Island Roti: 20 years and a second-generation surprise

April 5th, 2018  |  Published in Community, slider, Uncategorized

Melisa Mahadeo hadn’t worked in her family’s restaurant in five years when she found out she was being made the co-owner. She knew that day was coming, but she didn’t expect it to come so soon. At 31, she had dreams of becoming a nurse. She had a job at a medical billing company. But her uncle, the owner of Island Roti Shop & Bakery in Staten Island, decided he was going to retire. And the roti shop was a family business, one that had provided her and her sister, Marisa, with a home when they first arrived in America. Now they were in charge of keeping it open.

“It was literally the first Trinidadian store that was ever opened on the island,” Melisa said while seated at one of the two tables in the Victory Boulevard restaurant. Jennifer, her mom, sits behind her, nodding in agreement. When they first opened 20 years ago, Melisa says proudly, “there were lines around the block.

In those early days, the restaurant was run by Melisa’s uncles, Kelvin and Kenny. They served jerk chicken roti and oxtail curry for years, until Kenny decided to move to Brooklyn to open a heating and ventilation business in 2010. Kelvin stayed put for another seven years, until last October, when he announced he was retiring to Pennsylvania and turned to his sister, Jennifer, and her two daughters to keep the restaurant under family ownership, and a few weeks later, they became co-owners.

Melisa Mahadeo in the kitchen of Island Roti Shop & Bakery. Photo: Bo Hamby.

Jennifer and her two teenage daughters, Melisa and Marisa, moved to Staten Island in 2000, two years after her brothers had immigrated. The restaurant became their home away from home, with Kelvin, Kenny and Jennifer making roti while the kids played in the dining area and did their homework. But the two sisters had pursued their own dreams in the meantime, and their uncle’s decision was sudden. Their mom never expected her daughters to enter the restaurant business.

“We never thought that one day it would pass down to us,” says Jennifer, the mom. “It was a surprise.”

Both sisters say they could’ve turned down the offer, but they knew it was the right thing to do. And they’ve maintained the restaurant’s success. On a recent Tuesday evening, Keziah Harrison came by for an order of doubles, a Trinidadian sandwich of fried dough and chickpeas. She says they’re the best in the five boroughs.

“I’ve got to get this food,” says Harrison, who lives in Staten Island. “Caribbean food especially. I have to travel all the way to Brooklyn if they’re closed, and then it’s still not that good.”

A checklist of what’s available on a recent Sunday at Island Roti. Photo: Bo Hamby.

The two sisters may have mastered the food, but they admit it can be hard to focus. Melisa was planning on going to nursing school when Kelvin retired. She’s had to put that dream on hold.

Marisa, the younger sister, was eager to get started. But a few weeks after signing the ownership papers she got a call from the New York City Fire Department. Her application for a paramedics training course had been accepted, and she was to start immediately. That meant being in Queens for classes from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m., followed by an evening shift at the roti shop.

“They clash,” Marisa says about the restaurant and her paramedics training. “But it’s a small sacrifice for a bigger dream.”

That bigger dream was first planted by her uncles when they arrived in New York. Kelvin and Kenny had both worked in the restaurant business back in Trinidad, as “dishwashers and butchers.” When they got to Staten Island, they wanted to be their own bosses, so they opened up a restaurant with money they had saved and cooked the food they used to make back home. 

Their success provided the rest of the family with an opportunity to come to Staten Island, and the restaurant became a sort of Ellis Island for the Mahadeo family. New family members arrived and stayed with Kelvin, working at the restaurant until they were able to establish their own place to live and work. Four more of Kelvin’s siblings would immigrate, all of whom now work and live in New York and the surrounding states with their families.

The jerk chicken meal with rice, plantains, channa and more at Island Roti. Photo: Bo Hamby.

This month, the restaurant celebrates its 20th anniversary. Five years from now, in 2023, the lease will expire, and Melisa and Marisa know they will have to make a decision. They have aspirations outside the restaurant — nursing, being an EMT, buying a house — but nothing will deter them from keeping the family business alive.

“We grew up in this business,” Melisa says. “It’s something you know like the back of your hand. And we can make the sacrifices needed to keep the business going.”

Her mom, sitting behind her, chimes in. “Because this is the dream we wanted.”

Tags: , , , ,

Your Comments