The inside of Madeline's in April. Nevaeh Lugo Photos.
Lo-fi and R&B music emanate from hidden speakers, nearly masking the faint clink of dishes from the nearby kitchen. Amidst the small vendor displays by the door, various plants from The Healing Garden Farm in Guilford get their fill of sunlight, which beams through the windows to touch the fresh green leaves. Each wall is covered in the art of Hamden-based artist Marsh, whose talent comes through in careful brush strokes in bold colors.
Welcome to Madeline’s Empanaderia, a restaurant, cafe, and artists’ collective at 86 Spring St. in New Haven’s Hill neighborhood. Just three months after a grand opening celebration in February, owner Hazel Lebron is building a cultural community one arts business and entrepreneur at a time.
Lebron founded Madeline’s at 44 Middletown Ave. two years ago, after her food truck business, Caribe Soul, closed during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic (read more about that here and here). She still manages Caribe Soul as a Limited Liability Company (LLC) alongside Madeline’s, for which she has received help from the small business incubator Collab.
Owner Hazel Lebron at Madeline's during a grand opening celebration in February. Corey Schmidt File Photo.
She said that learning about economics and finances was a big part of being an entrepreneur for her. When she was starting out, Lebron struggled with not knowing the best financial moves to make for her first business. As she built out Madeline’s, she was determined to change that.
“Because I struggled financially, I would just get really savvy and read a lot,” Lebron said.
At the end of last year, Lebron moved Madeline’s to a bigger location on Spring Street for the sake of expanding her space. The new location gave her the space and ability to bring her vision of having a little gift shop in her restaurant to life. She also has a basement, which she has transformed into an event space for open mic nights and artist networking events.
It also led to the creation of Madeline’s Collective, a nonprofit she uses to teach and assist smaller entrepreneurs, giving them the knowledge and exposure that they need to promote their businesses. Though the collective works with many different vendors and artists, it currently has seven vendors that it consistently works with.
Elizabeth Taylor's work. Nevaeh Lugo Photos.
One of the vendors is Elizabeth Taylor, a West Haven-based mural artist and owner of LaCroix Artistry, who sells stickers, keychains, and prints from a small stand in Madeline’s. She started vending through the collective in January and said that she is a fan of Lebron’s (the two have shared space at events, including “The Wandering’ at Bregamos).
“It’s close to where I live, and obviously her food is really bomb, so I like to just go there and eat all the time,” Taylor said, “It’s also a way to make some passive income on the side so I can buy more empanadas, then it’s worth it for me.”
Taylor said that Lebron referred her to a friend, who soon hired her to paint the mural on the front window of On the Glow Skincare Studio. The studio is close to Lebron’s old location at 631 Middletown Ave. in New Haven.
Candyce Marsh John, also known as Marsh and the founder and owner of MarshunArt, also works with Madeline’s Collective. Her work was featured on the walls of the restaurant during the month of April. Because of this, she was able to gain some exposure and connections through the collective.
“During that time, people reached out to me,” Marsh said in a recent interview with the Arts Paper. “They were able to get my social media. That type of movement. So, that was pretty cool.”
Marsh's work on the restaurant and collective's first floor. Nevaeh Lugo Photos.
Marsh was also able to participate in different events with Lebron, spending a weekend at the restaurant painting and tattooing. After all the experiences she’s had with her, Marsh said she is grateful to Lebron for the help she was able to provide her and her business.
“I appreciate what she’s trying to do for the community,” Marsh said. “I think the vibe and everything there is really cool, and she presents that as a person, also. Her vibe is cool. She seems to be pretty honest. She seems to want to work with everyone.”
Lebron said that through her work, she wants to help other creators who may be struggling in the same ways that she personally struggled. Her past experiences motivate her to uplift others.
“Sometimes entrepreneurs go in with their passion. It’s their passion, so if somebody’s a jewelry maker, that’s all they wanna do.” Lebron said. “They don’t have interest in [finances], you know?”
At Madeline’s, being an entrepreneur isn’t a strict requirement to fit into Lebron’s inner circle. Some of her staff members at the restaurant spoke on how close they are with her.
Priya Narthaki, a chef at Madeline’s, started working at the restaurant because cooking is her hobby and she wanted an opportunity to try some new recipes. After working there for some time, she said that Lebron is like an “elder sister” to her, and that the two are able to share everything with each other.
“If she’s frustrated with someone else, she’ll come and yell at me and then, again, she’ll come like ‘I’m sorry, honey. You are the best I know,’” Narthaki said with a light-hearted giggle.
Juan Rivera, an event manager at Madeline’s, was actually a close friend of Lebron’s before he began working at the restaurant.
“We’re great friends.” Rivera said. “I guess I was destined to work here at some point.”
He emphasized how much he loves seeing events come together after carefully planning them out, a process he referred to as the “ideation process,” as well as the vibes and togetherness of the people in the community.
This article comes from the 2023 Cohort of the Youth Arts Journalism Initiative. Nevaeh Lugo is a senior at West Haven High School. To read more about the YAJI 2023 cohort and read more from students and alumni, click here.