For Whitney Willis, opening her restaurant Willow's Cafe in the Rosemary District in April was the culmination of decades of work in the hospitality industry.
"I've done every aspect of it," she says. "From movie theaters to golf courses to wedding coordinators to fine dining to managing mom and pop places to Applebee's—I've done the whole spectrum. And I felt like if I didn't try to do something on my own, I was going to die working my booty off for somebody else."
But opening in the midst of a global pandemic has presented challenges. When Willow's first opened, Willis served a limited "quarantine menu" of breakfast and lunch dishes, what she calls "basic stuff that wasn't going to break me if things weren't rocking." She has since expanded her offerings to include everything from simple egg-based breakfasts to sandwiches, wraps and salads.
Willow's is offering seated service inside and out, as well as takeout. When I stopped for a pickup order last week, a server delivered my food curbside. At home, I devoured the Morning Catch ($13), which comes with a generous portion of blackened or fried fish, plus two eggs, home fries or grits, and toast or a biscuit.
My wife nabbed an excellent omelet with spinach, chopped tomatoes and feta ($10), which also comes with the same side options. The home fries, normally so generic, were a crispy delight, and the grits were thick and well seasoned. Definitely opt for the biscuit—a large rolled variety that benefited from a smear of sweet apple butter recently gifted to us.
Willis, who named Willow's after her daughter, says she has hired several women that she has worked with at her many previous stops in the food and drink world. She says she wants to build a "rewarding, positive" environment. "We all respect each other. We talk to each other like human beings," Willis says.
That emphasis on positivity even played into how Willis has designed the cafe's snug interior. "It's homey. It's a very colorful place," Willis says. "I'm a very bubbly, happy person, and I wanted to create that in person."
Willow's Cafe is located at 436 Central Ave., Sarasota, and is open 8 a.m.-2 p.m. daily. For more info, call (941) 217-5856 or visit the restaurant's website.