Yohana Solomon, Torry Colin, and Cheikh Ndiaye met at the Atlanta Underground Market early on and soon realized that they worked well together. They maintained their own stalls throughout the AUM and into the Atlanta Nosh, but once that failed, they banded together to form Pangaea Global Cuisine, a new catering business that will put on special events both private and public. Yohana has also taken over the AUM from Michaela Graham, who left Atlanta in a hurry after the failure of the Nosh. Eater caught up with the trio to find out what exactly went wrong, how things are going to change, and what's coming up next, including a Pangaea Global Cuisine Kickstarter dinner featuring cuisine and complementary wines from six countries— Madagascar, Armenia, Costa Rica, Senegal, Indonesia, and Hungary— this Saturday.
How did you meet Michaela?
YS: We met through the Underground Market. She’d put a flyer up at Sevananda. It was my birthday, and my friend took me there to do some shopping there so I saw this flyer and thought I’d give it a try. I gave her a call, and she said she was looking for home cooks, people with no experience in restaurant business. So I did the first AUM at the Sweet Auburn Curb Market, and it was amazing. After that, I was hooked, and I did each one.
The three of you met over the course of it, right?
TC: Yeah, we’d see each other month to month and then week to week and just started talking. After the Nosh ended, we decided we wanted to work together. Michaela threw out the idea and said that the three of us would probably click. We got together and realized we have similar personalities and similar passions for food and for presenting our food to people and having them enjoy it. Making money is obviously nice, but just seeing someone enjoying something I made is what really motivates me and I think they feel the same way. And we get along very well.
CN: We’ve found that hooking up with someone isn’t easy, especially if you’ve not interacted on certain levels. Working relationships are different than vendor relationships, where you just have to see each other and be good neighbors. When it comes to working together to build something this big, there has to be a sync and vibe in personality, character, and, ultimately, goals. We thought it was right, and we stopped and talked to each other. There was one more person initially, but it was a mutual agreement that it wasn’t right with that person at that time, and now it’s the three of us. We stick together to do it right.
How does it work? Do you divide certain things up or does everybody do everything?
CN: We chip in, but there’s a certain sense of ownership, certain things we just know— for example Torry is the design master. He’s the mastermind behind the business cards and logo and all of the print. Yohana is very adept at web page building and social media. I’m typically trying to do relations with vendors and sites and people of interest. But we all sync in, and we always do things in conjunction.
YS: We’re learning. We’re not experts, we're still learning, so we always help each other and do things as a team. We work really well, which is amazing.
And what about the name? Was it something that was easy to come up with or did you have trouble trying to find one?
TC: We floated a few ideas, but given that since we’re all from different backgrounds and cultures, we thought that we should find one that unites us. Pangaea evokes this feeling of everybody, the whole world in one place.
YS: At the end of the day, we’re trying to bring people together.
TC: Through our food.
Let's talk about the Pangaea Kickstarter dinner.
TC: We’ll show people a great time. They’ll get to try foods from different regions and there will be a cash bar for alcohol. The countries we chose are foreign to each of us, too, which will be a challenge. It’s really exciting. People will get exposure to new cuisines, which is fun. We don’t want people to sleep on this dinner. It’s going to be a great event. The location is wonderful and we want to show people what we can do. We’d love for them to come out and support us.
CN: We’ll have prize giveaways, like restaurant and spa gift certificates, too. And live music. We’ll have someone playing something we call a talking drum. He’s well-known in the Senegalese community, he’s a master drummer. I’m really excited about it. It’s a great instrument.
YS: We want to get our name out there so people really know who we are and what we’re doing— we want them to trust us and see how much we believe in our vision. But the dinner started more to raise money for a shared kitchen. That's our biggest challenge right now, raising money. It’s very expensive, but we happened upon a nice little kitchen, and we’d love to be able to use it so that we can participate in other things besides the AUM like farmers markets, festivals, and catering events.
CN: The other benefit [of having a commercial kitchen] is that we can label some of our juices and foods to sell in stores. We’re working on a marketing plan for our hibiscus juice right now.
YS: The sky will be the limit.
[Here's the menu for the dinner, and tickets can be purchased on the Kickstarter page through Thursday.]
So what other events do y'all have planned?
YS: Even before I took over the Underground Market, our plan was to have small events like pop-up dinners under Pangaea. They’ll be separate from the AUM. There will be things like African nights and other small dinners where we feature food and music from different cultures, themed events where we pick a country or region in the world and tie in history and the entertainment to the food and drinks. They’ll be sit down dinners in unorthodox spaces. We’ll try do those once a month.
We also might do some cooking demos or classes where we teach people how to make certain dishes or, for example, how to make real, Ethiopian coffee starting from roasting the beans. We have a lot of surprises and ideas up our sleeves.
So what are your backgrounds? Did you learn to cook at home or in restaurants?
