Misha Thomas, 29, is the general manager at Roxbury’s beloved Haley House Bakery Café, newly reopened this month. The café closed in 2019 for a makeover and refreshed business plan. The café now serves bowl-based meals with greens, grits, eggs, and lots of veggie options. Haley House also offers a soup kitchen, food pantry, meals for elderly clients, cooking classes for youth, and runs an urban farm in Roxbury.
Thomas grew up in Boston and studied fine art photography at Northeastern University before tiring of the city and jetting off to Hawaii, where she worked in a café in Hilo. “But I had a hard time taking directions. I’m not a line cook,” she says. She moved home and went on to managerial roles at Mooncusser Fish House, Barcelona Wine Bar, and the South End Buttery, where she witnessed a transformation in the neighborhood.
“You see the toll gentrification takes. There were discrepancies between customers and the people who worked there,” she says. She began at Haley House in October.
What’s the first restaurant you remember eating at in Boston?
Silver Slipper, an old-school Roxbury Southern-style diner: high silver stools, red cushions, run by everyone’s uncle and auntie. You go to it and you feel like somebody great used to eat here. I grew up here, so I ate there as a kid. I probably had pancakes and sausages. Something simple.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here?
So many things. A lot of it is the homogeny. I think the restaurant industry has a really hard time embracing the whole experience of hospitality. People talk about it, but so much of my experience working in hospitality is a separation between management and staff, lower and upper, and ownership. I’m not a huge fan of that kind of dichotomy. It mirrors issues in this country as a whole, the attitude of service and servitude. It rubs me the wrong way.
How has the restaurant landscape changed since you started working in Boston?
Tapas are everywhere, and for the last five years, I haven’t been able to get away from tapas as a theme! Everyone’s doing it. It makes sense economically. That and fine dining. … I’ve noticed that not a lot of people are all that impressed with fine dining anymore. Most people are going with casual fine dining or a fast-casual modality, which brings people together in a way not possible before.
What restaurants do you visit when you’re not working?
More often than not, Ali’s Roti or any small, mom-and-pop shop that I can. I also like Pho Hoa, a Vietnamese restaurant on Dot Ave. And I drive to Quincy to find whatever hot pot spot is open.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think that you might work in restaurants someday?
I can’t remember where I got this book, but it must have been fourth or fifth grade. Someone brought me a recipe book, a magical recipe book, with all of these weird names for things that taught kids how to cook on their own. I apparently made my younger brother my sous chef and came up with a huge menu that we wrote down. I found it. I didn’t even think I’d be in this industry, and I found that! It was one of those full-circle moments.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had?
I won’t give the name of the place. It’s not a restaurant. I ordered a cake for my partner’s birthday, and the owner of the bakery was just so to the left. I ordered the cake, nine days in advance, made a couple changes, all in an e-mail, and she lacked the system to keep up with the request. She put it on me: ‘It’s your fault; you changed things so much. I’m trying to do the best I can. You shouldn’t order if you behave this way!’ Lady, we have an e-mail thread, and it was a date and a time change. Running a catering department, I understand it. It’s hectic. But there are simple systems that make it easy to keep on top of it, and you never blame the customer.
How could the Boston food scene improve?
Some of the things I’m going to keep to myself, because it’s remedied by a restaurant I will own! But the homogeny. We see harissa, squid ink, always the same things, and everyone starts to do them. We need more originality.
Describe your customers in three words.
At the Haley House, I’m sure it hasn’t changed, but it all feels like family, a community-based clientele. Folks who are longtime regulars. All ages, walks of life, coming from out of town. They have personal investment, loyalty, and resilience.
What’s the most overdone food or drink trend right now?
What are you reading?
“Radical Candor” by Kim Scott.
What’s one food you never want to eat again?
I probably will never eat deer meat again. My brother is a hunter and had an obsession with hunting deer. It doesn’t sit right with me. It doesn’t seem right to shoot a deer. I don’t want to talk about it again!
How’s your commute?
Dicey. I live in Savin Hill. It takes five minutes to get to work, but it’s tricky, at the time I’m going, to maneuver. Do I Uber or walk and then bus? Dudley Square is a dead zone; there’s only one bus near me that goes there. It’s tricky right now.
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing?
My restaurant! I think Boston could use more fusions, more creative fusions. I would say Korean or Kenyan.
What Boston restaurant do you miss the most?
It broke my heart to see the doors close at Addis Red Sea. My parents took us there during my childhood. As a small person, going down the stairs and being wrapped in the colors, smells, and music gave a glimpse into something more real than the city outside. How beautiful and stately the people were, their grace, the pride in celebrating and preserving their culture. Guests were educated and welcomed into this slice of Africa — no Western utensils, chairs, or clothing. I'm pretty sure it was the first Ethiopian spot in Boston. While working at Barcelona as it transitioned into corporate ownership, I would look across the street and see their red, gold, and green sign. In a working environment that made it hard for me to be 100 percent authentic all the time, it reminded me to let go, that there is space for everyone around the hearth.
Who has been your most memorable customer?
My grandmother. I invite her to visit any restaurant that I work in once established, and it’s nice to see her reaction or lack of reaction to what it is I’m serving. She doesn’t always tell me when she’s coming. [My family] aren’t restaurant people the same way I am. I also had this one lady at Mooncusser, an art therapist, and I don’t know who her clientele was. But she would come in after a day of treating people and have a couple glasses of wine and would just critique everyone in the room in the most sarcastic, subtle, hilarious way. It broke up the tension of being downtown and doing fine dining. We’d exchange nods, looks, subtle understandings of people and their mannerisms — not like an in-depth roast, but a lot of subtle innuendos. It was hilarious. Every Wednesday!
If you were to eat your last meal in Boston, where would you go?
Shaking Crab – I’d get the spiciest thing they have with as many crab legs as I feel like I needed, and sweet potato fries.