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Passion and Persistence: Sandra’s Next Generation’s Journey to 34 Years

Season 2: Episode 15


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Sandra’s Next Generation, a soul food restaurant in New Haven, is #56 on Yelp’s 2023 Top 100 Places to Eat in the US. It’s not just the great food, like the famous fried chicken or rasta pasta, that makes Sandra’s a go-to place for good eating for more than 34 years. It’s the purposeful, positive vibes that Sandra and her husband Miguel share with employees and diners alike that keeps people coming back for seconds.

On the Yelp Blog: Learn more from this award-winning small business on how they endure across the decades.

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Behind the Review features conversations with business owners and customers who wrote one of their Yelp reviews. In our discussions, we talk about lessons they’ve learned that can be used by other small businesses to improve their own reviews…and their bottom line.

Today, I’m talking with Sandra and Miguel Pittman, owners of Sandra’s Next Generation, a popular soul food restaurant in New Haven, and also one of Yelp’s 2023 Top 100 Places to Eat in the US. I’m also joined by Yelp’s own Alex P., senior community manager for the New Haven area.

Sandra’s has been cooking in the same restaurant location since 1989, and attributes that longevity to a number of things, but first and foremost is the partnership with her husband. It can be difficult living and working with a partner, but by staying in their own lanes, so to speak, the Pittmans make it work well.

SANDRA: One thing about him and I, you know, I think that’s the reason why we are where we are today because we really divide and conquer.

He has his role. I have my role. And we respect each other’s role. So I’m gonna introduce my husband, my best friend, my confidant for 39 years. Wow. 39 years in marriage and 39 years in business. He actually put his life on pause for me back in 1989 to come and support and help me out, help my dreams and my passion. So I’m really super excited and really blessed as a woman, as a wife, as a mom to have him put his life on pause just for me.

EMILY: I don’t think Miguel would say he put his life on pause, but he has taken over the business side of the restaurant, while Sandra does the cooking and recipe development. And as most restaurateurs know, it can be a fickle business.

MIGUEL: We’ve been in existence now for over 34 years. We start at an early age and we just move along. I would say the success of our business is working together as a unit. [Mm-hmm.] And we all know the restaurant business is a very vital business. And that’s the reason why 85% of the restaurants that open up in one year, they closed down, and then you have the 15% left.

After three years, you lose about 85% of them. So I guess when you speak about the restaurant business, the reason why it’s so challenging and it’s forever changing is because it has so many moving parts. And all the parts have to work together as a unit. And I guess that’s part of our success of being in business for 34 years.

And we know that we are only as good as our last meal. And it’s true! You are only as good as your last meal because the people they’re gonna remember the last meal. So as a business owner, you have to be on the top of your game.

EMILY: We all know the quality of the food is crucial to a restaurant’s success, because that’s why you go—to eat! But it’s not always just about the food. Atmosphere can make or break your overall experience. That’s not a problem at Sandra’s, even though it’s an extremely active and busy place. Yelp community manager Alex T. identifies what makes Sandra’s special.

ALEX: It’s pretty amazing. The second you walk in, you can just feel the vibe and the energy of Sandra’s Next Generation. You are gonna smell so many delicious scents and flavors, and it’s really known for soul food. So one of my favorite things right off the bat, I have to say, is the fried chicken.

That is one of my ultimate favorites there, besides the soul rolls, which we’ll get to, I’m sure.

EMILY: Most families have someone known for their cooking, and those are the recipes that get passed down from generation to generation. It’s a special treat when those family-famous dishes are shared with the community. And their community is really at the center of everything Sandra and Miguel do.

SANDRA: It all started with me watching my mom. My mom, a beautiful 84 year old, is still here. Still shining, still loving, still supporting. And I just watched her as a little girl, waking up every day with six children and my dad, and she was a housewife, and she would prepare breakfast, lunch, and dinner every single day.

As a little girl, I used to always hear my mom’s stories talk about how hard she worked in a farm growing up, working from sunup to sundown and how she would, raised her own like sweet potatoes and she just talked about all these stores, but they didn’t really connect to me, because I never had an opportunity to really see it until I actually went to the south when I was 16 years old and I saw the cotton fields and I saw how they grew their vegetables. So it kind of connected with me then. And then just to be able to share her recipes and keep her inspiration going and just keep her fight going. Let her know that everything that she did wasn’t in vain.