CN: I have a background in restaurant and hotel management, but I was always in the front of the house. My bachelor’s degree was in hotel management and now I’m getting my MBA. I worked at Gilbert’s in Midtown and some hotels and clubs— I love the small, mom-and-pop places with personalized service.
We don’t call ourselves chefs, by the way. We say that we’re “passionate cooks.” It’s a more fitting title, and we don’t want to bring disrespect for people who have gone to culinary school— you have to earn the title of ‘chef.’ We don’t have degrees, but we have a passion for this in our hearts, and we put that onto the plate.
Did Michaela approach you about taking over the AUM?
YS: Yes, she came to me. My priority is Pangaea, and that’s something I’m very passionate about, but she knew that I’ve been there since the beginning and she felt that I knew the AUM well, all of its ins and outs, and she said, "Okay, I’ll give her a chance."
CN: And [Yohana] has good counsel. It’s not an event that is to be done by just one person. I think that one of the things that could have been done better would be if Michaela had maybe hired somebody to do the relationships with vendors and the media. She’s good at finding the location, but?
YS: You have to know what it’s like to be a vendor to make it work. We’ve spent time talking with people and we’ve seen what goes on behind the scenes and at the actual market. We have relationships with the vendors and with the customers and can make sure everybody is happy, but she didn’t. She had a different perspective.
What’s going to change now that you’re in charge?
YS: I’ve seen things that didn’t work out with the Underground Market, so I’m going to keep it very positive. I’m going to have a good working relationship with the media and bloggers and vendors. A lot of things went on behind the curtain, and I can’t put the blame on Michaela herself. I think we’re all responsible for something to become successful. It’s hard for one person to be in charge of something that gets so huge, and, you know, I’ve noticed that other people don’t like to take responsibility. If I’m cooking, let’s say, grilled cheese sandwiches, every week at the Atlanta Nosh, it’s going to get old and people are going to get tired of it. It’s easy to blame Michaela and say, "Okay, it’s your fault that I’m not making any money," but it’s not her fault. It’s good to take responsibility.
I think that being a vendor has taught me how everyone has to contribute to the AUM, and I’ll try to bring the vendors and everybody together and come up with better methods of communication.
Did it fail mostly because there was a lack of communication?
I don’t think that it failing had anything to do with Michaela. There wasn't a big turnout at the first one, and then people started to complain. Half backed out and then another half after that. People’s expectations didn’t get met, and they placed the blame on her and said, "Oh, you promised us these crowds that didn’t come." But some vendors did well even with the smaller numbers; it wasn’t her responsibility to sell the food. You change your menu and move on. Instead of thinking about getting more creative or marketing themselves better, some vendors said, "Okay Michaela, where are the 5,000 people you promised me?"
We didn’t have a problem at all with the AUM— everything went downhill when we became the Nosh, which was weekly. People got tired— the Nosh turned into another food festival. The mystery was gone. We’re going to keep the AUM once a month and do our own Pangaea events once a month on top of that. They’re going to be entirely separate. Once a month is perfect for the AUM. We did this for about a year and the turnout was always great. The complaints then were more about having to wait in line, which is better than complaints about the format or the food.
How many vendors are you guys expecting to have at the AUM?
TC: 30-35, just like at the past AUMs. The Nosh started with about 80, and that went down significantly. That was maybe part of the problem, but mostly, like we said, it was the attendance being lower than expected. The AUM was so crowded, but the Nosh was open to the public and held in a place like Atlantic Station. It wasn’t as exclusive, and it lost its appeal.
There's been some drama surrounding the end of the Nosh, and before Michaela left, she said that Atlanta "wasn't ready" for her visions, although I think most people were really happy that we got to experience the events even if they ultimately failed. Do you think the AUM can bounce back?
YS: Failure isn’t a word we know. Pangaea is working, we’ve seen the AUM work, and we owe it to our followers to try hard. We’ll take it an event at a time and grow and learn from the experiences. The word is out, and we have some great gigs like catering for CNN.com, where we’ll hopefully get a lot of exposure. We’re doing this full-time. I want my daughter to look up to me. I want her to think, "Mommy is doing what she wants to do, she owns her own business." I took a leap of faith with the Nosh and it didn’t work out, and I’m dusting myself off and trying again. It’s going to be a great opportunity and there’s no reason for us not to succeed. We have a lot of heart and good energy.
CN: We really appreciate Atlanta, and we're giving back as much as we can. Our first event was a charity event for Real Men Cook, and we plan to do more. The way I think is, the Nosh closed, and another door opened. Not every failure is forever, and maybe something bigger has opened up now. We were still positive at the end of the day.
Interview by Carly Cooper and Sonia Chopra.
· Pangaea Global Cuisine [Kickstarter]
· All Previous Coverage of Pangaea Global Cuisine [-EATL-]
· All Previous Coverage of the Atlanta Underground Market [-EATL-]
· All Previous Coverage of the Atlanta Nosh [-EATL-]