Melba Wilson is the owner of a growing culinary empire based in New York’s famed Harlem neighborhood. Her renowned restaurant, Melba’s, is a hot spot for celebrities, locals and tourists from around the world who crave unbeatable American comfort food.
Melba Wilson began her career at Sylvia’s Restaurant, where she launched the popular Sunday Gospel Brunch, and has received numerous accolades and awards for her entrepreneurship and her original and family recipes. She won on an episode of the Food Network’s Throwdown with Bobby Flay, was featured on The View, and appears regularly on television. Melba has always been about giving back. Whether it’s her local community or the restaurant industry, she unselfishly gives of her time.
From the launch of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, she has been at the forefront of the association’s agenda to support the diverse needs of the industry. With her recent appointment as the Alliance’s new president, Wilson will work to promote the needs of her fellow restaurateurs.
Born and bred in Harlem, Melba knew she wanted to stay close to home so she could nurture and provide an exquisite yet comfortable dining experience to the community that raised her. As a young adult working at Sylvia’s, Rosa Mexicano and Windows on the World restaurants, Melba saw firsthand what it took to own and operate a successful business. She quickly became aware that diners have the opportunity to eat wherever they choose. When great food is combined with remarkable service, the result is a dining destination that patrons come to regard as home. It is the commitment to exceptional customer service, coupled with great food that make the standard of excellence that exists today.
On any given day, you can find Melba greeting guests with hugs, her trademark smile and inquiring of her customers as to whether there is anything she can do to enhance their dining experience. After all, dining at Melba’s is like coming home for dinner, whenever you’re away from home.
Total Food Service recently had the opportunity to visit with Melba Wilson to get her thoughts on the next chapter of her entrepreneurial vision and the outline of her agenda as she takes the reins of the Alliance.
Let’s talk about your career for a second. How did you get into the industry?
I like to say I was born, bred and buttered in Harlem. My family is from the South, so growing up everything in my family has revolved around food. Food was the common denominator. It united us as family, friends, as a community. So food was always an extremely important part of my life. Most of our time was not spent in the living room watching television. Most of our time was spent in the kitchen. Having conversation while my grandmother cooked a meal. Or while my dad barbecued or my mother made a stew or delicious soups. I remember early Sunday mornings and how we would prep Sunday dinner early before church. So I’ve always had a love affair with food. And I wanted to emulate what my grandmother did, which was to bring our family and friends together through food. My first paying job was in Harlem. First paying job in the food service industry in Harlem. I started off as a cashier, believe it or not.
I then taught acquittal law for a company and found myself unhappy. My aunt said to me, “Why don’t you come in and help me at the restaurant?” So I jumped at the opportunity and that’s when the love affair started. I think no matter what I was doing in the restaurant, I started out as a cashier, worked my way up to hostess, manager, and assistant catering manager. But just found out that everything that had to do with soothing people, I loved.
I was also planning events and then on a flight one day, the attendant said, “In the case of an emergency put on your mask first.” That was an epiphany for me. I didn’t want to wake up one day and go, “What about me?” I was helping my husband, assisting him with his career and still working in the industry.
With my family being from the South, my mother was an avid saver. My dad would give her the paycheck every Friday and my mom would pay the bills and put money in her “just in case fund” under the mattress. So I did the same and when I wasn’t able to get a loan for my restaurant, I went under my mattress and started counting all the money I had saved and it turned out to be $300,000! That’s what I opened up Melba’s with. We’ve been very fortunate since.
How have you given back over the years?
We give to a lot of organizations that deal with seniors and children. Those are the things that keep me up at night. I think our seniors are extremely important to us. I donate food to organizations and give back to different churches of the community. I do a lot of work for the Girl Scouts of America and other organizations that aren’t in the spotlight.
How did you first get involved with The Alliance? Talk a little bit about what led you to that and what you’ve been able to get from that relationship?
Well I’ve been involved with The Alliance since 2012. As for me being a small business owner in Harlem, it was about access. And I always knew that the Alliance is a one stop shopping experience. So if I needed a payroll company, if I needed an accountant, if I needed a lawyer and so on, I was able to get all this information from them, as well as stay abreast on the new laws, the policies, etc. There was no other organization keyed to New York City and New York City restaurants that could provide that information to me and for me. And, I love the fact that the alliance is extremely inviting. And they care to the needs of not just big businesses, but small business as well.
Can you talk about what some of the key issues that you hope to focus on during your time as president of The Alliance?
The tip credit is still a thing that’s pending and is a topic everyone is front and center about. I mean for me, as a small business owner, when you look at the fact that it would cost me several thousand dollars per employee, to get the tip credit eliminated, which means that I would have to, first of all, fire some of my employees. My employees are like family to me.
What’s the climate like right now for the industry in NYC?
A lot of our Alliance members are leaving New York. I was driving down just yesterday and one of my favorite restaurants is gone. So we have to look and see what we can do to minimize that. But the city’s just becoming more and more unbearable, especially for restaurant operators like Melba. People still want to go to Melba; they still want to have that interaction and experience. With everything that’s going on in the world right now, people still want to go out and eat since it’s an opportunity to escape.
