In this month’s “women’s history” edition of Rochester Woman Online, we have an incredibly inspiring woman, also known by many as a true Rochester “staple”. She has been helping others in her community and giving back selflessly for over 20 years. She is the People’s Choice Kitchen owner, a single mom, a true woman entrepreneur and well, all around empowering woman…please welcome Evangela Stanley, but you can call her Van. She is the epitome of a strong and giving woman and is always hustling to help others. Perfect for the cover of RWO!

I am so excited that RWO has such an all-around amazing woman in the local community to grace our cover this month and that I had the pleasure to sit down and talk with her and find out just who she is. Her big smile greeting me when I walked through her doors and she was so excited for her cover shoot. After all she was celebrating 20 years in business and just received the key to the city from Mayor Lovely Warren. It was heartwarming to see some of her friends joining us to support her, including her son Egypt that I had the pleasure to meet.

We barely scratched the surface of this incredible woman ‘s journey and story during our interview, but we hope you enjoy what she had to tell us. Make sure to stop by 507 Chili Ave and say hi and while you are there, don’t forget to order their award-winning jerk salad! Did I mention she has the best Jamaican food I have ever tasted? All I can say is I may be addicted now and stopping in every week!

So, you are known as a “staple” in the Rochester community having started your business in 2001 in the heart of the city of Rochester. Tell our readers a little bit about Evangela “Van” Stanley and you how this all started.
Thanks for the huge compliment from the community. Being called a “staple” is truly more than I could have ever hoped for. Evangela “Van” Stanley (me) is a single mother of a 20-year-old son Egypt, a business owner, a people’s peron. After graduating from East High School, I achieved went to Bryant & Straton College for two years. I have always had a love for customer service and people; I worked for UPS for five years, Strong Memorial Hospital for three years, and also worked for Xerox for another four years as well. All my major jobs were based in customer service for large corporations with high traffic.

What made you decide to open the People’s Choice Kitchen? Where did you come up with the name for the restaurant?
I decided to open up a Caribbean Restaurant after numerous requests and pleads after friends and family would see and taste my fiancé’s island food. My fiancé grew up watching and helping his mother in her restaurant back in sweet Jamaica.

I still laugh about the story behind finding the name for the restaurant “People’s Choice Kitchen”. We were inspired after watching the movie “Shaft “. My fiancé loved the character Peoples Hernandez. So, that is where People’s choice came in. It just seemed to fit.

Tell us about what it was like starting a business 20 years ago as a minority female.
Starting a restaurant in 2001 was very exciting but also nerve racking because we were warned it was extremely hard work. I took a couple of business classes in college, but now I was going into uncharted territory.

What has been your key to successfully being in business for two decades?
I believe the key to my success was growing up in a house with a father that was a very hard-working man that instilled in us integrity, family values and dedication and a praying mother.

What is your restaurant’s specialty? What are you known for?

My specialty at “People’s Choice is my jerk chicken; however, my restaurant is also known for our famous “Jerk Chicken Salad. It also allows you to be bad and eat healthy at the same time. Many of my clients shared with me that our Jerk Chicken Salad tastes better here at the restaurant than back in the islands of Jamaica. We take each herb and spice seriously.

What made you decide to focus on Jamaican food at the People’s Kitchen?
This is a very easy question for me; I decided on Jamaican food because my fiancé was born and raised in sweet Jamaica. When he arrived in the United States, he brought along all of his mother’s secret recipes with him from her restaurant.

As a business owner, what would you say are your top priorities for both your personally and business?
Some of my top rituals and priorities for myself are to always be considerate of other people’s time; being punctual and reliable is a must for me. Consistency is also a must for a restaurant business and being friendly should come naturally.

How have you marketed your business during the pandemic, and which avenues have you found to be most successful?
Keeping my restaurant in the forefront in a competitive market keeps me in the lab while others are sleeping or traveling. I am continually re-investing back into the restaurant. I constantly try to come up with creative ways to give back to my community. I love the response from using different radio stations and social media to captivate different types of people’s attention.

Tell us about one event that has happened in your life that has changed you and why.
This question is a little more challenging and very personal to my clients, family and myself; I am a survivor of an armed robbery at my restaurant and now dealing with a very broken system. I hope no other business owner has to experience that violating feeling, which motivated me to give back even more. The outpour from the community was surreal. Since then, we had to change and upgrade our system to some state-of-the-art equipment inside and out.

