haven. 

“I love it! That’s the hottest you got!?” Lamont said. “You’re foolin’ with me!” 

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The Je T'aime team came prepared for the governor. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Behind him, a line of food entrepreneurs had formed: Robinson and Harris with a tidy, doll-sized display of small and large cupcakes, Douglass with a container of mac and cheese that she had squirreled away, Chef Sil with the last two “Krab” cakes of the night. 

Lamont approached the table for Alegría Cafe, splitting a tlacoyo with one of his staffers. As he chewed, he asked Torres and Flores about their roots in Tlaxcala, and their journey to New Haven over two decades ago.

“Do you like it?” he asked. “We love it,” Torres answered without missing a beat. 

Inside the building, student mentors from LEAP pressed him on schools and education. While the group was originally quiet, Executive Director Henry Fernandez urged them to speak up. 

“We have to go back to the governor for money, so if you were selling LEAP, what are some of the things that you would share?” Fernandez said. 

“What’s important to you?” Lamont pressed. “It was a pretty complicated couple of years, wasn’t it? Having an older big brother or big sister to help you out a little bit is just … you know what it would mean, right? You could have used that yourself.”

After a pause, Kaiden McIntosh raised her hand from where she was sitting on the floor. As a counselor who has stayed on, she said, she’s seen what a difference it can make to give students extra support outside of their home and school environments.  

“This summer, there were a lot of fun activities … it was a very beautiful experience to see the kids actually want to be here,” she said. 

A few feet away, Tylonna Vaughn jumped in. “Um, the school food sucks,” she said to thunderous applause. 

“This is actually a big issue that we saw all summer and that we see all year, is quality of food in the school system,” Fernandez said. “No question about it.”

“I feel like a lot of educators in our educational system don’t back our education,” said Emiya Pearse, who is interested in sociology and social work. “Today, we’re trying to figure out why somebody gets paid the salary they get paid if they don’t want to teach us.”

“You got teachers in the classroom who you’re not sure are …” Lamont ventured. 

“They don’t have the drive,” Pearse countered. “They don’t have the passion to be a teacher.”

“You know what, sometimes they pick up some of that passion from their students,” pushed Lamont. “If you’re sitting there like this”—he hunched his shoulders and pulled his head into his chest—”maybe they don’t get as inspired.”

“I’m a top scholar, I don’t sit like that,” she said. Laughter and a few mmms rose across the room. 

“That tells it like it is! I like that!” Lamont said.