Almost from the moment plates of enticing breakfast and brunch foods landed on KitchenCray tables, the restaurant attracted legions of devoted fans to Lanham, Maryland. The café’s popularity continued to grow over the past three years. In October, the owners reached another rung on their ladder to entrepreneurial dreams come true.
“The opening of the second location felt unreal because we used all of our money. We didn’t have any sponsors or investors,” says James “JR” Robinson, chef and co-owner. “It was all pure hard work, dedication and having goals in the business to actually do it.”
The new KitchenCray Café is in Washington, D.C., on H Street NE. The street was once lined with thriving Black-owned businesses. “It feels good. We feel like we’re starting that trend of bringing Black businesses back to H Street,” says Sudon Williams, Robinson’s uncle and partner in the restaurants.
Building On Black-Owned
The H Street corridor reflects the gentrification taking place over the past 20 years. Entrepreneurs from a diverse mix of races have moved into the community that suffered an economic decline after 1968. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. touched off riots that damaged some Black businesses. Other Black owners left because H Street was no longer a vibrant commercial district.
“We feel like we are trailblazing and bringing that back. Since we’ve been there, several other Black restaurants and companies have decided to set up shop on H Street,” Williams says. He and Robinson chose a different approach to serving diners when they opened the new location. “We cook the dishes that people love. People like to eat breakfast for dinner or brunch. Now, we’re focusing on how to make the bar and drinks stand out as much as the food,” Robinson says.
The café in Lanham does not have a bar and serves breakfast and brunch from morning to mid-afternoon. The H Street location operates during dinner time from 5 pm to 10 pm Wednesday through Friday. On weekends, it stays open from morning to early evening.
Loyal patrons come in from Maryland, Virginia and even Pennsylvania to check out the café in D.C. “We’re basically seeing all of our supporters. They are still traveling to this location to experience something new, to support us and to go out and have a good time in D.C.,” says Williams.
The restaurant at 1301 H Street NE offers some new menu choices to customers. One of them is the oxtail spring rolls with Mumbo sauce. “It’s the most popular dish. We can’t even keep them in house. It’s like an 8 to 10-hour process just to make them, and people love them,” Robinson says.
Keep On Pushing
The most requested dishes at KitchenCray’s Lanham and D.C. cafés are primarily packaged for takeout because of the coronavirus pandemic. The restrictions on indoor dining pushed Robinson and Williams to make major adjustments to survive the crisis. They shifted the opening date for H Street from March to October.
Coping with limits on capacity at both cafés made a serious dent in their profits. “It’s somewhat depressing to walk in knowing where you used to be,” says Williams. “You did nothing wrong. You did everything right, but the pandemic hit and life has changed as far as the business goes.”
Like other restaurateurs, Williams and Robinson have no control over the continuously changing local, state and federal guidelines for safe operation. Switching from a 90 percent dine-in to 100 percent takeout during the pandemic’s critical periods was emotionally and financially stressful.
Chef Robinson recalls creating separate stations for packing takeout, keeping it warm and collecting payment. “It was like a whole new operation. It took us weeks to adjust and master it. We ended up doing well for the first wave, and then with the second wave, it was what we were used to doing, so we just fell back in line.”
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Williams describes it as an ever-changing battle of staying in the game. “It’s been tough with all the changes going on. Every week, we’re trying to figure out the next adjustment, how to survive and keep going.”
One of the strategies KitchenCray’s owners employed was bringing in Warren Green from Miami to create exciting, tropical drinks at the D.C. café. “We brought him in as the bar manager, but now he’s stepping up to oversee everything. With COVID going on, there’s no need for a bunch of managers running around because we’re only seating 25 percent. So, he’s managing the entire front of the house,” Robinson explains.
The pandemic also changed KitchenCray’s catering service. The restaurant does offer party packages for 10 to 20 people. The catering setups at people’s homes or at public venues are off the table for now. It is another reason why the owners could not be more grateful for the support from patrons getting takeout or dining in when possible.
“Of course, when you can only seat 20 people, it is a long waitlist. Everyone has been patient. For the most part, they don’t complain. They understand. They’ve been adjusting with everything that we have to go through as well,” Williams says.
Social Media Sensation
Some of that steadfast support comes from the people who follow KitchenCray Café on social media. The Lanham restaurant started trending soon after it opened in 2017, partly because Williams and Johnson knew how to make creative use of free marketing on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. “Social media gives us that range to reach people that are not in our city. We are able to reach people in California and New York, so when they see it or their friends see it, they’ll come fly out just to eat our food,” says Chef Robinson.
KitchenCray has amassed more than 500,000 followers on social platforms. The photos of Robinson’s signature dishes, from the fried chicken and French toast to the shrimp and grits and the oxtail Benedict on a biscuit, make a lot of mouths water. “I usually like to highlight the main protein of the dish. If it is lobster, we’re going to focus on making the lobster tail jump out of the picture.”
The chef’s partner knows the photos of KitchenCray’s dishes are effective whenever he sees a post that has gotten a thousand comments and 5000 likes. “Everybody eats with their eyes first. If you entice somebody with their eyes, they are usually going to go ahead and buy whatever it is their eyes tell them they want,” Williams says.
The cafés also offer a unique, 3D experience for customers. Williams describes how they can access augmented reality through their phones or Instagram app. “A customer can come in, scan a barcode on the menu, and it will pull up a dish like catfish and grits. It will be hologram through their phone that they can move around, play with and see what the dish looks like.”
The excitement generated by KitchenCray also got a boost from Robinson’s appearances on two television food shows. Food Network’s Treygaye Fraser chose his fried lobster mac and cheese for an episode of “Best Thing I Ever Ate.” Robinson also competed on Gordon Ramsay’s “Hell’s Kitchen” in 2012. “Everybody knows about the brand. We’ve just got to keep moving forward. We keep the people hungry on Instagram by posting that good food, those good drinks, and just doing what we do,” says KitchenCray’s chef.