If you had the chance to start your career over again, would you do anything differently and why?
I honestly don’t believe I would change anything about my career path. I have learned so much along the way and the good out weighs the bad. I have overcome challenges that did not seem possible, but my strong faith and belief system carried me through many storms. I will never let me circumstance define my destiny.

Who has been your greatest inspiration?
This question brings a huge smile across my face because my greatest inspiration happens to be my beautiful and sweet mother. “My mother has taught me to walk by faith and not by sight.”

What is one thing that you feel defines success?
Success for me is knowing God is in the mix and allowing others to see and witness the same joy so they too can pass it forward to someone else. Success for me and my fiancé was to build a strong foundation for our son by leaving him a legacy. But it was also breaking strong generational holds by passing on health and wealth to the next generation to follow.

Tell us about “Soccer Sam Fantauzzo” and how you were able to get your sauces into Rochester’s famous Salvatore’s Old Fashioned Pizzeria’s.
I thank God, and I’m grateful for Soccer Sam listening to Bob Lonsberry live talk radio show. Once he heard Bob mention how excellent our famous jerk sauce taste on Bob’s show; Soccer Sam reached out to me and indicated that he strongly believed my jerk sauce would be great at his Salvatore Pizzeria’s, which brought music to my ears. I am so glad he was tuned into Bob’s show that day to hear about People’s Choice Kitchen. The rest is history!

Where do you see your business 5 and 10 years from now? Any plans to franchise?
My 5-year plan consists of me opening another restaurant on the East side of the city where I was born and raised. I would also love to add more stores to carry my jerk sauces. My 10-year plan is to successfully train my son for the full operation so that I can confidently transition the business to him. As far as franchising goes, I have mentioned it to my sister in Florida for many years. I would definitely continue to entertain those thoughts.

Do you think being a minority has helped or hindered you in business?
Being a minority business owner definitely has not hindered me all. I have successfully operated my restaurant for 20 years in the inner city. My clientele comes from all types of backgrounds and we treat them all the same.

What is one thing you have done that not many people know about you?
I enjoy going into the malls to see who I could randomly bless that day. I generally look for teenagers that I would offer to pay their bill or tell them to pick out more items so I could pay for them; the look on their faces is priceless.

What is one piece of advice you have been giving that has helped shape who you are?
I received a lot of advice from my mother. We have a very close and strong bond together. I cherish all of her strong values and most importantly, her advice to us to always put God first and he will lead me down the right path.

What would be one word to describe you?
If I had one word to choose to describe myself; it would be “compassionate.” I truly love to encourage and see others happy.

Has the pandemic helped or hindered your business? How have you had to pivot to keep business going?
Like so many other businesses and especially restaurants, we took a hard hit too. We are still feeling the pandemic’s impact, but we are so grateful we did not lose any family members or customers to Covid-19. We are thankful for our loyal customers continuing to support my business and helping us keep the doors open so we can also bless others to pay what they can afford.

What would be one bit of advice you would give to young women wanting to start their own restaurant business?

The advice I would share with a young woman would be to invest in their future and love what you do but most of all stay determined and focus. You have to be passionate about your business this might sound easy, but it is so important to be a people-person is just how it goes in order to succeed.

What is the most favorite thing about what you do?
My favorite thing I enjoy doing in my business is opening a customer’s tray in front of them and allowing the herbs and spices to speak for themselves. I love to witness the expressions and excitement of their face when they see their food. It brings great satisfaction to me

What is the most favorite thing about what you do?
My favorite thing I enjoy doing in my business is opening a customer’s tray in front of them and allowing the herbs and spices to speak for themselves. I love to witness the expressions and excitement of their face when they see their food. It brings great satisfaction to me.

Other side notes…
I forgot to mention that if it wasn’t for Soccer Sam, Palmer’s Market,, Bob Lonsberry, and Boss Sauce I wouldn’t have been able to feed 200 people for Thanksgiving for free.

Plus, my Angel Tree during the holidays, we were able to provide over 200 toys to kids in need thanks to Soccer Sam and his generosity.
I also do something called Sisters Giving Smiles. I reached out to several salon owners, to pamper women from Alternative for Battered Women and I catered the food.

Van also works a lot with domestic violence organizations and victims. When I asked why, she said, “ My oldest sister Sandra Stanley whom has passed away. She suffered many years of abuse from her boyfriend. He once pushed her through a glass window at a hotel. Surgeons donated their services to reconstruct her face. That’s one reason I enjoyed giving back to battered women. I received several proclamations giving back for this cause and I will continue to do anything I can to help.”