The good will behind Yolanni’s Place

Darlene Manzanares, the owner of Yolanni's Place restuarant in downtown George Town.

For local restaurateur Darlene Manzanares, running her own restaurant has been a dream of more than 30 years.

After her place was burglarized and after several moves, Ms. Manzanares, through the kindness of strangers, has managed to keep that dream alive. Now, with one bowl of free soup at a time, she is giving back to those in need.

Born into a family of bakers and cooks, Ms. Manzanares, granddaughter of the late Rupert George Moxam, said to be one of the first commercial bakers on island, opened Yolanni’s Place restaurant on Main Street in downtown George Town on April 1.

Ms. Manzanares’s daughter Yolanni, who is a budding chef and hospitality major, is the inspiration behind the restaurant’s name.

Overcoming challenges

The journey to Yolanni’s Place was challenging.

Before the Main Street location, Ms. Manzanares was stationed on Shedden Road, a location at which she was able to serve a cross-section of customers.

“We did [well] for the time we were there,” said Ms. Manzanares, but the place was burglarized seven times within 10 months.

“After the last break-in, I had sustained a lot of damage to the structure. They had actually broken into the kitchen area, stole commercial gas and the A/C,” she said, “and that alone had brought me into a financial strain to replace those things.”

The first Yolanni’s closed down within 10 months of opening.

Ms. Manzanares didn’t quit. She soon started operating from home, taking orders and making deliveries.

She also set up a food stall on Cardinall Avenue on Thursdays, as part of the Pirates Week Committee’s initiative to assist local vendors.

Licensing issues

With that initiative coming to an end, she moved her stand to North Church Street, but it was not long before she was forced to leave the area after getting three notices from the Department of Commerce and Investment.

She believed her paperwork was in order, including a Department of Health certificate, and a renewed trade and business license.

“I realized shortly after [moving] that some competitors in the area, some [which were] restaurant owners, were troubled or disturbed that I was operating there,” she said. “So then I started to come under attack,” after complaints were made about her establishment.

Ms. Manzanares was invited to go to a premises across the street – “ [and] pretty much to set up my business there,” she said. However, things did not work out there and she moved out.

Once again she set up shop as a vendor on the street, only to be served notice once again by the Department of Commerce and Investment, who informed her that she had to move in February.

The issue with licensing from the DCI has came up most recently in regard to vendors on Seven Mile Beach and West Bay Public Beach, but the regulations apply to all vendors.

DCI Director Ryan Rajkumarsingh recently told the Cayman Compass that vendors are required to obtain a license if they wish to sell their wares on public property.

According to section 18 of the Trade and Business Licensing Law: “Where the applicant will be carrying on business in a public place, [he or she must have] evidence of approval of the relevant authority to carry on business in such a place.”

Fourteen days after receiving her first notice, Ms. Manzanares received a letter informing her that she had to leave the premises, and 14 days later, DCI officers served her a third and final notice of eviction.

“I was saddened that I may have [had] to shut down,” she said. “It was embarrassing to me [because] it felt like the end of the road, after being pressured time and time again.”

A surprise gift

The morning she was served the final notice, some regular customers were having a meal.

The customers, who were doctors from a Carnival Cruise ship, made a contribution Ms. Manzanares did not expect.

On the evening of her eviction, she received a call inviting her to check out a space on Main Street, and despite thinking it was a joke, she met with an agent there the following morning at 11 a.m.

The following week, a payment of two months’ rent, a utility deposit, a refrigerator and new supplies had been presented on behalf of Ms. Manzanares, who said the contribution was valued at $10,000.

The three doctors, who wish to remain anonymous, are the Good Samaritans behind her dream.

Giving back through ‘Soup Days’

Now, at Yolanni’s place, every Monday since April 4, Ms. Manzanares has featured “Soup Day.”

The charitable venture grew out of her experience of moving to North Church Street, where she would encounter those who were hungry on a daily basis. She started giving them the food she had not sold on that day.

“And this is why [Soup Day] came about,” she said. “It may not be a lot I can offer, but if someone can take a value [from] a bowl of soup the way I took value [from being] pulled off the street, then I know [I’ve done something] good.”

Although at times she offers more than soup, as Ms. Manzanares says, “sometimes a bowl of soup isn’t enough for somebody.”

During her second week of hosting “Soup Day” back in April, when the Cayman Compass sat down with Ms. Manzanares, she mentioned five people who showed a genuine need at the time. A month later, she was serving soup to 11 people in need.

The thought of one individual in particular, Ms. Manzanares recalled, kept her awake at night.

“He was a wreck,” Ms. Manzanares said. “He said [to me] ‘Ms. Darlene, you know, it’s been two days since I didn’t eat.’”

The man, according to her, survived on eating green mangoes, and as a result had blistered lips.

Having fed the man, who walked in with only $2 for food, Ms. Manzanares recalled having trouble falling asleep that night, as he had broken down in her restaurant and told her of his troubles.

“This is what we have to do,” she said, “we have to help one another. “Every Monday morning, I look forward to serving soup; it’s really rewarding to the point where I see someone having a bowl of warm soup.”

According to the Bodden Town resident, who wishes to encourage those in need to come forward, “As long as I have a food business, none will go to the garbage.”

“[Never] in my wildest dreams did I think I would get the help I received,” said Ms. Manzanares, who said “Soup Day” will continue as long as she’s there.