photo by the author
In the short space of one year, Amanda Thompson, proprietor of Ya Ya’s House of Southern Cuisine in downtown Schenectady, has achieved what few first-time restaurateurs can lay claim to: substantial, sustained success. Her satisfied customers range from the lawyers who work nearby, to Proctors’ theater-goers (when she stays open late to accomodate them), to Hamilton Hill residents, who come down State Street in order to partake of her fried chicken, fish, and ribs.
Despite Ya Ya’s profitability, Thompson’s landlord has opted not to renew the restaurant’s lease at 170 Lafayette Street. Come the new year, this successful soul food restaurant will officially be homeless.
Does that mean that Ya-Ya’s is closing doors forever? “No,” insists Mark Thompson, Amanda’s husband and co-owner of Ya Ya’s, in a video posted to Facebook on Dec. 4. “We’re not done; we’re not out. We’re transitioning from one spot to another.” But as of mid-December, the ultimate location that Ya Ya’s will be relocating to has yet to be found.
The Thompsons were told in October that they had to vacate the premises, after only ten months of being open. “We signed a lease with the expectation that we’d get another lease,” said Amanda. When asked if she knew why the landlord didn’t renew the lease, Amanda answered without hesitation. “I know exactly why. [The landlord] said she didn’t want us to be frying food anymore. She said that she didn’t know that we were going to be frying so much food.” As Ya Ya’s specializes in Southern cuisine–which is well-known for its fried specialities–this explanation is a little puzzling.
“I really love them,” insisted owner Marie Sgarlata. “They’re wonderful people.” But she admitted that at the time, she hadn’t thought very deeply about what kind of business the Thompsons were planning on running. In August of last year–around the time the Thompsons came by to inquire about renting the premises–Sgarlata’s daughter was diagnosed with an advanced form of cancer, and died a few months later. The grief was immense, and the distraction it provided lead Sgarlata to agree to a lease she later regretted.
The previous tenants, who had managed to obtain residency in the premises for over ten years without a lease, had operated a smaller restaurant which specialized in soups and sandwiches, which Sgarlata said is a business model she would have preferred, over a soul food restaurant. “I said to Amanda, you can run a cafe, if you want, and she laughed,” said Sgarlata.
For Amanda Thompson, owning her own restaurant that serves Southern food is a dream come true. It was just a twinkle of an idea, back when she was working as a Wal-Mart store manager–she’d often think about what it would be like to open Ya Ya’s, making the two hour commute up the Northway to her Queensbury store. “One particular August evening I decided to bite the bullet. I turned to my husband and said, ‘let’s just see what we can find.’” said Amanda. The location at 170 Lafayette St. stood out to her like “a beacon of light”, and by December, the Thompsons had the keys. The Thompsons poured over $20,000 of their savings into the restaurant–it needed new decor and signage, not to mention fervent promotion–and come January, Ya Ya’s was open for business.
The thought of serving a different kind of food is indeed laughable to Amanda. “It’s my heritage,” she said, bemused. “I should be able to serve food from my culture, like any other group of people can.”
The arrival of Ya Ya’s to the downtown melange of eateries is a “much appreciated addition,” said Jim Salengo, executive director of the Downtown Improvement Schenectady Corporation. Not only does a soul food restaurant in the heart of Downtown add to the diversity of world cuisine that can be found in the area, the Thompsons couldn’t have been better neighbors and community members, according to Salengo–Ya Ya’s was an active participant in the Fifth Annual Wing Walk in Schenectady, and participated in the Building Block Fundraising Party to benefit the DISC. Therefore it was a no-brainer to help the Thompsons find a new location, a process that the DISC is still very much helping them with. “When we do have a business that reaches out and helps us the way Ya Ya’s has, we do what we can to help them out.”
Salengo and the DISC attempted to sway Sgarlata’s mind, but to no avail, according to Amanda. “I can understand if we were the kind of people who didn’t pay the rent, or if there was a lot of commotion,” said Amanda, at a loss. “We have customers that come in, eat, and leave. There have been no incidents. No fires. We’re up to code; heck, we’re right next to code enforcement. They eat here all the time.”
The Thompsons are still on the hunt for a new location for Ya Ya’s. They remain committed to staying in Schenectady, and have declared so on their Facebook page. They are looking hard for a new location, and request that anyone with any leads on new premises contact Amanda Thompson or the author of this piece.
Update: The name of building owner Marie Sgarlata has been corrected.