Joamil Rodriguez, 40, is well-known around Boston as a high-end sneaker entrepreneur — the force behind Laced, a boutique with seven locations throughout the area. Laced stands for “Living and Creating Experiences Daily,” with in-store events, open mics, and signings. Now Rodriguez is branching into culinary experiences with his first restaurant, Laced Quality Kitchen, a walk-up within CambridgeSide. With chef Anthony Saunders, he serves wings, waffles, ultra-thin “shoelace” fries, and sauces packaged in sneaker boxes.
I bet a lot of people are curious about this: Why open a new restaurant in a pandemic? Talk to me about that, because that’s ambitious.
I know, right? I’ve always been somewhat of a risk-taker. Definitely very ambitious. Then, I saw the opportunity. I think, from what I understand, some of the most successful companies have grown out of a recession or at a time like this when they were able to take a chance and really bank on their vision. I know it worked for Walt Disney, and these are the kind of people I look up to. I like to challenge myself to try new things, and I thought this would be a challenge. I’ve got to admit, I was a little nervous having zero restaurant experience, but having so much retail experience and understanding business, I just felt like it could be done.
I did a pop-up shop with some friends called the Sandwich Boy Company. Friends of mine started making these sandwiches about six months ago, and they do these pop-ups. Every two weeks, every three weeks, they’re at different places. I already had this great relationship with New England Development and with CambridgeSide, and I saw an empty space at the food court, and I pitched it to them. I said, “I think you guys have a great product. I love it. You guys should go ahead and take the leap and open up your own restaurant at the food court.”
I lined them up with an appointment. They went to see the space. They loved it. Then, I almost negotiated a really good deal for them, and they weren’t ready to pull the trigger. I was like, “Man, I can’t leave this on the table. This is a great opportunity.”
I didn’t want to steal their idea, obviously, because they’re friends of mine. That’s how the whole concept came about. Even before I ever did anything, I said, “You know what we’re going to do? Sell chicken and waffles, and we’re going to package it all up in a little sneaker box and it’s going to all tie back to the sneaker store.”
I think now’s the best time with so many available spaces and more opportunities that probably weren’t available to me two years ago, three years ago.
How do sneakers and food intersect. What’s the concept?
The concept is to just really make good food, but at the same time, make sure that it ties back into our culture and street wear and the things that we’re passionate about, which are art, fashion, and music. Everything has some type of fun aspect to it. At the restaurant, we’ve tried to tie in the sneaker, like what I mentioned, in the sneaker boxes. Also, naming. Sneakers have a story. Almost every sneaker made has a story, especially Nike. They execute really well at that, Nike and Jordan. They have nicknames. Fire Red Jordan 3! If you’re into sneakers, you would know what that is. You’d know exactly what color that is, you know exactly what shoe it is. So I was thinking we’d name sauces, like, Fire Red sauce.
I want to grow the brand more, and you have to really connect with the community in order to do that. What better way to connect with the community than through your stomach? We all eat. We all love to eat good food, and I just happened to have one of the best chefs in the game in my corner, Anthony Saunders.
I didn’t even realize it, because he also hadn’t worked anywhere as a chef. He was the guy at the barbecue who spent 10, 12 hours in front of the grill, no problem, cooking for everyone. A mutual friend of mine was like, “You don’t realize that Anthony is a really good cook, right?”
Having all the pieces of the puzzle, having a great opportunity, having probably got a better deal than I would have before, and then having the chef who knows what he’s doing. He has the confidence. He knows that his food is going to be good, and he’s willing to take the chance and put his name on the line for it.
Tell me about the chef.
Anthony Saunders. Like I said, he’s been a longtime friend of mine. He does lots of nonprofits, and he has a nonprofit called the City Team. They sponsor lots of different basketball teams for the youth of the city.
Anthony is actually from South Carolina originally. We were going with that Southern comfort, but with a modern twist to it. We started doing a lot of different types of chicken. We have boneless chicken, bone-in chicken. We have about 10 flavors. This thing keeps growing. The flavors are constantly being added as the creativity strikes. Then, chicken and waffles is one of my favorite things in general to eat, and there’s not many places you can get chicken and waffles, especially if it’s not brunch, on the menu all the time. That’s one of our signature things. Then, he does new specials, and we’ve been adding and experimenting with a few different things, so now we have a chicken sandwich, and we have a really delicious chicken and rice plate.
