Kai Avent-deLeon is no stranger to Doré. In fact, her infectious smile and unique personal style have been well-documented on our site. But it’s not just appearances that draw us to Kai. As a successful small-business owner (her retail store/ coffee shop hybrid, Sincerely, Tommy, is one of the coolest in the city), her creativity, ingenuity, and drive are equally appealing. So when we heard she was opening a new project called S, T Eat & Stay (with an eatery called, Che!) in Bed Stuy, we wanted to hear more. We caught up with Kai a few weeks ago, in the new space, which is set to open on September 3rd.
What inspired you to open a restaurant?
The idea wasn’t purely a restaurant–it’s another concept space. Above the store, there is a boutique hostel and on the ground floor we have the Eatery. Che is the name of the Eatery, but the entire space is an extension of Sincerely, Tommy. I decided to name it S, T Eat & Stay. The name felt very obvious, but also kind of nostalgic and to the point.
When I was in my late teens I traveled to Europe and stayed at a lot of hostels ( I was broke and that was all I could afford). One night I decided to treat myself to a Boutique Hostel in Paris and it was such a wonderful experience. You still get the option of sharing a room and meeting some wonderful fellow travelers, but the rooms are just more thought out. I always felt it was a great way for people to travel.
The Eatery was inspired by a multitude of things. I was raised with a strict vegan diet so I have always had to be really creative with what I eat. Between traveling a lot and growing up in NYC you naturally are exposed to so many different cuisines. The food at Che will be plant-based, with flavors from Mexico, Grenada (which is where my Mom and Grandmother are originally from), Copenhagen (where our Chef studied), and West Afrika. Food has always been a way to connect and learn about different cultures and people–this space will reflect that.
What was your inspiration for the design of the space? How does it reflect your own personal style?
Designing the space was my favorite part of the process. I am a freak when it comes to every single detail being executed the way I imagined it in my mind. Again, I get a lot of inspiration from traveling and for this space I wanted it to feel like Mexico and the Southwest. My favorite landscape is the desert – it’s my peace and sanctuary. I went for natural textures and soft, neutral colors. I think the plaster of Paris walls really bring it all together. Even the tableware I picked reminds me of some of the street food vendors in Mexico. Like the space, my personal style is pretty minimal and clean – I go for comfort most days.
How about the food? Did you have an idea in mind of the type of food that you wanted to serve? How did the menu come about?
I knew I wanted a menu that would reflect all of the amazing food I have tried over the years. I get so excited about food! My friends laugh about how I greedy I am, but it’s because I really do love to eat – it’s a joyous experience for me.
I met Tara after a friend of mine told me she was doing pop-ups at a local cafe. She’s a vegan chef and the menu items she created were so up my alley; I immediately reached out to her. She has been a game changer! She’s so sensitive when it comes to executing the vision I had in my mind, but she adds her own twist to each menu item. I am so excited for the public to experience her creations through Che.
How has the experience of opening your restaurant been different from opening Sincerely, Tommy?
It’s been a completely different process. I opened Sincerely, Tommy at 26 years old, and only had employee experience then, meaning I had never owned a small business before. I had my mother and grandmother to look up too because they both took risks of their own and opened small businesses.
I have learned so much in the last five years. I think a lot of people have a misconception that owning a small business is glamorous and once it’s open you don’t have to work. That is completely not the case, owning a small biz, especially in NYC, is one of the hardest things one can do (career wise).
When I opened Sincerely, Tommy I had a very specific goal in mind that has changed since becoming a mother, since being in business for five years, and seeing how much the world has changed during that time. I interact with people on the daily, so I am able to see shifts that I might not see otherwise. My end goal has shifted completely. With this new space, I’ve committed to seeing it through for one reason only – but I am choosing to keep that private
On top of running Sincerely, Tommy and opening the new space, you also recently had a baby! Can you tell us a bit about that juggling act?
It is exactly that – a juggling act. It’s not cute! I had to sit myself down recently and have a serious conversation with self. My life was never intended to be a workaholic. I noticed that I was losing some passion for what I do. It’s a process, but now when I feel myself doing too much, I stop. When it isn’t fun, there is no point in doing it (that’s my personal motto). I want my son to have a healthy relationship with “work”. It’s easy to fall into a pattern (because of the capitalistic society we live in) of living to work, but that will never be the case for myself and hopefully I impress that upon my joy boy. Life is too precious. I work now because I genuinely love the creative aspect of it. But again, there is an end goal in the forefront of my mind.
All of us at DORÉ are really inspired by you, not just your aesthetic, but also your business savvy and you guts! What advice would you give to young people who hope to start a small business of their own?
Wow, thank you! That is a huge compliment. One of the best pieces of advice that I always reference is “Have a vision”. My mom told me this when I first opened S,T and it has served me well. I have also learned over the years that it is so important to approach business ego-free and to never take anything personally. Your business should have a plan and you should have a plan for yourself outside of your business too. Never let what you have created define who you are, let it be a contribution to your journey.