Business Food

West Hartford Entrepreneur Does Business with ‘Grace and Gratitude’

Willie Fair is a co-owner of Soul Bowls with Chef Hughann Thomas and Malik Golden. The Hartford-based restaurant features what he calls “new American soul food." Courtesy photo

Willie Fair’s entrepreneurial acumen is made up of style, soul, and hard work.

Willie Fair received his degree in business from the University of Connecticut in 2016, but spent the last year of his college experience at the National University of Singapore. He learned how diverse business can be across the globe. Courtesy photo

By Tracey Weiss

When you’re working towards achieving a goal, don’t forget to enjoy the ride. That’s advice business entrepreneur Willie Fair lives by.

“Know you’re working towards your desire,” he said. “It’s about the process and enjoying it. Find your strengths and use those strengths for your business. Don’t focus on money or the end goal. Focus on the process.”

In March, Fair opened Soul Bowls in Hartford’s South Meadows neighborhood with partners Chef Hughann Thomas and Malik Golden.

The takeout restaurant in Hartford offers soul food – customers choose from an assortment of rice, proteins and vegetables – that are packed into a bowl to go.

He calls the opening of Soul Bowls “fate,” which Thomas agrees was definitely at play. Up until just last year, Thomas was cooking from his home kitchen in New Britain under the name Chef Poppa’s Kitchen.

“We were friends in high school, but distant friends,” Thomas said of Fair. “When I was cooking from home, he would come to my house and get food from me.”

Conard alum Willie Fair, his former classmate Hughann Thomas, and Malik Golden opened Soul Bowls, which is currently take-out only, at 489 Wethersfield Ave., Hartford. Courtesy photo

“I was intrigued by the soul food because Chef Poppa’s food was always innovative and creative,” Fair said. “Every time I had his food it was a new and fresh experience. That’s why I knew when we came together to start Soul Bowls that it would be successful. With every business that I get into I strive to bring creativity and something new to the existing market. Soul Bowls is what I would call a New-Age Soul Food Restaurant where we take the classic soul food cuisine that people grew up eating and put our own twist on it.”

And it’s not just about food. “The space is also about art and culture,” Fair said. “[Local artist and West Hartford native] Corey Payne did the artwork in the space. I want people to feel the energy In the space when they come in to get food.”

Golden, a Newington High School graduate who went on to play college football at Penn State and then professionally for the Pittsburgh Steelers, came back to the area and has built a career in real estate.

“Malik owns the building we’re in and he said to me, ‘maybe we could make something happen,’” Thomas said. “We were planning, but we needed another partner, someone with the brains to connect the dots. Malik thought of Will, so we sat down to talk about it and Will was completely on board. With Will, we literally have a dream team.”

“The timing was good,” Fair said. “We realized we were all on the same journey. It’s been great. We plan to open two to three more locations in Connecticut by the end of the year. Maybe one at UConn.”

The ultimate goal is to open 1,000 restaurants across the country. “We’ll be looking to franchise,” Fair said.

Fair grew up in West Hartford, and except for a short time in another state – his father is a retired military career man so the family moved during his childhood – he spent most of his school years in the town’s public school system, graduating from Conard High School in 2012.

He received his degree in business from the University of Connecticut in 2016, but spent the last year of his college experience at the National University of Singapore.

“My roommate and I both wanted to study abroad,” Fair said. “We were able to travel throughout southeast Asia. It was a great experience. I learned how diverse business can be, and how it spans all cultures, how people in different countries value business differently. It was a melting pot of different cultures and businesses.”

After graduation Fair went to Los Angeles to learn what he could from business entrepreneurs. When he returned, he and some friends from Conard opened The Lost Breed, a fitness, apparel, and wellness business, in 2017. Fair sold his share of the business to his partners at the end of 2021. “I feel like everything I learned from that I’m now giving to my new business,” Fair said.

Willie Fair graduated from UConn with a degree in business. Here, he celebrates with his grandparents. Courtesy photo

“There is so much to admire about him,” said his aunt, Gina Rivera, who was recently named the principal of Charter Oak International Academy in West Hartford, and is vice president of the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics. “He cares about people and he’s always looking to do something to help them, trying to make life better for others. He took his studies seriously; he always puts in 100 percent. He doesn’t put limits on what he can do.”

Indeed, Fair was a member of the Community Leadership Corps program funded by the Obama Foundation. The organization offers students real-world skills, tools, and experiences, such “financial literacy and college prep,” Fair added. “Our goal was to introduce these topics at a younger age so they have a general knowledge and understanding of the topics. We have the power to do a lot for them.”

Fair and Rivera are close. “He’s my twin in life,” she said. “We’re similar in our spirit. His personality and drive are similar to mine. Even our smile is the same. He’s my person. I can’t imagine life without him.

“He takes risks,” Rivera continued. “He’s not afraid to walk through a [new] door, and work hard. He isn’t afraid.”

While not a practicing Muslim, Fair is inspired by the teachings of Ramadan and other aspects of the religion.

“I’m on my spiritual journey, learning and finding my path,” he said, and has been enlightened by the annual ritual of fasting that Muslims do during Ramadan, which lasts for 29-30 days. “It’s about discipline and learning and focusing on the things that we take for granted every day,” Fair said. “There’s a big takeaway. Every year it’s a new experience for me. I’m not driven by external processes, and it allows me to focus on my business. When I do eat, it makes me appreciate it even more. I live every day having achieved a goal. And I got there with gratitude and grace.”

Willie Fair enjoys traveling, especially when he can do so with his girlfriend, Mimi Gonzalez. She is Chief of Staff to the Chief Diversity Officer and supports the Global Diversity Equity and Inclusion office at Stanley Black & Decker. The two have been together for five years. Courtesy photo

About Soul Bowls

The concept of Soul Bowls may seem simple, but the combinations of food items can be as complex as you like. For now, food is takeout only.

Pick a base of white or soul rice – Spanish rice doctored with Chef Hughann Thomas’s secret mix of spices – then pick a protein of fried chicken bites, fried or sautéed shrimp, or Pernil (pork shoulder). Choose two sides, including Krack & Cheese (their addictive version of macaroni and cheese), soul veggie mix (peppers, broccoli, carrots, and chickpeas), candied yams, or collard greens. You can also order extra sides of veggies, French fries or soul rolls (a fried spring roll filled with Krack & Cheese and yams). It’s one of co-owner Willie Fair’s favorites on the menu.

Soul Bowls makes its own hot sauce and if you like dessert, there’s always cheesecake available.

In the meantime, look for specials as Chef Thomas continues to build the menu and try out new items.

Soul Bowls is at 489 Wethersfield Avenue in Hartford and is open Wednesday through Friday from noon-7 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from noon-5 p.m. More information can be found on their website or Instagram (@soulbowl860).

A version of this story originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of West Hartford LIFE.

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