The best business plans are hatched while noshing on PB&Js…or at least that was the case for S’MAC cofounders Sarita and Caesar Ekya one fateful day in 2005. The former engineers —mechanical for Sarita; software for Caesar—from New Hampshire conceived the idea for an entire restaurant dedicated to a variety of eclectic mac and cheese inside the former home of Peanut Butter & Co., an entire restaurant dedicated to the lunch-box staple, in the West Village.
Less than a year later, Sarita and Caesar opened S’MAC’s doors in the heart of the East Village. They’ve been serving America’s favorite comfort food ever since. Don’t expect your mother’s mac and cheese recipe; their innovative flavors include their version of the classic cheeseburger and a Cajun-style mac packed with authentic N’awlins ingredients like andouille sausage.
Just in time for National Mac and Cheese Day (yep, it’s a real thing, on July 14), we caught up with the cheesy couple to talk about fromage, their S’MAC order of choice, and some of their favorite places to go in New York City.
What Should We Do?!: When was the first time you ever tried mac and cheese?
Sarita Ekya: My mom used to make Kraft [mac and cheese] for my sister, who is five years older than me. I refused to eat it, though, because I did not like it. Still, she would mix in tomato sauce and anything she could just to make me eat it. It wasn’t until I had a real mac and cheese dish in 11th grade that I realized I loved it. One of my good friend’s mother was a home economics teacher. Once, when they asked me to stay over for dinner, she pulled this thing out of the oven and I was like, “What’s that?!” And they go, “It’s mac and cheese!” It was not the mac and cheese that I used to have, and that homemade mac was when I first started liking it.
WSWD: And your world was changed. What about you, Caesar?
Caesar Ekya: I grew up in India, so I never had it as a kid. But I remember when I first came here in 1993 I had some Kraft and wasn’t the biggest fan. I don’t think I had a mac and cheese before we started S’MAC that was really memorable.
WSWD: What’s the first flavor you experimented with that ended up on the menu?
Caesar: I feel like it was either Napoletana or Alpine.
Sarita: Yeah, the Alpine might be the first. We knew we needed something with bacon; that was kind of a given. We had found slab bacon, and we were like, Oh, my God, big chunks of bacon? This is fantastic. There was also the La Mancha. I was at this tearoom in the East Village that doesn’t exist anymore, and the owner made these little sandwiches. One of them had Manchego cheese, and I was like, Oh, my God, I need to make a mac and cheese out of this Manchego. It’s so delicious.
WSWD: Is it hard to come up with new varieties?
Sarita: No. Creating mac and cheese flavors is honestly the easiest part of this business, because we love food and we love to cook. I mean, it’s just pasta and cheese. You really can’t go wrong. Right now, we have a special called Green Eggs and Ham. It’s basically Gruyère, Muenster, ham, pea shoots, and a cracked egg on top. It took just a day to create.
WSWD: What are your favorite flavors?
Sarita: The Parisienne was the most creative one we came up with. I’m probably the most proud of that one because it was before the sweet and savory hype. When I was thinking of it, I thought of a cheese plate with Brie and then realized figs and rosemary [would taste good]. I don’t even remember where the shiitake mushrooms came from, but it was a really good mix of things.
Caesar: They’re all our favorites. I’m currently on a masala with sausage kick.
WSWD: What do you guys see for the future of quick-service dining in New York City?
Caesar: We don’t know which way things are going to blow in terms of the economy. But what we do know from watching everything over the past decade is that everything in fine dining is going down, but everything is going up in terms of quality and being casual. Now everyone is trying to deliver that whole David Chang–Momofuku phenomenon. People don’t want the white tablecloths anymore. I think it’s going to keep happening, too. Based on Shake Shack’s success, there are a lot of chefs who want to do fast casual. They’re all trying to create the next Shake Shack or Chipotle with high-quality food. We’re changing, too. We’re adding kiosks and self-ordering.