And even down to my husband’s uncle, he’s passed away now, but he’s the first one who ever taught us how to season a pork, how to season chop barbecue. It’s just so many, as you stated, meaningful meanings to our food that we prepare. And to just be able to still be excited to be able to share our recipes as well.

And where we live, the community that we live in. Every day someone would come to her, our house and just want her, as Alex said, his favorites of fried chicken. Cuz I have not changed that recipe. That recipe is still the same since I was a little girl and, our restaurant, the way I view it is when people come and I think that’s why Alec kind of gravitates to me because when he came, he came of course, because of the award, the #56 of Top 100, but what he got was the vibes. He got the inspiration, he got the motivation, he got the love. So when people come, I don’t want them to come just for the middle. I want them to feel the vibes. I want them to be inspired. I want them to know that you know anything that you have, any dreams that you have, it doesn’t matter how big it is, you have to believe that you could do it.

You have to fight. You have to get up every single day with a mindset. The mindset is everything. No matter what. Because there’s gonna be many failures in your life. Because I think that is where we are today because of our failures. You can’t quit. You gotta get up, you just gotta keep on going.

So we just offer so much at this location, at 636 Congress Avenue. When you come into the door, my dream, my goal is not to feel the same when you leave, you know you’re gonna get a good meal. You’re gonna get some good inspiration as well.

ALEX: I love that you have such a diverse menu as well, that you offer. Tell us a little bit about those specific things that are on your menu. Obviously, we’re talking the fried chicken, but tell us about the soul rolls. Tell us about the rasta pasta. Tell us about the banana pudding. Tell us about the sweet potato cornbread. So good!

SANDRA: I’m very passionate about what I do and I kind of chase the trend. And I watch what people like and I just add my own little twitch to it. And I’m like, okay, why not make a soul empanada or or soul roll with some mac and cheese and some collard greens and some yams.

And I said, let’s try to be a little diverse with the cornbread. Let’s not just offer just regular cornbread. Let’s cook with a twist. Let’s add some sweet potato cornbread. So my husband knows that I’m always coming up with different ideas. We do. We talk about ideas literally, almost every single day.

And I will bring the idea to him. And believe it or not, we just bring it to life. We are always constantly throwing different things out there. And we have people taste it and they try it and they’re like, ‘Hmm, how did you come up with that?’ People say, ‘how did you come up with this?’ And just putting our great minds alike, think alike, and we put it together and it’s like magic. It works.

ALEX: What I love is even for the rasta pasta, how you’ve incorporated a top 2023 food trend. You’ve topped it with oxtail. I feel like that was just such a genius move. And then also tell us a little bit about what you do with your deviled eggs, because when I tried your deviled eggs, I said, oh my God, these are the most unique and delicious deviled eggs I’ve ever tried in my life.

Tell us.

SANDRA: Let me tell you about the deviled eggs. Speaking of deviled eggs, cuz with the whole covid and with everything going up, I was kind of feeling like, dang, people love our deviled eggs, but I don’t know, honey, we go up on our deviled eggs, they might not wanna buy these deviled eggs because of, what was taking place with the egg prices.

Let me tell you, we did not skip a beat. No one had any issues with us going up, during the increase of the eggs. And with our deviled eggs, again, I just try to always add, like what goes good with eggs or deviled eggs. So I said, let’s throw some sweet potatoes. Let’s throw some Cajun chicken, or let’s try some shrimp.

And people really, really loved it as Alex stated. He tried to deviled eggs and he loves it. And just cooking with a twist, just adding your own, being creative. And when somebody says, ‘Oh, that doesn’t make sense.’ Listen, you can’t believe you know what people say. It doesn’t make sense. Just throw it up there, put it together, and people love the idea.

ALEX: Dare to be different. That’s what I say all the time. Dare to be different. Yes.

