In the foyer of her eponymous restaurant, there are a couple of photos of Sonia Thomas with famous people. Here she is with Usain Bolt; there with Ben E King. Yes, the Ben E King, singer of Stand by Me. She declares that hers is the only autograph King signed while on a 2005 visit to Jamaica, and you know what? We can believe her. Because if ever there was a reason to gift one person with an autograph out of the two million here on this little rock, for sure, that reason is Thomas’s legendary potato pudding.
Today, Sonia’s Homestyle Cooking and Natural Juices are worlds away from what started 35 years ago at a sky juice cart on Windward Road with $45 and a pocketful of hope. The bustling restaurant serves the kind of food your grandmother would put on the table for Sunday dinner: fricassee chicken, fall-off-the-bone oxtail, curry goat in a piquant bath of golden gravy. But before all that, there was ‘the pudding’.
“Coming from two potato puddings and a sky juice cart, this is where I reach. Imagine that!” muses Thomas.
At the time she already had the first of her six children and needed an income to take care of her family. So, she did what she knew best: made potato puddings in a Dutch pot over a kerosene oil stove with coals on top.
“Sometimes,” she recalls, “I fell asleep baking pudding. I remember one night as I was checking if the puddings were ready, the kerosene stove caught ablaze, singeing my lashes and my eyebrows. They were gone!” That serious mishap aside, Sonia’s pudding cred spread like the fire that singed her eyebrows, and her menu of pudding and sky juice evolved into boxed lunches and later a storefront restaurant at which her legion of fans could find breakfast, lunch, catering and even an event space for weddings.
Hers is no fairy-tale story of a great recipe propelling the restaurant to easy success. Her voice quakes when she recalls her struggles that include a traumatic childhood, teenage pregnancy, domestic abuse and near bankruptcy. But like any great conflict story, Sonia’s Homestyle features a cast of champions, not the least of which has been The Best Dressed Chicken.“That’s my foundation from day one. Mr (Robert) Levy gave me credit, so I cook to serve my customers. It was that kind of rock-solid support that allowed me to grow. I will always cherish and appreciate that,” she says. Over the years, Sonia has developed a close relationship with the company, catering events like The Best Dressed Chicken Fun in the Son. “If you think about it, the support they have given to my business probably meant very little in the big scheme of their business, but to me, it was the difference between staying afloat and closing. Small businesses like mine can only thrive when we have the support of big businesses,” affirms Thomas.
And Sonia’s is indeed thriving today; four of her children, Patrick, Steve, Alicia, and Tamra, have joined her in the business, and over 40 employees work daily to serve her loyal clientele. To anyone thinking of entering the restaurant business, Thomas offers some rules to live, or indeed cook, by: “Make sure that you are doing something that you love, your passion. Offer good customer service and good-quality food. Presentation and consistency are also essential. Be sure to set up where you have a good flow of traffic. Not around no corner down a lane or upstairs where people can’t get to you easily.”