A portrait of the Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny, his hair a shock of neon green, hangs from the wall. A collage of old Airbnb magazines is plastered beside the doorway. A bright orange mural stretches across the back wall, with orange-and-white lettering that announce the restaurant’s brand. The scents of rice and beef waft through the space, brewing from the kitchen.
It highlights what owner Hazel Lebron envisions for the new Spring Street location ofher restaurant, Madeleine’s Empanaderia—a space to lift up art and artists in greater New Haven. The cafe, focused on establishing a community collective, celebrated its Hill neighborhood grand opening on Saturday, Feb. 4.
Lebron’s journey to the culinary arts has neither been easy nor expected, she said Saturday. After bouncing around the East Coast as a military child, she found herself in New Haven to pursue her studies in psychology at Gateway Community College and Post University. She decided to stay in New Haven after completing her degree, despite her initial goal to move to New York City.
As time went on, she found the kitchen therapeutic and shifted gears to food service by opening a food truck. For years, she was the face behind Caribe Soul, which served empanadas and spicy, homemade chipotle mayo from its sliding window. A chef and a mom, she found that owning a food business required sacrifice: she rented out part of her home as an Airbnb and constantly was constantly adapting her business model.
“Cooking and psychology, to me, was brought together because I was always able to share stories in the kitchen,” Lebron said. “My experience cooking is therapeutic, it’s like art. Whether I’m just by myself or with the team, I can zone out and I listen to my music. I'm just cooking, [I can forget everything else.]”
When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, food trucks were still highly regulated; the city did not allow them to operate for nearly four months. Lebron, who was by then used to shifting gears, sold the truck and started thinking of a storefront. She opened Madeline’s first location at 44 Middletown Ave. with chef Maurice Watson, whose Lunch Box 23 food truck had also become a Covid casualty. The restaurant is named after her daughter, who is now 11 years old.
After adapting to a permanent location in 2021, Lebron was forced to adapt once again due to a water line problem that ended her lease in June 2022. She deliberately chose to relocate to the Hill, New Haven’s largest and most diverse neighborhood, for the draw of a hometown crowd. While she considered opening downtown, it didn’t have the same feel.
“I decided to relocate here so I can create a ‘Mom and Pop’ neighborhood space,” she said. “It's the community too. I thought, ‘Yeah, this is the Hill and why not? Why not make a spotlight for our city.'”
“Downtown is really pretty but it’s also predominantly for college students," she added. "That’s okay and it's super dope to go out there but the locals need a spot.”
Lebron said the theme of embracing the New Haven community continues with the Madeline’s Collective, a group of vendors who set up shop at Madeline’s and help host monthly open mic nights, puff n’ paint sessions, and art exhibitions. While Madeline’s might be the brand listed outside the building, “it is just one vendor out of the collective,” Lebron said.
“There are phenomenal artists here who need a spot to shine,” she said. “If we don't lift our own community and artists up, who will?”
The Madeline’s Collective currently consists of Infused 203, LaCroix Artistry, Good Vibes, Multifaceted, The Healing Garden, Hikotea Art, My Sweet Gratitude, Madeline’s and Caribe Soul. The collective also features a new artist every month in a gallery covering the cafe’s back wall.
This month, the artist is West Haven-based painter and muralist Elizabeth Taylor, who creates individual pieces while also running a small art business. Her work featured alongside a booth by Madeline’s Curator Joel Cruz.
Cruz is a self-taught artist who creates petroglyph carved artwork. He said establishments like Madeline’s are important in providing exposure to artists still looking to catch their big break.
“It’s a good opportunity to get eyes on your work because that usually isn't given to most artists,” Cruz said. “Without being seen, it's hard for people to take you seriously and help lift your art up.”
Cruz said he looks forward to collaborating with new artists each month and has ideas to incorporate “abstract” artists with “different types of style and techniques.” He said the theme should always be a little different.
When deciding who will be the monthly feature “I go through local artists one by one and think about the theme we are trying to incorporate,” Cruz said.
Lebron echoed that sentiment. She said having a collective of vendors helps lift up local entrepreneurs, just like the featured artist position helps shed light on New Haven’s creatives. It helps them get ahead one small step at a time.
“I've always been an entrepreneur that didn't really have a chance to shine,” Lebron said. “I don't want to say I didn't have the chance to shine, it just takes a lot for somebody to trust and allow you to put your product in their store.”
The cafe itself serves Caribbean-influenced food with a focus on empanadas. It boasts a menu with empanadas ranging from a cheeseburger flavor to ‘Banana Puddin’ and sweet-and-savory plantain-mozzarella-agave to the classic beef, with vegetarian and vegan options. People can also order a variety of other small plates, sides and beverages.
Cafe-goers can also venture off to the downstairs lounge where Madeline’s hosts open-mic nights to support musical and poetic artists, Lebron said. The space has couches and standing tables to provide an open space for socialization.
True to adapting to the current business climate, Madeline’s is open for indoor dining with several delivery options. Lebron said customers should order delivery from Eatzy, a New Haven-based delivery service, but delivery is also offered on UberEats, DoorDash and GrubHub.
Madeline’s 86 Spring St. location is open for both in-person and online orders Tuesday through Sunday. More information is available at the restaurant’s website.