The Voices of Gainesville: Cooking is more than just food | The Avenue

The word lakay means “the house or home of ” in Haitian Creole. 

Lakay Ritza is home to 29-year-old chef Sartiza St. Thomas’ unique take on Haitian cuisine. St. Thomas was born in Haiti, but moved to New York at a young age. She grew up cooking Haitian food with her mother, she said.

Saritza St. Thomas moved to Gainesville in 2017 when she had a job transfer at Chase Bank. When she realized Gainesville’s lack of Haitian cuisine, she sought to change that.

In November 2018, St.Thomas opened her food service called Lakay Ritza. Lakay Ritza has a weekly menu full of Haitian food, where you can order flavorful and traditional Haitian dishes.

Through social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, St.Thomas expanded her reach. Customers place orders online, and then the food is delivered on Sundays. 

Lakay Ritza’s food is also health conscious. 

“I wanted to take a healthier approach and so instead of canola oil, use vegetable oil,” St. Thomas said. She also said she does not use MSG, which is a common flavor enhancer with adverse health effects.

Since Lakay Ritza isn’t a brick-and-mortar store, St.Thomas said she actually saw an increase in sales at the beginning of the pandemic. Her business was already based out of her home, so she was able to adjust smoothly. 

“When everything really set down maybe the week after [the pandemic started] I had more orders than I had the month prior,” she said.

As a Black business owner in Gainesville, St. Thomas said the community has been welcoming. And now with the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement, St. Thomas said what the movement stands for is powerful.

“I have felt anxious with the current events to and against my brothers and sisters. There has been a significant awakening and change in how we all feel regardless of our race,” she said. 

Gercica Joseph, a 34-year-old caregiver, has been ordereding from Lakay Ritza for a year, she said. 

“When I was pregnant, I was craving some soup joumou so bad,” Joseph said. “She went and got the stuff and made it for me. It wasn’t even in her menu. Tell me if anybody else would do that, and they don’t even know you.”

Soup joumou is a traditional Haitian mildly spicy soup, typically using pumpkin or squash.

Alex Frezer, a 24-year-old lab assistant for the blueberry breeding lab at UF, said the experience eating from Lakay Ritza has been divine.

“It’s really great home cooking; The perfect place to order from for a Sunday afternoon when you want to feel warm and cozy,” Frezer said.

St.Thomas said for now she is focused on her cooking and customer service, but she has plans to expand the business further. She is planning on starting a subscription service. She hopes to maybe start a food truck and even a YouTube channel to show people how she cooks.

“It’s been pretty humbling,” she said “I’ve gotten a lot of criticism, positive and negative, which has helped me grow as a business and I always just try to do better.”

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