New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

The hero of the East Village community is a mac and cheese restaurant

Sarita’s Mac and Cheese has big flavors and an even bigger heart.
Matt Petres
S’MAC owner Sarita Ekya. (Matt Petres for WSN)

When engineers Sarita and Caesar Ekya left New Hampshire for New York City in 2005, they would never have imagined opening their own restaurant — one that specializes in mac and cheese, nonetheless.

From Mediterranean to Cajun, Sarita’s Mac and Cheese, or S’MAC, brings unique variations of the classic dish to the corner of First Avenue and East 12th Street. Inspired by the idea of specialty restaurants, Ekya and her husband entered the city’s food scene in 2006 with mac and cheese as their claim to fame.

“The caveat was, we did want to own our own business,” she said. “We just thought it’d be an engineering business, not a restaurant.”

What makes S’MAC stand out is not only its novel flavors but also its commitment to the East Village. For S’MAC, serving restaurant customers is just the beginning. During the pandemic in particular, Ekya wanted to tackle food insecurity in the city.

“We can help by feeding some people,” she said. “But we need to think of a bigger picture thing that we want to do.”

In the fall of 2020, S’MAC partnered with East Village Neighbors, a volunteer group formed during the pandemic, to open a community fridge and pantry, which sit outside the restaurant and offer surplus and donated food to locals in need of a meal.

“It’s our little Sesame Street community,” Ekya said. “All the volunteers regularly pick up food from other restaurants [at] end of day and put food in there.”

A woman grabs a can from an orange locker and places it in her cart.
(Matt Petres for WSN)

More than three years after the fridge’s pandemic opening, the demand for donations remains high. While many food establishments are willing to donate their unsold items, S’MAC is still seeking more volunteers for pickup.

“The need just seems to be getting bigger and bigger,” Ekya said. “Because there’s so many organizations that popped up that are filling the void, it’s kind of giving a pass to administration to not have to address it. That gets very frustrating.”

Most of the restaurant’s smallest mac and cheese dishes start at $10 or less. Despite its low price margins, S’MAC still donates food to local schools and independent theaters.

The Pow(h)er Collective, an NYU organization that supports the health of marginalized women, packaged and delivered menstrual products to S’MAC’s community pantry last November.

“Especially with such a large homeless problem in New York, I think it’d be great if there were more accessible, different areas [with] shelves for people to donate,” said volunteer and Steinhardt sophomore Aasia Gabbour, who is studying Global Public Health and Food Studies.

The fridge receives prepared meals and ingredients from several organizations, including Meals on Wheels and local grocery stores. Thanks to S’MAC’s collaboration with Sixth Street Community Center, a local nonprofit, the fridge is protected under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act.

“I remember two people instantly rushing up to the fridge to see what we put inside,” said Steinhardt sophomore Anyka Chakravarty, another Pow(h)er Collective volunteer. “I got the sense that it was a really important part of the community.”

But with its small staff, S’MAC also strives to support its employees with training in human resources and conflict resolution.

“Our main goal is to not only teach them restaurant skills, but some other soft skills,” Ekya said. “Whether you stay here or you go on, you’re a better person because you’ve worked here.”

Following two unsuccessful attempts at expanding, Ekya said that S’MAC is hoping to open a second location later this year.

“Our core purpose at S’MAC is very basic,” Ekya said. “To give goodness in any form that we can.”

Contact Lauren Ng at [email protected].

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About the Contributor
Matt Petres
Matt Petres, Photo Editor
Matt Petres is a first-year studying Economics. He is from Chicago, Illinois and likes to bike and kayak. You can contact him on Instagram @matt.petres

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  • K

    Kelli ButenkoMar 20, 2024 at 5:10 pm

    We got a new fridge last year and Caesar bought our old one to replace the Sarita’s community fridge that had just died. It’s unrecognizable now, with its new, colorful paint job, but we love to see it on the street and always peek inside to see what people have donated.

  • M

    Monica HuertasMar 8, 2024 at 5:48 pm

    This is great! I actually lived on 12th Street when S’Mac opened. Channel 11 was there for the opening. I was born n breed on 12th Street btwn 1st Ave and Ave. B since 1970. Forced to move out in 2011. But no matter where I and my family moved to, we always came down to the “Lowah”( Lower East side lingo ) to get the Mac!
    Would not have thought anything less from Sarita’s Mac and Cheese, to give back to the community that welcomed them with open arms!