Chris Tillen, Contributing Photographer

Sandra’s Next Generation was busy last Wednesday afternoon. The smell of soul food wafted out the front door, customers came in and out with takeout bags and owners Sandra and Miguel Pittman stood outside and talked to passersby.

Located in the Hill neighborhood on Congress Avenue, Sandra’s Next Generation has been a staple of the area since 1989. The establishment is run by Sandra and Miguel Pittman, a wife-husband duo of New Haven natives. The menu of Southern soul food is inspired by Sandra’s mother’s cooking. The restaurant has earned 4.7 stars on Yelp and was recently named one of New Haven’s “essential restaurants” by Eater Magazine. 

On the cooking front, Sandra attributes her success to her ability to adapt traditional foods.  

“I follow the trend a lot, I see what people like and I just add my own little twist to it,” she said. 

Some of Sandra’s most popular dishes include fried chicken, soul empanadas and soul rolls. 

One of Sandra’s favorite recipes is fried chicken. It was the first thing she learned to cook and she has never altered the formula, which was originally her mother’s. 

Chef Andre Cuvilie, an immigrant from Jamaica, has been working at Sandra’s for approximately eight years. While he hadn’t cooked much soul food before working with Sandra, Cuvilie shared that he was drawn in by Sandra’s teaching and passion. 

“[Sandra’s] a perfectionist at what she does,” Cuvilie said. “The amount of soul and effort she puts into every dish to make sure every dish is perfect, that’s something I gravitated toward.” 

The restaurant has moved around in New Haven. It was originally located on 560 Congress Ave. and then moved to Whitney Avenue downtown for approximately eight years. In 2010, Sandra and Miguel returned to Congress Avenue. 

Sandra noted the importance of investing in the Hill neighborhood, saying that it was rewarding to watch it transform over their time there.

Even with the restaurant’s growth in popularity, Sandra herself is still in the kitchen and by the front door, aiding in cooking and greeting customers. 

Miguel highlighted the need to adapt to constant changes. Currently, due to an increase in the size of the restaurant, Sandra’s Next Generation is employing the use of excess storage containers to hold refrigeration, freezers and extra stock. The storage expansion is just one way that the establishment has adapted to change.

During the height of the pandemic, Sandra’s expanded their kitchen indoors in order to produce more food to sell on Grubhub, UberEats and Doordash. Growing the indoor cooking space meant moving the seating outside, leading to the creation of an outdoor dining space.

“We pivot and that’s why we are still standing now,” Miguel said. 

Earlier this year, Sandra’s faced zoning complications regarding the placement of these additional storage units. Due to complaints over the location of the original units, the Board of Zoning Agreements voted on the issue. As a result, Sandra’s had to remove the storage containers on the lot behind their store. Instead, Sandra’s shifted the storage containers to reside in what was formerly a parking lot next to the restaurant. 

What sets Sandra’s apart, the Pittmans believe, is the restaurant’s prominent role in the community. 

Miguel said that they hope to create a culture where anyone can come to the front door and have a conversation.

Each year, Sandra’s hosts numerous traditions, including a Truck-or-Treat event, their open-door Thanksgiving celebration and their Christmas toy drive, where they give out toys to approximately 200 families.

“We’re doing what we’re supposed to do. This is all about community, all about family … that’s what we do,” Miguel said. 

Cuvilie noted that the staff is very close-knit, and he feels like he is learning skills that apply to his life more generally.

He also emphasized how strong the connection is between the workers and the Pittmans.

“They’re mentors and they’ll try their best to assist you,” Cuvilie said. “They don’t just treat us like workers, we’re basically like family.” 

Sandra’s Next Generation, located at 636 Congress Ave., is open from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday to Friday, 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday and 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday.

Correction, Oct. 6: A previous version of this article said that Sandra’s opens at 11:30 a.m. on Sundays. In fact, Sandra’s opens at 12 p.m. on Sundays. The article has been updated to reflect this.

Chris is an associate beat reporter for Student Life. He is a freshman in Morse studying Ethics, Politics, and Economics.