So when you first opened the restaurant, we’re assuming that the thought was, “if I could get a great review in The New York Times or if I get a great review in New York magazine then all will be well.” Talk about what it was like when you opened and where we are today with things like social media?
Well, when I first signed the lease, which was back in 2004, my community of Harlem was totally different than it is today. So that’s No. 1. So as the community is changing I still had to be consistent with my brand for my audience. The definition of consistent for me is staying true to your core of who you are. Also, servicing your customers and guests and their needs. So I do have a healthy comfort section on my menu, which I’ve had since inception. But I’m getting ready to put a gluten-free fried chicken on the menu as well. It’s a recipe I’ve worked on for quite awhile. But there’s also a market for that and I’m realizing it. So I’m catering to both customers.
Talk about what it’s like trying to build out a marketing plan.
Well for me, you know, I’m not a baby of the ‘70s or even the ‘80s. Social media is like speaking Mandarin with me. So what has been important is just recently I’ve latched on to the power of social media. But prior to that, it was that the old word of mouth was not broken. I know social media has power that reaches so many more people a lot quicker. There’s a part of me that was hesitant to conform. But that’s the way of the world now and I had to jump on board and embrace it. I love surrounding myself with a bunch of millennials who get it. I have a teenage son and realize that they don’t read directions, they just pick up the thing and go with it and figure things out. So I found that the most important partnership is partnering with people who can guide me through the process. I’m learning a lot and may not be as strong or as privy to things, but I’m getting there.
Do you see your son coming into this business? How do you see the industry attracting the next generation of young people to come in and manage, own and operate in our business?
My son just graduated high school and he’s in college now. He’s grown up in this industry. He’s got collard greens, fried chicken and catfish in his blood. He loves the industry and always gives me ideas on what we can do differently. The other day, he suggested we put blackened catfish on the menu or grilled catfish. He’s always looking at innovative ways that we can serve healthier options because he’s an athlete.
I’m excited about the amount of young people I see coming into the industry. Like when I see the “Top Chef” finalist Adrian Cheatham or look at Chef J.J. Johnson coming into the industry. They’re fresh and have a passion for it. So when I look at these kids, I know they’re going to be super chefs, super restaurateurs and continue to push the industry forward.
What about all those “non-sexy” opportunities like food distributors and the like? What do you see in terms of that?
Well, I see the food, beverage and nightlife industry will always live and have a home. People have to dine out. And we’re in a world right now where they want everything instantaneously, and what we have to do is to figure out how to make those things work in our industry. And the great thing is with the service industry that’s our job. That’s what we’re most passionate about. We’re most passionate about serving people and we know how to do it, and we know how to do it instantaneously. So when you look at the jobs that people are doing, it’s about a team. And in any team, of course, there are people that are in the forefront. There’s always the front of the house, but there’s also the back of the house. And without the back, the front of the house won’t be able to work. So it’s all about the team.
How do you go about building your team?
I love having a staff meeting and what I often do is everybody knows how I feel the most important person at Melba’s is our dishwasher. Because if the dishwasher doesn’t wash the pots, the cooks can’t cook. If the dishwasher doesn’t wash the plates, the guests can’t dine. The dishwasher is key to our success. So it starts here and then it grows from there. So it starts with clean and we build upon that. But the foundation has to be strong.
How do you look at the technology at the back of the house and how has it helped you be more impactful and efficient?
I think it depends on what you’re doing in the food and beverage industry as opposed to when you determine whether or not it works for you. I’m very old school. Personally I’m very old. And in some aspects, if it’s not broke don’t fix it. However when you look at the systems where if the oil has been recycled or it needs to be changed, I listen to my team a lot. I’m wise enough to know that I don’t know it all. And at the end of the day it’s something that’s going to work for them and make their jobs easier.
How to you go about buying products? Are you loyal to existing vendors?
So being a small business I think it’s important that we support small businesses. I still go to a local butcher block to get a lot of the meat [for Melba’s]. One of the things that I love most about them is they give meat on the [classic] brown paper. But that’s how I grew up going to the butcher for my mom.
What about catering and off-premise work?
When I first opened, my goal was to open a catering segment and it happened three years later. Catering gives us an opportunity to reach more people that will return us later. It gives us an opportunity to be a lot more creative and to meet, or exceed our customers needs.
What do you hope to accomplish as the president of The Alliance? How will you pick and choose what goes on the agenda?
It’s a very difficult time coming into this business or coming into this position here in New York City especially. You know, there’s a lot of turnover over the tip credit, paid vacation, extended paid vacation time laws. While we already have one week’s paid vacation time, the commercial rate taxes are making it harder for restaurants. It’s definitely a difficult time. But being a woman owner who started off in an industry where people said that you know we’re the minority in this business and not the majority, I’m kind of used to the difficulties. But that is nothing that I’m not used to.
What I’m hoping to accomplish is to engage more small businesses – more minority owned businesses, and to really reach out to businesses outside of Manhattan even though The Alliance does a pretty good job of that. I think that’s important when you talk about New York being a melting pot. I just want to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to experience all that.