Why think big when you can think small?
The strategy has worked well for Bryant Wilms since he took over the Small Mart Cafe from its tiny original location on Decatur Street eight years ago. Wilms has tripled its space this year with a move to the slightly larger location at 2700 Chartres St., formerly the home of Bao and Noodle. But for now, the extra space doesn’t matter because people can’t enter due to COVID-19 restrictions. Instead, the small team handles phone and walk-in orders through three service windows — two for ordering and pickup, and the third for Pond Coffee, the Wilms espresso bar that opened in April.
How did this son of Brazilian immigrants end up selling vegan Indian food and building New York bagel sandwiches in New Orleans? It was not part of a master plan.
“We never really planned all of this,” says Wilms, who left Philadelphia with her partner, artist Skylar Fein, in 2004 after experiencing the Halloween siren call in New Orleans and being fell in love with the city.
“It wasn’t a rational decision, it was an emotional decision,” Wilms says. “I looked at Skylar and said, ‘We could live here. Next thing you know, we’re driving the U-Haul south.
Chef Julio Machado’s road to opening Tacos Del Cartel in Metairie is a true immigrant success story with its own twists.
Wilms grew up in New York and Brazil. His family originated from northern Rio de Janeiro in the state of Minas Gerais, where his grandfather owned a farm. He learned cooking from his mother, who prepared simple, well-seasoned dishes from seasonal ingredients.
Her love of Indian food and bagels relates to the culinary melting pot of New York.
“That’s how I ate pretty much every day,” Wilms recalled. He started his vegan life by eating only raw food, connecting with the community there, and hosting some events, including a raw food wedding reception for 200 people. meals a day for a few hundred people. It was an awesome experience.”
When he arrived in New Orleans, Wilms opened a thrift store and vintage boutique called Gnome. Next door was Small Mart, run by an Indian woman who was about to retire.
“She took me under her wing and fed me every day,” he says. “She sold simple vegetarian Indian food to vendors across the street at the French market. It was an integrated clientele. So when she wanted to leave, the owner asked me to take over the space and I did.
Hilmi Abdeljalil doesn’t like to brag, but he says there’s a reason he ran a place called Melech Ha Hummus in central Jerusalem before he moved…
He was so busy with Small Mart that he closed Gnome in 2012.
“I used my creative eye to organize the space and use it efficiently,” he says. Customers started asking him to do more ready meals. “It was like simultaneous encouragement, and I listened.”
In January, he moves the café to Marigny, where he lives.
Every day there is a bowl of curry fueled by the chef’s spice blends and plenty of vegetables. The chaat bowl combines the deep-fried goodness of samosas and pakoras with basmati rice, crunchy raw vegetables and homemade chutneys. Order the Bombay sandwich for grilled paratha bread stuffed with tofu, tomato, avocado, cucumber, spinach, mint chutney and vegan aioli. Bold flavors and juicy vegetables are a winning combination.
The veggie burger is made with potatoes, beets, peas, cashews and raisins and is served on a seeded bun with vegetable and chutney toppings. Taaza salad is a crowd pleaser made with shredded green cabbage, carrots, cucumber, red onion, chickpeas, sliced tomato and avocado and garnished with cilantro.
The bagels, shipped from a location in his former New York neighborhood, are baked and topped with smoked salmon (the only non-vegetarian menu item), a variety of schmears or ingredients like pickles, jalapeno, vegetable hummus and avocado. The homemade pastries are vegan and mostly gluten-free.
When it comes to restaurant themes, El Cucuy’s Day of the Dread stands out from the crowd.
Small Mart has kept Wilms busy, despite the pandemic.
“We never closed, we immediately started doing takeout,” he says. “We had to adapt, operate more flexibly. Staying safe is our #1 priority. I’m working to streamline the ordering process; there are just a lot of things to consider. Business isn’t what it was when we opened, but it’s been steady. It’s a real blessing.
Little Mart Cafe
2700 Chartres Street, (504) 766-8740
@smallmart on Instagram
Open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; 8am-2pm Sunday
Take away only