I’d say Southern comfort, but definitely with a modern twist. Once again, I think that’s the best way to describe it. A week or two ago, we got on Uber Eats. Just this week we were on DoorDash. We offer takeout directly from our website. Then, we have the walk-up at the food court.
What got you started in sneakers and retail?
I was born and raised here in Boston, mostly Roslindale. That’s where I lived with my grandmother. I’ve moved a lot before then, but since I was in about third grade, I grew up in Roslindale with my grandmother. But prior to that, my father was a tailor and owned a clothing store similar to a Men’s Wearhouse, where it’s fine suits and tailored suits and stuff like that. My mom had a jewelry store next door to that business. My dad owned that little strip, almost. It was a building that had other storefronts in it. My aunt down the street had her own women’s boutique. I just remember growing up under the mannequins. I didn’t think anything of it. Now, thinking back, maybe we didn’t have babysitters, because I would just be at the store all day.
I grew up being there all the time and then seeing people who were entrepreneurs. My mom is somewhat of a Renaissance woman, I would say. Besides being a business owner, she’s a licensed beautician. She is a justice of the peace. She’s a notary public. She owns her own landscaping business currently. She’s a licensed travel agent. She’s done it all. Definitely, a lot of the stuff was innate and was already in my bloodline.
What did you love to eat growing up? Are there certain local restaurants that really inspired you?
I love Chinese food. It’s probably my hands-down favorite besides Spanish food, because I am Spanish and Puerto Rican and Dominican. I grew up eating rice, beans, and every variation of chicken and pork chops and all types of good stuff like that. But Chinese food was probably my hands-down my favorite. There was a really cool restaurant similar to mine in Roslindale. I love teriyaki sauce, and they made this delicious chicken teriyaki with big steak fries. I love that. They’re no longer there. I can’t even remember the name of it. They were on Park Avenue, and then they moved to Washington Street. I mean, this is maybe 20 years ago.
What are your favorite restaurants around the city now?
I’m a Capital Grille guy. I don’t know if I like the drinks more than I like the food, but it could be why I’m a repeat customer. But I love going to Capital Grille, Abe and Louie’s, making friends and talking to different people. For smaller restaurants, I really enjoy La Fabrica and all the restaurants that they own, Vejigantes and Dona Habana. Their original one was Merengue restaurant. Those are some of my favorites, hands down. I’m going to miss the most is probably Cuchi Cuchi. That was such a fun place. You got the belly dances and the food was delicious.
What you see as the future of retail in Boston? Storefronts are dark. People are not out and about. What’s the mood and the outlook?
I’m optimistic for sure. I think I see that we’re turning the corner. When quarantine first started and we were completely closed, I was a bit nervous, but as soon as we were able to open, it was like Christmas. People were shopping. They were anxious to shop, and we did really good for a while there. So I’m confident that that will happen again as soon as the economy gets a little bit better, when the people come out and they have the confidence to come out.
Then, as far as the restaurants, I’ve always done these different pop-up events. Just to bring it back a little bit, Laced is the acronym for “living and creating experiences daily.” We coined the term, “the Laced Experience,” and what we would do is try to create these tangible experiences for people. Autograph signings, meet-and-greets, book-signings with upcoming artists and local artists, and just anyone who’d be willing to come down to the store.
I think moving forward, you’d have to bundle the whole thing. It has to be an experience. It can’t just be the best sneakers or the best food. I think it all has to be part of the experience.
I actually experimented and did a pop-up with another restaurant at our restaurant. We did it with the Sandwich Boy Company. They had their best sales day, and we did, too. That just proved that that type of concept works. I think those are the things that are going to make restaurants stand out; those that are willing to try new things and step out of the normal comfort zone. But overall, the food has to be good. There’s no gimmick that’s going to save you if the food isn’t good.
On that note, what’s your go-to quarantine snack?
I mean, currently chicken. Lots of chicken. I mean, it’s weird because I’ve done boxing and I kind of changed my diet and I was working out a lot and I was trying to eat different. Now, it’s fried chicken. Outside of that, I do love noodles and rice and stuff like that.
Have you been binge-watching anything in quarantine?
We’ve watched a bunch of stuff, me and my girlfriend. But currently, I’m into “Billions.” I’ve never been really cut-throat. I’m always business-oriented, but I’m kind of like not the type to be really strict or mean. I’m like, look, get the job done and I won’t bother you, you know what I mean? But I’ve been watching that show and I’m like, “Man, they’re so cutthroat and decisive.” I wish I could be like that!