EMILY: Different or not, 34 years in the same location is an accomplishment not many restaurants can claim. Places like Sandra’s Next Generation—the ones that make it through all the changes that an area experiences—matter to their neighborhoods.

ALEX: Being that Sandra has been in business for so long and she is a staple within our community, that’s a really important piece. Because she set the groundwork for future soul food restaurants to exist and to come into play.

So we’re taking chances on different types of food all the time, and we’re trying new things all the time. But really, we have to give respect to Sandra because we’re talking 1989, this restaurant started. This is amazing. And how many years later now? This is 2023. So amazing as well that this business is still thriving and in such a vibrant community. Now, I know, Sandra, you had told me at one point when you started in 1989, the neighborhood didn’t quite look the same as it does now. What would you say are some of the differences from when you started in 1989 to now, 2023.

SANDRA: Yes. In 1989, as I stated, it was not welcoming at all.

MIGUEL: Definitely over the years, the neighborhood definitely went through a transition. When we came on the scene in 1989, it was the type of neighborhood that if you lived in the neighborhood, you would feel comfortable being there, but if you wasn’t from the neighborhood, you would feel uncomfortable coming in. So we knew that we had a product that was very unique. [Mm-hmm.] And we always had ideas that we would shoot for the stars regardless of what environment that we are in. It’s up to us to change the environment. And within this space that we work with, the people in the neighborhood knew that that was a space where it was off limits to any type of negativity.

It was as if our restaurant had a force field around it. We never ever had any physical issues, any problems with customers in 34 years. [Mm-hmm.] And over the years, the neighborhood definitely has improved. Yale University is roughly about three or four blocks from where we are. And with their involvement and acquiring more property to increase their space, it really changed the shape of the neighborhood.

So we were part of that and I guess that’s part of our success of being there for 34 years. But, Sandra, she spoke about the food and talked about the vision of the restaurant. But also it’s another component of the business I feel that it’s important to talk about is what goes on behind the scenes.

And that’s where inventory comes in. [Mm-hmm.] That’s where projections come in, watching the economy, seeing exactly what direction the economy is going, and constantly keeping your hands on the pulses of your business. And I guess that’s part of our success. We watched that very closely. Just like when you look at the technology now, when you look at the advancement of AI, artificial intelligence, how’s that going to affect the industry?

And I say we are on top of that because we are watching that. So as the trends change, we are gonna change, but one thing we won’t change is our recipes.

EMILY: As successful Black entrepreneurs, Miguel and Sandra know they’re an example for other up-and-coming young business owners in their community. They can’t help but incorporate that mission into the restaurant and their business plan.

MIGUEL: When you go back to the early sixties and early seventies. Before civil rights came and we had an opportunity to live outside of our neighborhood. And then when those particular laws changed and we were able to move out, say out of New Haven, go to East Haven, Branford, and et cetera. Even though we were able to move out, still we weren’t accepted.

So when you look at our community there, like for example, the Hills section where we are now, the Hills section was roughly about, I would say about 80% African American owned businesses. Because we as a people, we had to move together as a unit to survive, and it changed. The ones that were doing quite well financially, they felt that now that they have an opportunity to move out of the neighborhood, and they did, but what did they leave behind?

They didn’t leave a lot of entrepreneurs left. So that’s the real story in terms of our community. And that’s one of the parts that I feel that Sandra’s Next Generation plays an important role in our community. Our folks know for my neighborhood that you can do it. [Mm-hmm.] You could have your own business, you could have your own vision, and you could reach out for it.

It’s accessible. The resources are out there, the technology is out there. I mean, when you look at the iPhone, anything you wanna know, you can just pick up your iPhone and say, Siri, whatever question you have, Siri is going to give you an answer. That’s phenomenal because when I was a kid, for me to know something, I had to go to the library.

And had to spend 25 cents to catch a bus. It takes about 45 minutes to get there and et cetera. But now it’s no excuse in terms of why a person should have a comfortable life and run their own business. And we don’t take our customers for granted, even though we are so-called at the top of the food chain.

