While we often feature fabulous folks with enviable careers and/or romances, it isn’t everyday we get to meet a pair of spouses who own a business together and work together as a couple. For that reason, we were delighted to meet Erwin Caesar and Erica Phillips, the joyfully wed pair behind Elberta Restaurant and Bar, a popular “Southern-American” eatery located in the increasingly hip Prospect Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn neighborhood (just a hop and a skip from the Barclays Center.) Here, they discuss the highs and lows of working together and surviving the competitive NYC dining scene.
EBONY: Where did you and your husband come up with the idea to open Elberta?
Ericka: We kind of fell into it, to make a long story short. We actually had our wedding rehearsal in that space almost seven years ago. Previously, it was a coffee shop owned by a friend of ours. Two or three years ago, our friend approached us about potentially selling it, and we thought, “We don’t know anything about owning a coffee shop”…when he re-approached us with the same offer, we took him up on it. As we got more involved, we realized that we were more interested in being more active in the business….We made an offer to take over the business and envisioned what we would want in this space. We decided to get an interior designer and hash out our ideas and launch what is now Elberta.
EBONY: Where did the inspiration for the food and the environment come from? It’s sort of family-oriented but it’s also romantic.
Ericka: It’s a southern cuisine restaurant. Inspiration from that came from the name of the previous establishment, which was Velvet Peach Cafe. Because a friend previously owned it, we wanted to keep that in mind and kind of pay homage to the fact that we were able to do this. When we spoke to him about where he got that name from, he said it came from when he made a trip down South. So we came up with Elberta, which actually was the first peach [to make it] from Georgia to New York in 1835. It tied in perfectly
EBONY: Is it difficult to be a Black-owned business in an increasingly pricey section of Brooklyn?
Erwin: I don’t expect anyone to give you anything in life. I think you have to work and earn respect. I really think that you have to put out a good product. I don’t want to paint everybody with a single brush. But it’s a challenge, but I’m scared to say it’s a blatant challenge. We really strive to put out the best food; we want to provide the best customer service and we also want to provide an environment that’s inviting for everyone. And that’s why we feel if we continue to do the right thing, we can break those barriers and let people know that we’re a business just like anyone else.
EBONY: What are some of the challenges you face working together as a married couple?
Erwin: This is not a fairytale by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a lot of hard work. You have to be ready for battle. Although you’re working with your spouse, it’s still a business. When you have two stakeholders in a business that are equally passionate about the business, you’ll find that their opinions and directions that they want to go in are ones the other person might not agree with. You have to hash those out like people do in the real business world. It’s not like, “Oh, you don’t like me,” or “Everything I do, you don’t like.” You got to find a way to separate the two and continually view this as a business. But what we’re continuing to do is focus on the big picture.
Ericka: It’s not only the battles. You have to think about trying to, at best, separate your business partnership from your marriage. Sometimes I hate the fact that throughout the entire day, our entire conversation is about the business, and it’s because we’re still in the startup phase and there is so much to do. We both spend a substantial amount of time there, outside of our regular jobs, and then we have a two-year-old at home. It’s a little trying right now, in all honesty.
EBONY: How does it feel to be a Black couple that owns their own business?
Erwin: I take a lot of pride in the fact that we’re Black-owned, and this is why we did it the way we did it. We wanted our people to come in and feel like, “Oh, wow.” Sometimes there are those stereotypes out there that our folks don’t know how to do it. But I have to be honest with you, I can’t tell you how many people who have come in there, and whenever I identify myself as the owner, they’re like, “Oh my God, for real? I’ve passed this place so many times and I thought it was White-owned.” It’s incredible. So it’s about, how do we get word out to our community and let folks know it’s one of us and we’re looking for your support? We’re not begging for anything, just saying that if you’re going to go out and dine, you need to check this spot out because it’s us, without alienating the other folks.
EBONY: What makes Elberta a special destination for diners?
Ericka: We have a lot to offer to many different individuals in regarding age range as well. One of the things that I’ve been trying to work on is different price points. The reality is, not everybody wants to go out and drop $40 or $50 on dinner every night. That’s why we have “Tasting Tuesdays.” I know that when I was 25, I was like, “Yeah, I like to dine, but I have to be realistic.” So I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can target younger people and reach out to the elite members as well. I know a lot of them who come in and that tends to be a night I think is really great for people who are foodies but are in a younger generation and may not have the finances to necessarily want to drop $50 all the time. It’s figuring out and creating different themes and different evenings and making sure that our price point is reasonable for everyone to sort of feel comfortable being there. That’s why I think we’re very special.