Business Elmwood

‘New-Age Soul Food’ Now in West Hartford with Opening of Soul Bowls

From left: Soul Bowls owners Hughann Thomas, Malik Golden, and Willie Fair at the new West Hartford location. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Soul Bowls is now open on New Britain Avenue in the Elmwood section of West Hartford.

Soul Bowl with fried chicken bites, soul rice, soul veggies, and collard greens. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

By Ronni Newton

Two of the three owners of Soul Bowls are from West Hartford – graduates of Conard High School and former football teammates  – but the opening of the second location will likely be more than just a local success story.

“Going into the first location was more of our market test,” said Willie Fair, who opened the first Soul Bowls location at 489 Wethersfield Avenue in Hartford in March 2022 with co-owners Hughann Thomas (aka Chef Pop) and Malik Golden. The success of that first location – from the very beginning – allowed for expediting the opening of the second location within two years.

Eventually the plan is for Soul Bowls to become a franchise business, with the goal of opening as many as 1,000 locations, but Fair said they plan to have anywhere from five to ten owned locations first.

The launch of Soul Bowls was fortuitous – a merging of the ideas and talents of the three owners who came together at the right time. The change in dining habits prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic worked in their favor, too.

Soul Bowl with fried shrimp, soul rice, soul veggies, and krack and cheese. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

“Chef Pop was cooking out of his house, and he came up with the concept,” said Fair of the catering business Chef Poppa’s Kitchen that Thomas was operating at the time out of his home kitchen in New Britain. The challenge was preparing soul food in a takeout-ready and fast casual format, until Thomas came up with the idea and slogan: “Everything’s better in a bowl.”

Fair graduated from Conard in 2012, and went on to study business at UConn, graduating in 2016. He knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur, and in 2017 with some other friends from Conard he opened The Lost Breed, a fitness, apparel, and wellness business. He sold his share of the business to his partners at the end of 2021 to pursue Soul Bowls.

Willie Fair (third from left) with members of his family at the friends and family soft opening of Soul Bowls on March 1, 2024. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

“Studying business at UConn just opened my eyes to all the facets of a business,” Fair said. “You don’t have to be set on one thing. There are so many ways you can be an asset to a business.” Owning a restaurant is about much more than food, he said.

He already knew Thomas, a 2014 Conard grad, and was already a customer of his “Chef Poppa’s Kitchen.” Golden, who is originally from Hartford, went to Cheshire Academy and then played football at Penn State and for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL. He became an entrepreneur and real estate investor after retiring from football, and owned the building in Hartford where the first Soul Bowls is located.

Golden met Fair through his gym, and that’s where he first sampled Thomas’ food. When he was looking to open a restaurant in his Wethersfield Avenue building, Thomas was the natural choice.

The secret ingredient soul sauce, however, is a Golden family BBQ sauce recipe.

From left: Soul Bowls owners Hughann Thomas, Malik Golden, and Willie Fair at the new West Hartford location. Corey Payne painted the mural. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Soul Bowls sells merchandise in addition to food, and it’s also an outlet for art and culture. Corey Payne, a local artist whose murals can be found in West Hartford, Hartford, and throughout the state – who also happens to be a graduate of Conard (Fair played baseball with his younger brother) – is the main interior designer for Soul Bowls.

“We want youth to see local artists and different creative elements come together,” said Fair. They plan to have work of an “artist of the month” own display in the West Hartford space.

Mural painted by Corey Payne inside Soul Bowls, 1142 New Britain Avenue, West Hartford. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The Soul Bowls menu is straightforward, and easy to scale. It features – not surprisingly – bowls. They may sound simple, but the combinations create a symphony of flavors. There’s a choice of either white or soul rice for the base (yellow rice doctored with spices) and toppings include a protein (fried chicken bites, fried chicken wings, grilled chicken breast, fried or sautéed shrimp, or fried salmon), and two sides. The sides include their addictive “Krack and Cheese,” soul veggie mix (peppers, broccoli, carrots, and chickpeas), candied yams, or collard greens.

A “Soul Roll” is like an egg roll but filled with mac & cheese and candied yams. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

You can also order extra sides of veggies, French fries, or soul rolls. There’s no liquor license, but there are a wide variety of soft drinks including Jamaican soda.

Some of the beverages available at Soul Bowls, 1142 New Britain Avenue, West Hartford. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

They also offer weekly specials, one of which is jerk chicken dish called “Rasta Pasta,” which Fair said is his current favorite. He’s also a big fan of the “Regular Degular,” which is what he recommends as the dish to try for those unfamiliar with soul food. It’s soul rice, krack and cheese, candied yams, and chicken.

“Some are traditional soul food items, and some items Chef Pop was doing at his house,” Fair said of the items on the menu.

Thomas said “Chef Pop” was a nickname his mom gave him, and cooking has been something he has loved since he was a child. He went to culinary school for a year, but then decided to get his commercial driver’s license and was driving before returning to his passion for the food business.

“I’ll be the head chef at my restaurant” was the statement Thomas put in his Conard Class yearbook in response to the prompt about where he saw himself in the future. He wanted to achieve that goal by age 30. He’s 28, and has been head chef for two years already.

“I love soul food,” Thomas said. Many of the menu items were the best sellers at Chef Poppa’s Kitchen.

The soul rolls, he said, are an ideal grab and go food. Thomas said he’s always loved mac and cheese and candied yams, and came up with the idea of putting them together in egg roll wrapper and then deep frying it. “Willie was one of my first customers,” he added.

Thomas said he will definitely be expanding the types of soul rolls on the menu – and is experimenting with lobster mac and cheese and oxtail.

Issiah Percy fries shrimp in the kitchen of Soul Bowls in West Hartford. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Also key to the operation is Issiah Percy – a 2015 graduate of Conard and also a former football player – who was the first person hired in the Hartford location in 2022. He’s the head chef in the West Hartford location now.

“Most of us went to high school together,” he said of the staff. “It’s nice to come back. It’s kind of like our home field.”

Soul Bowls is now open at 1142 New Britain Avenue, West Hartford. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Why West Hartford 

Not only are two of the three partners – and the chef – from West Hartford, but “West Hartford’s a big food hub,” Fair said, and the new location will give them a chance to test out their business on a larger scale. The location in Elmwood is idea, he added, and was preferable to trying to open in the Center.

“We wanted to be in a space we could call our own,” he said, and they consider Elmwood up-and-coming as a destination. Plus, there’s plenty of free parking in the plaza.

The Hartford location is all take-out, and Fair expects West Hartford to do a substantial grab and go business as well, but there is seating for 15-20 people inside the space, and they may add some tables outside in the summer.

Between the two locations they employ about 20 people. The goal is to identify another location in the next six to eight months, and open a third location in 2025. They’re looking in Connecticut as well as out of state.

Friends and family gathered for a soft opening last week to test out the menu, and there was a long line waiting to get in when the doors were unlocked at noon on March 3.

Friends and family gather for a blessing prior to the ribbon cutting at the Soul Bowls location at 1142 New Britain Avenue in the Elmwood section of West Hartford. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

“This is super exciting. I’m proud of the guys and super eager to get going,” Golden said at the grand opening, which began with a blessing, and included the popping of champagne and a ribbon cutting.

“We want take this to the next level. This is just the beginning,” he said.

Soul Bowls in West Hartford is open Wednesday through Sunday, from noon to 7 p.m. For more information, visit their website or follow them on Facebook or Instagram (@soulbowl860).

Ribbon cutting on March 3 at Soul Bowls, 1142 New Britain Avenue, West Hartford. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

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