We are the number one soul food restaurant. Financially we are doing phenomenal. We have no debt. We run it like a Fortune 500 company because as I mentioned before, we keep our hands on the pulse of our business. And one thing about business, you have to be willing to pivot [mm-hmm] when trying times come. Trying times came when the pandemic came, I looked at it as, believe it or not, it’s a sad situation, but I looked at it as an opportunity to do something different and that’s what we did. And right now they’re talking about we are in a recession. Okay. I’m looking forward to doing something different, and we are gonna transpire whatever direction it may go, but as I said before, we won’t change our recipes.

EMILY: If a restaurant is only as good as the last meal served, it’s important to consider how that meal is served. For a busy place like Sandra’s, it takes a team of people to keep it running smoothly.

But building a good team is something that requires a little luck, a little skill, and a lot of patience. And in this case, some powerful affirmations.

ALEX: When you walk into Sandra’s Next Generation, there are so many people that are just ready to portion out to pack up. They have assembled a team of people, and I’m just guessing, but I think it’s like 12, 13 people that are in this space, [23] side of the room.

How many? 23! Yeah. It was 10 off. But honestly, this is an impressive machine that is going on in this space that you just, you sit back and you watch it and you’re saying to yourself, oh my God, everybody is just working together so seamlessly that you are getting food just like that. And it’s awesome.

SANDRA: Yeah. As Miguel said, is 23, and when you walk in, you have the telephone line, which we have three people answering the line because you have the online orders, the call-ins, the Uber, the DoorDash. And then you also have where the actual team fixes the plates.

And then on the other side you have the empanada station. We have somebody running that, and then we have the bagging station where they bag the Uber Eats online, DoorDash. As Miguel stated, we do have a lot of moving parts in the restaurant. And every day when I go to work – Miguel starts before I do – But once I come in, I understand that everyone has different challenges in life. They have their personal issues going on, and I tell them in the beginning, we have to leave that at the door. There’s no way we could bring it in. It is a booming business and we have a lot of moving parts then a lot of orders that we have to get out.

So constantly, every day throughout the day, I’m always inspiring. I speak affirmation, into their life. Cuz I speak affirmations every single day, and every day is not gonna be sunny. Just motivating the team every day would be my way of talking to the team, getting them inspired and getting them motivated.

MIGUEL: Regardless of what type of operation you run, it could be Google, it could be working with Elon Musk, a Warren Buffet. When you speak about your team, the 80-20 rule applies to every industry. You have 20% of your staff that’s doing 80% of the work.

That’s reality. And then the other 80% they are there and they just do just enough basically to get by. That’s the reality of any business that you are in. So we put a lot of energy towards the 20%. When it comes down to our staff, we pay them well, that’s for one. But also we don’t look at them as staff.

We look at them as family members. You have some family members are great. It’s no maintenance. Then you have the other 80% that’s heavy maintenance. But do you know, do you just eliminate that family member altogether? No. You work with that family member and you pray that they give back, and sometimes you have to step away from ’em sometime.

But then you come back because the love is still there. So sometimes when we have to let people know, we say, look, we love you as a person. We are always gonna be there for you. But right now, at this moment in your life, you are not a good fit for the business. Now we would reconsider somewhere down the line. For right now, it’s just not a good fit.

Because we are responsible to make payroll every two weeks because people come to work. They have responsibility, they have family, they have mortgages, they have kids in college, they have car notes, they have dreams. So it’s our obligation that’s the owners to make sure that this machine is running correctly, those 12 hours a day that we push through.

EMILY: Miguel outlined a great recipe for hiring success—a heaping spoonful of positivity, with a dash of honesty and a pinch of humanity. Sandra and Miguel have set up a system that acknowledges we all have bad days, but it’s good to learn to check that at the front door so employees can focus on serving customers. And that by providing safe spaces and affirmations to the employees, you’re giving that team the ability and resources to provide for the customers.

Great customer service is a key to getting great reviews. Every entrepreneur I’ve spoken to in the last two years will vouch for that. Alex left a fantastic review for Sandra’s Next Generation, and I asked him to read it for Sandra and Miguel.

ALEX: Three words, Royal Purple Pie. If you are reading this in the fall, then get over to Sandra’s Next Generation and secure yourself a slice or the whole pie for the upcoming holidays.

