Can we save Marla’s Caribbean?

Marla and her husband, Ian

Marla and her husband, Ian Tony Nelson

When Marla Jadoonanan opened her Caribbean restaurant at 3761 Bloomington Ave. in 2008, she remembers that there were bullet holes in the windows.

Graffiti had been scrawled across most surfaces; the door was practically hanging from its hinges. And if the exterior was under duress, the interior was almost worse.

“It was run-down,” says Marla’s husband, Ian, who often cooks alongside her at their family-run Minneapolis restaurant. She puts it a little more bluntly: “It was a nasty little place.”

Right away, Marla and Ian replaced every windowpane and installed a new door. In the kitchen, where there was little more than a grill, a stove, and a rice cooker that never worked—Ian still has it, not that he could tell you why—the couple had a new AC unit put in, along with freezers, coolers, and shelving units.

Heavy Table’s James Norton, who reviewed the restaurant for City Pages back in 2008, remembers that by the time it opened, Marla’s was “pretty damn basic, but not actually off-putting.” The no-frills dining room immediately looked and felt like his favorite sort of place: the kind of rough-around-the-edges, scrappy little spot where the unassuming decor and “unapologetically handmade” appearance of the food promised you’d get a great meal—and at a great price, too.

“Marla’s was (and still is) the kind of place where you’re going to get rustic food made by hand with a real story behind it, and a ton of flavor,” he says.

He’s right—it still is. But when Marla’s lease expires at the end of 2019, it might not be any longer.

Marla’s longtime landlord sold their building last year. It was purchased by First and Third Properties, an agency that owns several residential and commercial buildings throughout the area. And right away, the couple says things changed.

Within weeks, there were hints at a rent hike. Marla and Ian say this wasn’t entirely unexpected; their rate had stayed almost unchanged since 2008.

What they weren’t expecting was that when their current lease expired, the monthly payment would likely more than double. “I have standing offers to rent your space for $3,000 a month with some sort of a build out/updating,” First and Third’s Dan Coleman wrote to Marla in a September email. “Your space is perfect for food trucks and S. Mpls is a popular area for small restaurants.” Right now, Marla pays $1,325 each month.

In a subsequent email, Coleman encourages Marla and Ian to make changes that would help them increase revenue—adding a food truck, redesigning their space—and suggests they solicit lenders and investors for the money they’ll need. “Maybe $100,000 will be needed total and that breaks down to $80,000 from the bank, $20,000 from investors and $0 out of your own pocket.... So please don’t get overwhelmed and just go through the process.”

Coleman says that the building Marla’s restaurant is in is “essentially falling apart” from lack of repairs and maintenance.

“As unpopular as rent increases are, rents have to track inflation or buildings essentially run themselves into the ground, which is the state I purchased the building in,” he says. “Nothing costs the same as it did 10 years ago.... Her rent is essentially set lower than a two-bedroom Minneapolis apartment.”

But Marla and Ian aren’t interested in introducing a food truck or drafting a new business plan, and it quickly became clear to both parties that a long-term lease agreement wasn’t in the cards. Marla and Ian don’t have a liquor license, and now that they don’t know what the future holds for their business, it doesn’t seem particularly pertinent to apply for one. The restaurant by no means prints money hand-over-fist; Marla’s meals are slow-simmered, custom-made. Tables here don’t turn over quickly; on a weekend, it’s not uncommon for folks to wait an hour or more for their food. 

Customers are more than happy to be patient—and not just because there are few meals in town that satisfy like her warming, beautifully seasoned curry and hearty callaloo. Marla and Ian and their children have poured their love into that little corner and into the surrounding Powderhorn community, cooking for church potlucks and donating food to nonprofits.

“We’re all family here,” Ian says. “We only have a couple servers who aren’t related.” “But they’ve joined our family,” Marla interjects. Everyone—related by blood or no—calls Marla and Ian “Mom” and “Dad.” The couple have purchased updated kitchen appliances, laid down new carpeting, and added new booths. Marla’s daughter, Marissa, painted the colorful beach scenes on the walls and added the island-themed decorations.

To Marla, the investments—financial and otherwise—always felt worth making. She quit her longtime nursing job in her 40s to open a restaurant where she could cook the food she loved in her native Trinidad for the people of the Twin Cities. This was her dream—or at least, as she jokes, her midlife crisis. And she thought they’d be there forever.

“We’re sure not in it for the money,” Marla says. “But it’s my passion to cook, and I have a gift for it. And I want to share that to people.”

Marla’s lease does run through the end of 2019, so it’s possible that she has two more years in south Minneapolis. But she and Ian are actively looking for a new space, and they’re hoping they might be released from their current agreement before then. After that, it’s anyone’s guess—though there is a small glimmer of hope.

“All of the big chefs in town come here and eat—this is their table,” Marla says, resting her hands on the surface of the front corner booth where she’s seated. “The Lenny Russos, the Tim McKees. They’re behind me.” In fact, one such renowned local chef—we can’t tell you who just yet—hopes that if things go haywire for Marla’s, she’ll move into a space not far from his. “But then I have to set up a GoFundMe to get money to start up again,” she notes. “I’ll have to work on something like that.”

“I came from poverty in my country. I cut and paste to make a life here. And Ian and I made it. We’re living the American dream: work as many hours as you can and pay the highest taxes that you can,” she adds, laughing. “We work hard, we go to church.... I don’t know what else to say. All we are trying to do is run our business.”