This is Yaya Ceesay, the co-owner of The Soul Spot, a soul food restaurant with Caribbean and African influences. Although this combination may seem strange, this unique flavor sets The Soul Spot apart from other comfort food vendors and is inspired by Yaya’s personal experience. Yaya grew up in Gambia, West Africa but emigrated to the U.S. when he was 17 to attend college. As a source of income while he was in school, he began working at a Caribbean restaurant in Manhattan called Soul Fixins, delivering food and washing dishes. However, after a year of going to school and working in the food industry, Yaya realized just how passionate he was about food and decided to start working at Soul Fixins full time. His work ethic and desire to learn quickly became clear to the restaurant’s head chef who was planning to retire. He took Yaya under his wing and began training him to take over his position. Although he had no formal culinary training or background in hospitality, Yaya’s passion for food has always allowed him to excel in the food industry.
During his training at Soul Fixins, Yaya learned how to make Caribbean dishes as well as Southern dishes. He and the head chef spent almost every weekend traveling to different cities in then South, trying different foods, doing research on the recipes and understanding how each part of the meal was created. This training early on in his career really laid the groundwork for Yaya’s dedication to his craft. After the chef retired, Yaya became the head chef and started improving the restaurant operations at Soul Fixins. He started cutting out any unnecessary expenses and improving the food quality based off of the research he had done with his former boss. However, over the years Yaya had begun to feel like he was handling most of the business, as the owners who had used to work with him in the kitchen stopped coming to the restaurant and relied on him more and more. He felt unappreciated in his role and decided that if he could run a restaurant for someone else, he could do it for himself as well. He began saving his money and looking for his own restaurant space. He noticed that a lot of his customers in Manhattan were from Brooklyn and would travel to the city for the food at Soul Fixins. He felt that there was a demand for soul food and that he could combine his training in Southern and Caribbean cuisine with the African food that he grew up eating to satisfy it. So in 2001 he moved to Brooklyn to get familiar with the area and started looking for retail spaces.
Yaya and his business partner, his cousin, Banumu Turay, purchased the restaurant in August 2002 but it was almost a year before they were able to open. No bank would give them a loan so Yaya used all of his savings to purchase the space and fix it up. The Soul Spot officially opened on June 4th, 2003 and although he had no working capital or business experience, Yaya believed in his food. He knew that if he was supplying good food, the rest would take care of itself. At first some people wouldn’t even try the food because Yaya wasn’t from the South. They thought that there was no way he would know how to make the food and if he tried, it wouldn’t be good. But soon people started coming in to try it and calling to place catering orders for their office. They were the only soul food restaurant in the area and the unique cuisine set them apart from other restaurants. For the first six months Yaya worked sixteen hours a day to keep the business going, and eventually his hard work paid off. The business took off and formed a reputation for its delicious and varied cuisine. Even now, 15 years later, word of mouth is still how they get most of their clients for catering orders because the food quality speaks for itself.
A normal day for Yaya now usually begins at 4AM or 5AM, when he arrives at the restaurant to begin prepping catering orders for the day. Depending on the size of the order or orders that they have, sometimes he’ll work from 2AM-8AM getting everything ready before the restaurant opens at 11AM. For Yaya the best part about owning his own restaurant is being in charge of his own kitchen. He loves what he does and is very hands on creating the food because he never wants the quality of the food to change. Which is why his co-owner, Banumu, handles most of the administrative side of the business while Yaya cooks and runs the business’s daily operations. He wants to continue to give his customers the consistent product that they’ve come to know and love and never wants to be a business owner that gives up his time in the kitchen. It’s this passion for the food and the preparation that goes into it that Yaya wants people to remember when they think of The Soul Spot. And despite the naysayers that doubted him when he first started the business, Yaya believes that the passion they sow into their food is what people are drawn to and trust.
Yaya’s next plan for The Soul Spot is to open up a commissary kitchen to handle all of their catering orders. Cooking out of one kitchen is no longer feasible because his team ends up getting in each other’s way and he wants the restaurant to be able to operate more smoothly. He’s also hoping that a kitchen dedicated to catering orders will allow them to handle any last minute requests that come in without interfering with restaurant’s food prep and purchasing. Speaking with him, it’s easy to tell that he’s excited to start this new project and has no qualms about potential issues that may arise. He will handle it the same way he dealt with the critics who doubted him when he first started the business: believing in himself and staying focused on the food.
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