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Sim Walker On Restaurants As Artistic Reflections Of Black Patrons

Sim Walker grew up in a New York restaurant family, opening and operating a half-dozen places before taking the family business to Atlanta. Now he’s ventured out to establish his own joints, beginning with Ms. Icey’s Kitchen & Bar and the forthcoming Apt 4B.

I grew up in the restaurant industry under my mother, Marva Layne. She started out with a pastry shop I used to help her with as a child—Sweetie Pie in Hell’s Kitchen. We baked pastries in our apartment around the corner, and we’d bring them over to the shop in the morning. From there, it was a long line of lessons, from the pastry shop to her first Caribbean restaurant, Island Spice in the Theater District on 44th Street and Ninth Avenue, to the first Negril in Chelsea. The restaurant that’s currently still operating in New York is Negril Village on West 3rd Street. Through all that experience, I learned about takeout, nightlife, and operating a large venue.

I had opened two restaurants in New York. I opened Negril, and then I opened another restaurant in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, called SoCo. Typically our consumer base was about 99 percent African-American. And people would always mention Atlanta as a promised land with a huge population of African-American people with disposable income. I was a diehard New Yorker, so I was completely against it. But my mother finally convinced me.

That’s how I ended up in Atlanta to open up a Negril Village here. I followed the same structure, and now I’m operating my own restaurant called Ms. Icey’s Kitchen. My next entry in Atlanta is Apt 4B, which would have been open already if it wasn’t for coronavirus and everything else delaying us.

Ms. Icey’s is based on myself and my partner’s experience. We’re second-generation Caribbean-Americans from the North, from New York City, living in the South. The best way to describe it is a Caribbean-Southern fusion restaurant. It’s really not a general Caribbean restaurant, and I wouldn’t say it’s a typical Southern or soul food restaurant, either. It’s a blend of those things. And then the appearance of the restaurant is very New Yorkish. We have graffiti on the walls. The restaurant prior to us taking it over was a tavern, so it still has some of those qualities.

On the walls are pictures of celebrities that were given to me by Hype Williams. They’re all one-on-ones. When I asked Hype for the photos, I said, “I’m opening this restaurant, and I need some artwork, and I think you have it.” He hit me back immediately, and he said, “I got you.” When I first saw them, I said, “What in the world am I going to do with pictures of a bunch of celebrities? I don’t want to put that on my wall.” I was talking to a friend, and he said, “Some people buy art based on reflections of themselves.” And the next night after having that conversation, I was walking through the dining room, and a woman stopped me and said, “Thank you for putting us on the walls.” That made me realize they’re not just celebrities. They’re actually reflections of the people that come to the restaurant.

The next place, Apt 4B, was a great opportunity. The rent was favorable. This restaurant is in Buckhead, the central business and dining district here in the city. Miss Icey’s is just one reflection or one artistic interpretation of a concept that we can produce. And I think this restaurant represents another one.

The reason most people move to Southern cities is because it’s a little bit easier to live and do business here. A trip to Restaurant Depot is not as taxing here as it is in New York City. Even interfacing with the city government—it’s a lot easier to get things done. How people decide to dine and where they go is definitely different. In New York, you might have a huge after-work crowd, or your business may be based on where you are. Atlanta is different in the sense that it’s spread out, so people will travel to you. So we are a destination business. I always tell people that one of the differences in New York is that most people don’t like where they live, so they end up in public spaces and restaurants. In Atlanta, people love where they live, so it’s a little bit harder to get them to come to you.

Lately, it’s definitely been a difficult and trying time. And confusing. The governor of Georgia was one of the first to open up from the pandemic, which I think confused a lot of people. I think the general public was opposed to it. Meanwhile, he put us in a position where you have to open, because some of the aid that you would expect from your government requires it, or your landlords might not be as understanding if you stay closed.

This is our first week that we’re attempting to allow people into the restaurant for social-distanced dine-in. I see mixed reviews when I talk to people. Some people are opposed to coming out. Meanwhile, others want to try it. I’m in a position where I have the best of both worlds, in the sense. I did receive aid from the Paycheck Protection Program for Ms. Icey’s, which helped us out tremendously. If we didn’t get that, it would have been hard. We wouldn’t have had the cushion that we needed to make it up to this time.

At Ms. Icey’s we have a nice-sized patio that seats about 40 people. We’re doing reservation-only and trying to space people out. But we don’t know what the volume will be, so managing that is a little bit challenging. Everybody’s feeling their way through. How does that work? How do we handle people? Who is wearing a mask? Obviously, people can’t eat with masks on. It’s very difficult to navigate.

The trick with Apt 4B is because it’s a new business, I did not receive aid. And I find myself with my hand to the fire now. We’re preparing that restaurant to open as takeout and delivery. Moving forward, I think we will experiment as we learn how to operate at Ms. Icey’s and what the climate is. We’ll experiment with social distance dine-in there. But you have to imagine how difficult it would be for new business to open up in this climate. People might be more comfortable with a business they’re familiar with or have some sort of history with, rather than a brand-new business that they never heard of.

As for what we’re going through with the protests, it’s extremely challenging, and it’s extremely emotional. People are torn. But I am seeing sprinklings of a lot of support. I see people are definitely sharing word of Black-owned restaurants, and I’m starting to see people trying to do their best to support those businesses. That’s the upside in all of this. There’s definitely an awareness surrounding us on how we support each other and how we spend our dollars—support we really need during these times.

Systematic racism is ingrained to a point where sometimes you don’t even recognize it. It’s crazy. The media looks past us all of the time. The restaurants that I operate, they are crowd favorites. Everybody knows them around the city. There’s nowhere in the world I go and somebody hasn’t told me that they’ve heard of Negril Village. Yet the media doesn’t cover it. Negril Village is a longstanding Caribbean restaurant in the West Village of Manhattan, in a super-central location. It has 90 percent African-American patronage. When you look at that and you think of all of the races, all of the cultures that visit the Caribbean and enjoy their time there and love the food—when you look at the fact that you don’t see an equivalent patronage in the restaurants, that shows you something. When you’re a Black restaurant, we’re always fighting for the acceptance of our peers and other restaurants and the media, but we don’t get it. Or we’re overlooked or unnoticed.

Ms. Icey’s is in an extremely white neighborhood. When we initially opened, the acceptance of the neighborhood was overwhelmingly positive. I’ve never experienced that much acceptance before. However, I wouldn’t say that the patronage is totally reflective of the neighborhood. There’s people that support us, and there’s a large number of faces that we still don’t see.

I wouldn’t consider myself an extreme activist by any means, but I think that what we absolutely would like to see is the end of systematic racism. Obviously we want police brutality to end. But racism exists in so many other forms that people also need to need to be aware of. I read a comment about Apt 4B the other day saying, “Why are they choosing this neighborhood? That’s not where their demographic is,” or something to that effect. I don’t even think they understand that they’re making a racist comment. Half the people that operate businesses, the major corporations, they’re not from your neighborhood or live in your neighborhood either. It’s a business district, and the type of food that we’re making is the food that I would expect everybody would want to try and enjoy.