Milford restaurant wins best local Jamaican food award, but still struggling to stay open

MILFORD — Christine Whitley-DeMills will not give up her dream.

Whitley-DeMills opened Spice N Flava in May 2020, bringing her Jamaican delicacies to Milford’s Boston Post Road during the height of the pandemic. But the battle to bring in business has been tough, leaving Whitley-DeMills feeling down, but she says she is far from out.

“I’m not giving up,” she said. “Sometimes you have to go through the hurdles, and you have to lose to win.”

Spice N Flava has been struggling to get consistent clientele at its 40 Boston Post Road location.

“As the only Jamaican restaurant in Milford, I feel like there should be more avenues we could capitalize on,” said Whitely-DeMills.

Whitely-DeMills opened the restaurant with her husband, Devin DeMills, but because the restaurant was struggling, she said her husband needed to go back to work so the couple would not lose their apartment.

“I’m trying not to fall into depression with everything I’m going through because it is real,” she said. “When you invest everything you have into something, you take the risk because you love what you do, and I love what I do. So I’m still here. Still fighting with what I know and what I do.”

The restaurant has received a $5,000 grant with the help of the Milford Economic and Community Development. Whitely-DeMills also praised state Rep. Kathleen Kennedy for her help in obtaining the grant.

“We use the grant to pay off some of the debt we have with the landlords of the property,” she said. “They are also stepping in to help us pay some of the utilities and bills. We are so grateful.

“They were the only real group that has stood beside us,” Whitely-DeMills added. “I’m trying to get someone from SCORE to help me do my business plan because I have to get it right.”

However, she said they still owe money and are trying to figure out how to pay off their debt.

“I’ve tried loans and other grants,” she said. “We went to a bank, and because of our credit, we weren’t able to get a $30,000 loan, and, at a time like this, whose credit is 100 percent perfect? Everybody has something affecting their credit because they are trying to make headway.”

Spice N Flava hasn’t received much support from groups that help small businesses, Whitely-DeMills noted.

“I’m trusting God that he’s going to do what he promises to do,” she said. “Because, after all, I’m still here, which means that there is hope and, there is a possibility.”

Whitley-DeMills admitted there are times she feels like closing the doors, but something tells her not to.

“When you do what you love, it’s hard to give it up,” she said. “It’s a passion that I have, and so I can’t give up on my passion. I have to find any means necessary to find ways how to get out of that bump. I feel like once I get out of the bump that is owed to my landlord, who has been very lenient, I’ll be back on my feet.”

Recently, Spice N Flava was named the best Jamaican Restaurant by the Milford Regional Chamber of Commerce during its “2022 Best of the Milford Region” awards.

“We found out Monday that we won,” said Whitely-DeMills. “I was shocked and crying, because I was thinking I was on the verge of shutting down, but there are people out there who really love my food and I didn’t know this was going on.

“This is a motivator to keep me going, and I know I am going to be better at my craft because I know God is able to carry me through,” she added. “I’m giving thanks and I’m grateful, but now, I don’t want to close down.”

Things are starting to turn around for the better Whitely-DeMills noted, adding that she came to an agreement with her landlords to give up one side of the building, which would lower her rent.

“They want me to stay,” she said. “They want me to see me succeed.”

Spice N Flava was part of the Juneteenth celebration in Milford, and Whitely-DeMills said it was a successful event for them.

“The turnout was good ... people came out and supported us,” she said. “In Milford, most people don’t come to this side of town. They go downtown. So for us to be there, in the center where the majority of Milford shops and eats, it was great exposure for us.”

However, with inflation causing food costs to increase, she said the menu has been impacted. She said she has had to increase the cost of some menu items.

“That also poses a problem because people are saying it’s a little too expensive, but at the same time, we go to the store and can’t tell them it’s too expensive,” she said.

One element of the business Whitley-DeMills knows is not contributing to the struggle is the food because she said the reviews have been great.

“I do what I love, and you can taste the love from the food,” she said.

To help other restaurants like Spice N Flava who are struggling, Whitely-DeMills said it would be a good idea to form a restaurant association.

“Everybody can come to the table and look at some of the things that are affecting us as restaurant owners and how we can form a committee to get the help that is needed for each restaurant,” she said.

Adding that many restaurants who are in her situation with Spice N Flava aren’t looking for handouts. They are looking for help.

Simon McDonald, director of membership and marketing at the Milford Regional Chamber of Commerce, said a restaurant association is a good idea, but in practice, it is very hard to maintain.

On Aug. 6, Whitley-DeMills will be celebrating Jamaica’s Independence Day by having a Jamaican Independence Celebration Seafood and Jerk Fest.

“It’s going to be my third year of hosting the celebration,” she said. “I’m hoping that would help me to get more people out here.”