Comfort, Creativity and Collaboration
Robinson built his reputation as an exceptional chef while working at some of D.C. area’s top hotels and restaurants, including the acclaimed Blue Duck Tavern. The native New Yorker began his culinary studies in high school. He earned his degree in culinary arts and graduated summa cum laude from Monroe College.
However, his grandmother inspired his love of cooking. “My style of cooking is Southern comfort. I want to give you memories of when you were a child, or just spark something in your mind that makes you think about your grandmother or mother cooking. It makes you feel good,” Robinson says.
That comfort food style did not come from Robinson’s experiences in culinary school or commercial establishments. Working at hotels and restaurants taught him structure, such as training staff, managing work stations and calculating food and labor costs. He creates dishes for his cafés from his passion for taking classic dishes and making them his own.
Robinson incorporates Southern, Caribbean and other influences into his cooking. “When people try the food, the first thing they say is it tastes like it looks or it tastes better than it looks,” says the chef. “You’ve got to make sure all those flavors are hitting, so people don’t get bored with the food.”
His uncle first started tasting Robinson’s cooking around the time the chef graduated from college. “I felt like he was a genius. I tasted his food and I was like, ‘You’ve got something here,’” Williams says. “He’s only evolved and gotten much better.”
The bond between the two men developed much earlier when Robinson spent his summers visiting Williams in Maryland. When his nephew moved to the area after college, they decided to build a restaurant business together. “He has an unbelievable work ethic. Just watching him made me want to help and be a part of it. I felt like others that he had around him early on weren’t matching his intensity,” Williams says.
The retired corrections officer saw an opportunity to bring his talents for getting things done to the table. Together, they were able to raise money to open the Lanham café and move Robinson beyond the KitchenCray catering business he started eight years ago.
“He takes a lot of the stress off of my shoulders, so I’m not dealing with everything,” says Chef Robinson. “I had everything on my plate because, in the beginning, it wasn’t a real business. It was just something we were trying to grow.”
Passing It On
All the lessons the two partners have mastered while growing as restaurateurs are not staying in-house. They are sharing them and giving back in numerous ways. Robinson experienced the pain of spending time in shelters, foster care and on the streets. His father was absent, and his mother was often incapable of caring for him and his six siblings. It motivates him to help others, especially young people.
“When we started, I said the first thing I want to do is give back to the homeless shelters and the kids just so they know somebody out there is thinking about them and that they are loved,” says Robinson. “You never know what somebody is going through or how they got into that situation. And you never know if you can be in that situation. That’s what really made me want to get out there and connect with the community.”
Williams shares that commitment and helps organize efforts to make living in poverty a little less burdensome for families and children. “We’ve fed the homeless several times. We’ve been in the schools cooking for kids. We’ve had turkey drives and coat drives.”
The pandemic halted those types of activities, but KitchenCray’s owners are still assisting others by keeping their restaurants open. “Right now, honestly, giving back for us is keeping our staff employed. We’re helping people feed their families and pay their bills, which have also been hard due to COVID,” Williams says.
The Cray in the name of the cafés actually represents Robinson’s approach to sharing knowledge. The C is for creativity, the R is for the revolution started with Black chefs, the A is for artistry, and the Y stands for youth. “In order to build this empire and keep it going, we’ve got to keep it fresh and with the times. The only way to do that is to have the youth on your side and on your team. You have to build them up because they have ideas and know what is going on in the current world,” adds Robinson.
Both the chef and Williams appreciate the fact they are also learning from the young people they mentor. Sharing knowledge and know-how is an incredible feeling for both of them. “That’s what it is all about. To me, that’s generational wealth, being able to give back and teach the younger people how to progress and have a skill,” Williams says.
Young people get to see two restaurateurs, who look like them, came from having very little and yet are succeeding. Williams believes it demonstrates that there are different ways to make it in life besides selling drugs, making music or playing sports. “We’re bringing that back to the table and showing that if you work hard and you pray, this is all possible. It might take a little longer, but it is definitely possible.”
Building on Success
Chef Robinson can now name celebrities who have enjoyed his passion for creating memorable meals. Former President Barack Obama and 300 other diners tasted Robinson’s cooking at a U.S. Department of Energy event. He has cooked for Torrey Smith, a former Baltimore Ravens wide receiver, and rappers T.I. and Wale.
“Cooking for the celebrities and the big names is really cool, but I feel like cooking for the everyday person is what helps keep us in business.” Robinson appreciates the people who are repeat customers at KitchenCray in D.C. and Lanham. “Everybody wants to feel like a king and a queen. We try to create that whole vibe with good music, good food, good drinks and hiring the right people. That’s how we stay in touch with customers and provide the services they need,” Robinson says.
Moving forward, the owners of KitchenCray hope to save enough money in the future to buy the buildings that house their cafes. The next move is expanding their brand with a new restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia. “We already have a location that we’re working on,” says Williams. “And then Baltimore is definitely a place where I feel like KitchenCray is needed. There are a lot of affluent Black people there and not a whole lot of Black businesses.”
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Building on KitchenCray’s success matters to Robinson. His wife, Deanna, has her own wellness business. The couple wants to set an example of self-determination for their son Zahir, daughter Asia, and the second daughter on the way. “What keeps me going is the love that I have for the industry, the passion and the people that I work for, and being able to take care of our families.”
Williams is equally motivated to see that what he and his nephew have created continues to grow. “We have something special. Somebody can take your crown if you become too complacent. We have to make sure we’re always staying in the game and keep bringing on people that can help us grow and bring new things to the table.”