When you sit down with Manhattan restaurateur Marva Layne to talk about her life in the food business, you can’t help but feel connected. Armed with a supportive family and an ever-growing following, she named her latest eatery Negril Village.
For more than 12 years, Layne, 48, along with her partners—husband Carlton Hayle, Peter Best, and son Sim Walker—has served up authentic Jamaican food at Negril on West 23rd Street. A self-taught chef, Layne credits a close family friend, whom she calls her aunt, for teaching her the true essence of Jamaican cooking. With the opening of Negril Village, her $1.5 million sister venture, in 2002, she hopes to create another group of loyal followers—this time by offering a twist on the traditional. “Although faithful to the spirit of island cooking, it has a whole new dimension,” says Layne.
Highlights from the menu—Blue Mountain steak, a grilled 12-ounce sirloin rubbed with dry herbs and spices, served in a Blue Mountain coffee and port wine reduction, or coconut salmon, a seared salmon roulade simmered in sautéed tomatoes and seasoned coconut sauce—certainly blend tradition with new methods of cooking and presentation. “It’s really Jamaican haute cuisine,” says Layne.
She has come a long way from her days as a secretary at the Anheuser Busch Co. Her first stab at the food business was Sweetie Pie, a small takeout place she opened in the borough of Queens some 20 years ago. “The menu was simple. We served bagels from H&H, baked goods that my girlfriend prepared and homemade soups and salads that I made out of my apartment. Though we were popular with our customers, our neighbors hated us,” recalls Layne. “Sim was just a little boy then, and I’d have to take him along with me on the subway so I could do the early morning deliveries before dropping him off at school.” Amber, however, Layne’s 10-year-old daughter, though often at the restaurant, “didn’t have to go through any of that mess,” Layne explains.
When the opportunity came to open a restaurant, Island Spice, in Manhattan’s risky but affordable Hell’s Kitchen area, she grabbed it. Never one for believing in “location, location, location,” Layne admits she took a chance. “I figured that if we gave people good food and a nice space, they’d come. And so far, that has held true for us,” she says. The community—African-American and Caribbean New Yorkers, many from the entertainment world—came through again, she says. And again Layne outgrew the space. “So we decided to create Negril Village to satisfy those guests who wanted a more social, larger space,” she notes. Island Spice was sold in 2001.
Negril Village isn’t just about the food, Walker declares. The 24-year-old, with a degree in business and a minor in music, works at the restaurant during the day and at night helps run Rhum Lounge, a lounge and dance space on the level below. Both restaurant and lounge—3,600 square feet in all–were off to a successful start when the economic fallout from 9/11 depleted its clientele, many of whom came from Wall Street, according to Layne and Walker. Negril Village is slowly making its way back, Layne says. She projects that Negril and Negril Village will do approximately $3 million in revenue for 2004.
What advice does this 20-year veteran restaurateur offer? “Do your homework, develop a strong business plan, secure sufficient financing, hire and train the right people, prepare yourself for a lot of hard work and keep it small,” Layne says. She adds, “It also helps to be a jack-of-all-trades because, on any given day, you might just be the hostess, the events planner, the coat check person, the bathroom attendant, the delivery person [and] even the chef.”
By Valerie Cabral