- Associated Press - Sunday, May 17, 2020

MIAMI (AP) - The aroma of buttery vanilla-nutmeg waffles and crispy fried chicken floats up from the Overtown bed and breakfast’s busy kitchen to the empty 22 guest rooms upstairs.

Jamila Ross and Akino West haven’t had a guest at their Copper Door Bed & Breakfast since March 15.

Yet on this Friday morning (May 8) they dance around each other in suffocating black masks in their hotel’s 10-by-10 kitchen. The deep fryer is bubbling, the waffle maker toasting and the oven baking flaky buttermilk biscuits for hungry Overtown residents.

At noon, they will slide open an improvised ventanita and sell comfort soul food out of a walk-up window on the side of their hotel. It’s a pop-up of their concept Rosie’s, a restaurant named after Ross’ mother that they still hope to open next door - expanding a dream they haven’t abandoned even after the coronavirus forced their main business closed.

“You can’t give up on a dream,” West said. “Usually, you only get this chance once.”



But the meals they’re cooking early this morning aren’t for sale.

Ross and West are also cooking free meals every week for volunteers at the nearby pop-up of World Central Kitchen, which is making hundreds of meals a day for local residents left suddenly unstable in the pandemic. They’re feeding those who are feeding their neighbors.

“We can’t prepare 500 meals,” Ross thought, “but we can make 10 to feed our neighbors.”

COOKING TO SURVIVE, GIVE BACK

Three weeks ago, while driving around their neighborhood, they noticed a line of people two blocks long snaking toward the nearby restaurant Red Rooster Overtown. Hundreds of hungry neighbors were lined up for free meals at celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson’s restaurant, which had yet to open when he offered the kitchen to José Andrés’ non-profit World Central Kitchen.

“It was painful to see the amount of people in need,” Ross said.

She and West, both 28, a couple since they met at Johnson & Wales in North Miami, returned to their empty bed and breakfast overwhelmed - but determined.

“How can we give back to the people that are giving back to our community?” West wondered.

Their restaurant pop-up, open since March 26, isn’t paying the bills on the 6,000 square foot building. But it has helped them put some money directly into the pockets of their three employees, since the bed and breakfast closed and their income went to zero. Maybe their love of food and hospitality, they thought, could do a little more.

“What we do well is cook,” West said. “And that’s one way we can reach a lot of hearts.”

The image of their hungry Overtown neighbors played fresh in their minds. Then they thought about the volunteers cooking for them since 8 a.m.

So once a week, Ross and West get an early start at their pop up and prepare an extra 10-15 meals that they deliver to Red Rooster during the staff’s break between cooking and handing out boxed meals.

“We could take 20 minutes out of the day to give a little nourishment to our neighborhood friends,” Ross said.

‘OVERTOWN IS SOMETHING SPECIAL’

They owed that much to Overtown, they figured, for inspiring a vision neither of them had ever dared dream.

They young couple wasn’t thinking of opening a bed and breakfast in 2018. West, a Riviera Beach native, was still a chef working in the kitchens of some of Miami’s best restaurants (Michael Schwartz’s Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink, Ghee Indian Kitchen and Denmark’s Noma). Ross, born and raised in Yonkers, New York, had traveled around the world, from Los Angeles to Dubai, in management for the SLS hotel group.

But after they successfully bought, renovated and rented an Allapattah house as an Airbnb, they scraped together their earnings and thought they’d open their own restaurant - West as the chef, Ross running the books.

That is, until they approached the Barlington Group about opening a restaurant in a different building and were brought to the abandoned Demetree Hotel in 2018 with a bigger idea: Restore the 1942 hotel and take a huge leap forward on their hotel management business.

They put off getting married and put their money into the Copper Door Bed & Breakfast.

Rather than gut the building, they massaged it, restoring the terrazzo floors downstairs, the oak planks upstairs. They adorned the lobby in an Old Florida vibe with rattan furniture, Bunny Yeager photos of black and Hispanic Miami pin-up models and art from African artists to Purvis Young.

