Kevin Robin was looking at the sliver of green space he and his partner Sanjay Maharaj shared on Astor Row in Harlem.
The couple had tended to it for months, making it much more than the eyesore they once knew.
But Robin yearned to return home to Arnaudville, that small community nestled on the banks of where bayous Teche and Fuselier meet.
“I thought that we could come back to Louisiana and do something special there,” Robin said. “I said, ‘Sanjay, let’s blow out of here and go to Arnaudville. We can do some super cool things here.’ ”
After some initial trepidation, Maharaj agreed to relocate.
“The first thing I did was look around for where the bottles of wine were,” Maharaj laughed. “I finally threw in the towel. Sometimes you just have to say ‘yes’ instead of wondering what would have happened.”
That was 2011.
Now, the couple is preparing to celebrate the fourth anniversary of opening one of Acadiana’s most popular culinary hot spots, The Little Big Cup.
The restaurant and bar, 149 Fuselier Road, continues to expand, adding a bar and a banquet room in December.
For the 52-year-old Robin, having a successful business in his hometown is his way of giving.
“You realize that you are the person that helps put food on the table for a family here,” Robin said. “You realize that you are in the business of community building. There’s so much goodwill towards you that you feel the need to keep reinvesting into something that has been so good to you.”
Small town boy, big city dream
Robin grew up in Arnaudville. From an early age, he learned the grocery business. His family had owned and operated Russell’s Food Center since 1934.
Robin graduated from Arnaudville High School in 1981 and attended the University of Southwestern Louisiana to study theatre.
In 1985, though, the lure of New York City forced the then 20-year-old Robin to leave his hometown and head for the Big Apple.
“I didn’t have anything keeping me here,” Robin said. “I had just got my teeth cleaned and didn’t have another appointment for a year, so if it didn’t work out, I would just move back in a year. So, I moved to NYC, and I fell in with Abe (de la Houssaye) and his wife.”
De la Houssaye is the famed restaurateur who took New York City by storm in the 1980s with La Louisiana on the East Side and later with Texarkana in Greenwich Village.
Robin’s and de la Houssaye’s relationship started almost by chance with Robin getting a job as a busboy for Texarkana.
“I actually took a page out of a magazine and started walking around the streets of New York,” Robin said. “Abe was standing outside, getting a breath of fresh air in the early afternoon. I took the page, and I look at the picture, and then I look at him, and that’s how I started.”
Robin’s first stint in New York City didn’t last too long. In 1987, he returned to Arnaudville after his father’s unexpected death due to a massive heart attack.
For the next 15 years, Robin worked in the family store. He handled the catering business and even helped run a restaurant in St. Martinville.
But New York was calling.
“New York City has always been ripe with endless possibilities,” Robin said.
In 2000, Robin once again packed his bags for New York.
A partner in life and business
At the same time that Robin was returning to New York, Maharaj was pursuing the American Dream, as well.
Maharaj grew up in Port of Spain, the capital city of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. He had worked in his grandfather’s small grocery store.
After completing high school, Maharaj left for the United States for better opportunities. While studying business, Maharaj got a job as a part-time teller at Wachovia. Then, he worked his way up to branch manager for Wells Fargo.
During this time, Robin, who was working in behavioral research, and Maharaj met and fell in love.
“We both grew up in cultures where food and family is important, specifically in supermarket environments where we were able to interact with customers and people of all races,” Maharaj said. “I think it shaped us.”
“We grew up seeing the human condition,” Robin said.
As the two moved in together and eventually relocated to Harlem, food would become a bond between the two.
“When we got together, we always would cook,” Robin said. “It was something that brought us together.”
A trip back to Arnaudville helped Robin and Maharaj decide on what to open in the small town.
“I remember one of our trips here I asked where a Starbucks was.” Maharaj said. “Kevin just laughed.”
“I said if that is an absolute deal breaker, then we can build our own little Starbucks,” Robin said.
The couple returned to Louisiana in 2011 and focused all of their attention on Russell’s Catering Services.
The store’s catering business grew so much that the duo was fighting for burner space in the store’s kitchen. The two proposed opening a catering kitchen in town to get the room they needed and got the idea to set up a coffee pot and serve coffee and sandwiches while meeting with clients.
By October 2012, the Little Big Cup was born.
More than just a cup of coffee
Within three months, the coffee shop grew into a restaurant, and by December 2012, it expanded next-door. By early the next year, the restaurant’s dining area was transformed into a sophisticated space inviting country charm with its old, wooden ceilings, floors and crown molding.
The Little Big Cup now offers an immensely popular boucherie brunch buffet on Sundays. It has become such a hit that both Maharaj and Robin recommend making reservations.
The menu includes homemade buttermilk biscuits and crème brûlée French toast for breakfast, as well as roasted pork spare ribs and boudin for lunch and dinner. There are also numerous po-boys, among them the Cajun Kevin Po-boy filled with sautéed bell peppers, sausage, shrimp, crawfish and crab meat.
“I think we were both confident that this would work because we were able to keep the (traditional) items that we knew people would love, but it doesn’t hurt to do the redfish over couscous,” 33-year-old Maharaj said. “We can give people the best of both worlds. They can come and enjoy our pork stew, but they can also have brûlée French toast on the other plate.”
“Good food, good design and fresh food,” Robin said. “This should not be beyond the ordinary person’s grasp. It should be easily accessible to all groups.”