WSWD: If we were to plan a perfect day in New York City for you, what would it include?
Caesar: For me, the kids would be involved. We have a 7-year-old and a 4-year-old. So we would get on our bikes and go biking. We try to keep it safe for the kids, so we usually bike around the perimeter of Manhattan. We live by the East River, so it’s easy to access.
Sarita: We haven’t made it to the Cloisters via bike yet, so we really want to do that. Our 7-year-old is pretty good at biking. Last time, we went all the way to 120th Street. After the Cloisters, I’d like to see live music somewhere. Preferably outdoors during the summertime.
Caesar: If we didn’t have the kids with us, I’d love to go to B.B. King Blues Club or Blue Note and have a drink.
Sarita: The third thing would be to have a really awesome meal somewhere. Sushi is my favorite; we used to go to Nobu every year for my birthday and haven’t done that in a while…so maybe we’d go there.
Sarita + Caesar’s NYC Faves in a New York Minute
WSWD: We want to quickly learn about some of your go-to spots in NYC. Let’s start with your favorite street.
Sarita: I actually just walked down the first block we lived on when we moved here—East 5th between Second and Third Avenues. It’s tree-lined and all of the businesses that were there when we first moved here are still there. It’s a special block.
WSWD: Favorite New York City–themed movie?
Sarita: Autumn in New York with Richard Gere and Winona Ryder. I’ve seen it so many times.
Caesar: Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
WSWD: Favorite bar?
Sarita: We don’t really go to bars that much, but we like Rockwood Music Hall because it has live music.
Caesar: I like One on One. The location is really good and it’s great for people-watching.
WSWD: Date-night spot?
Caesar: The East Village is definitely our go-to neighborhood. Sometimes if we don’t have something planned, we just walk around and stumble on a place that looks good, or maybe we’ll go see some theater at La MaMa.
WSWD: Ice cream?
Sarita: I love the soft serve at Ray’s Candy Store on East 7th and Avenue A.
Caesar: Oh, yeah. Ray’s is pretty much the last remaining piece of the old East Village.
WSWD: Slice of pizza?
Sarita: Ray’s. It’s on Third Avenue and St. Mark’s Place. It’s been there for a while, but that’s the one. It’s always good.
Sarita: I have to say my new favorite burger is from Brindle Room on 10th between First Avenue and Avenue A. The burger is amazing.
Caesar: Mine is from Royale. It’s a bar, and they have a little grill in the back and they grind their own meat. It’s the real deal.
Caesar: There are so many good places right now, but I think I’ll go with Taqueria Diana.
Sarita: I found a place called Essex Taqueria one night that is really good. I also love the grilled steak at Chipotle.
Sarita: I love Otto on 8th Street.
Caesar: And the wine list there is amazing.
WSWD: Favorite place to bring out-of-town guests?
Sarita: We like to send people on the Staten Island Ferry. It’s a nice thing to do because you get to see a view of the Statue of Liberty and the skyline. If you go close to sunset, it’s really pretty.
WSWD: Rainy-day activity?
Sarita: There are so many museums, but we love going to Brooklyn Bowl.
Caesar: And we always end up eating so much food because it’s [provided by] Blue Ribbon.
Caesar: Our kids love the American Museum of Natural History. My favorite, though, is the Tenement Museum.
Sarita: There’s the New-York Historical Society and then the Museum of the City of New York; they are smaller museums, but they have great exhibitions. They’re not overwhelming.
WSWD: Family-friendly restaurant?
Sarita: There’s this French-Moroccan place called Cafe Petisco, and our kids love it there; our 7-year-old had his birthday dinner there.
WSWD: Place for people-watching?
Sarita: Union Square.
Caesar: I’m going to go with One on One again.
WSWD: Day trip?
Sarita: Governor’s Island is great, and we just started going to Long Island City with the kids.
Caesar: Bear Mountain. We actually saw bears the last time we went there!