And in the center of the room - a dining table for 12, where West indulged guests with his culinary whims.

“We want to make sure we’re bringing something that makes everyone proud to be a part of this,” Ross said.

They discovered their neighbors. Children at the YWCA across the street stopped in for candy from the dish on the counter. Tourists preferred to stay in the wedge between downtown and suburban Miami, where they are also walking distance to the Miami River and restaurants like The Wharf, Garcia’s, Crust and Seaspice.

“We want people to know Overtown is something special. Don’t sleep on it,” West said.

After one year, they were in the black. And this year, they projected a 25%-35% year-over-year increase on rooms that rent for $200-$215 a night during high season. They were going to make real money for the first time as their bookings filled up from November to March, and that would carry them through the slow summer months.

Then, the annual electronic music festival Ultra was canceled over concerns of spreading the coronavirus. Next, spring break. During what would have been their busiest month, their sold-out bed and breakfast was abandoned again.

“Initially we were very optimistic,” she said. “We didn’t realize the situation was going to last this long.”

They ran the numbers: They had about two and a half months of reserves.

Ross applied for both rounds of the federal payment-protection funds to try to keep their staff employed and their rent paid but never heard back. They were also one of the 37,000 applicants left out of the state’s small-business bridge loan.

They are waiting to hear whether they’ve been approved for a pair of new city of Miami programs, a grant for up to $10,000 and a small business emergency loan for up to $20,000. They started a Gofundme for the staff, and Ross cried when she saw three donations for $30 from former Dutch guests.

“That was heartfelt because they had stayed with us and wanted to be back,” Ross said. “No amount is too small right now. We’re in the hustle.”

Their landlord, Barlington, has told them it has its own bills to pay and has not offered a rent reduction.

Ross and West tapped into their hurricane fund.

“It’s unnerving,” Ross said. “We’re just pushing to break even and see next year. It’s not about making a profit. It’s about surviving to exist.”

IT’S FOOD MADE WITH LOVE

Rather than lock the door, they decided the best way to support themselves was to support their neighborhood.

They opened Rosie’s a week after the hotel closed, offering what West calls a “late-night soul food vibe,” familiar and approachable but with unique twist. The income barely makes a dent, but it allows them to pay at least one other employee a part-time salary.

“We had to get creative,” Jamila said.

West’s crispy dark meat fried chicken is served with a spicy maple syrup to drizzle over vanilla-nutmeg waffles. Apricot-lemon jam takes his buttery buttermilk biscuits to another level. The creamy cheddar grits, based on his mother Katrina’s recipe, are elevated with a roasted tomato coulis. The French omelets are the definition of pillowy. (Dishes like hot chicken and waffles start at $10, not including delivery.)

Ross and West pack a sample of each, hot from the oven, into a dozen containers, quickly pile them into their car and hurry the five blocks to Red Rooster.

They teeter toward the entrance with food steaming up the bags as Derek Fleming, co-owner of Red Rooster with Samuelsson, flips open the door, his eyes smiling above a white mask.

Inside, over 200 meals are spread out over tables pushed together inside this mostly yet unseen restaurant, still partly under construction.

“Enjoy breakfast,” Ross tells the staff as she set down the bags. “And thank you so much for what you are doing.”

Chefs break from work and swarm the warm food, eyes delighting at the chicken and the creamy grits topped with roasted tomatoes. In about an hour, they’ll be back to work, handing out as many as 300 meals.

For right now, they dig into food made with love.

“They’re looking out for us while we’re looking out for others,” Fleming said. “It’s really sweet.”

Soon a line begins to form outside the restaurant from Miamians in need of free meals. West and Ross are off with a wave and a promise to return next week.

“If you don’t give back, then you’re not doing your part,” West said. “It’s important to help in some way, even if it’s just a little bit.”

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