Your friends and family will be so grateful now. Besides the Royal Purple Pie, there are so many other things that will make Sandra’s Next Generation a destination when you are in New Haven, you gotta try the old bay pork chop. Any of the soul empanadas, the mac and cheese, the cornbread, oh my God! The sweet potato Cornbread – Wow! The Hennessy chicken. So good. There are so many great choices, but those are just some of my favorites. Sandra’s Next generation also placed in Yelp’s Top 25 places to eat in Connecticut and there is no doubt why they are so high on that list. Sandra is an amazing cook, hostess, person, and if you get the chance to meet her, say hello. She is amazing.

EMILY: It’s not every day that a business owner gets to hear the reviews directly from the customers. But just because they’re not read aloud in person, doesn’t mean the online reviews can go unanswered.

MIGUEL: I do definitely mm-hmm. Read all and respond to, and I do respond.

Good, good or bad. Some people have their opinions and some people unfortunately have their agendas. Being in business for 34 years, you could be able to filter out if a person has an agenda. But the reviews are great because sometimes you could be really involved in a business where you don’t see some of the little details.

That’s important. One time we had a customer that said that, when they came into the restaurant, they weren’t greeted with a smile. Okay, what I did, I made adjustments. And that’s one part of the list, every time a customer comes in, you have to smile. So those little things are important.

SANDRA: I really appreciate and love Yelp because I think that Yelp has helped Sandra’s Next Generation reach different broad of people, different cultural people as well. And that was one of my number one goals cuz as we said in the beginning, 1989, the era that we were, was predominantly African-American. So I wanted to be able to reach different cultures and I believe that Yelp has really helped our business reach so many different groups of people in different areas too, as well.

EMILY: Growing a small business for 34 years takes strategy, planning, and education – not just education about best business practices. Businesses must also be up to date on upcoming trends. And, even further, they must monitor economic markets that may seem unrelated to your business, but will impact the economy as a whole. Miguel stays on top of his business by staying informed about other people’s businesses as sort of a bellwether, so I asked him to elaborate for me.

MIGUEL: It’s hard for me to answer that question because I have so many things that come my way when I first wake up in the morning, you know?

Mm-hmm. I check my email, see exactly what, for example, Elon Musk, I see exactly what he’s doing. Warren Buffet, just some of those people that’s very successful, that really has the mindset where they think outside of their box. But also on the spiritual ramp, I do reach out to what I call the universe, and I ask the universe for certain things that I need for me to move forward, and it’s not all about me.

But it’s everybody that’s within my network that I interact with and throughout the day, we have different challenges that we face, but one of the things that gives me something to look forward to at the end of the night is to sit down and talk to my wife, she’s my inspiration.

She’s my prayer warrior. Very seldom do I pray, I do, but I know she prays for me every day, and I’m very particular what I ask for because sometime when I’m going through certain situations, I don’t even ask God for help because I feel that the only time I should ask him for help is when I really need it.

And a lot of times, He’s gonna lead me and guide me in the right direction where I need to go. I say I don’t want to bug him, you know what I mean? So I’m very selective in terms of what I asked for, and I think that’s part of our success. And also when we talk about money, when you look at money, Money is only mm-hmm paper. It’s a commodity. It’s something that you use to buy certain goods and et cetera. It doesn’t have a personality, it doesn’t have longevity. It is, when you have that money, what do you do with it? How do you put yourself in a position where you could be comfortable enough to bless somebody else without asking for anything, or even expecting anything in return.

That’s my mindset. That’s how I operate because I come from a background where, when I was young, we used to eat fried chicken wings, green peas, and rice at least six days out of the week. So I know how it is to go home and at the end of the night, Your stomach is turning cause she’s still hungry.

I’ve been there, I’ve done there. I know how it is to have a mother, which loves all five of us dearly with no father, nowhere in sight. And she sacrificed herself for the family. And I guess that’s part of my creativity mm-hmm. Of going out and hustling and working and not expecting to get anything for free.

And that motivation, I guess, is again, a part of my mindset in terms of how I view life and how I approach business and why we are successful at Sandra’s.

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