For Libby Willis, the former co-owner of beloved Prospect Heights spot MeMe’s Diner, the pandemic brought into sharper focus what she already knew firsthand from three years of running the diner: The economics of the restaurant industry are unsustainable, especially for small owner-operators, and even more so for rare queer-owned spaces. But instead of turning away from the industry after closing MeMe’s doors, Willis connected with other queer-owned businesses that had launched during the pandemic and started hosting pop-ups out of MeMe’s vacant space. That effort foreshadowed Willis’ latest venture.
In mid-June, the former MeMe’s Diner space at 657 Washington Avenue, near Saint Marks Avenue, officially reopened as KIT (an acronym for “Keep In Touch”), a neighborhood cafe and a business incubator that represents Willis’s blueprint for carving out more space in the industry for queer people and people of color — both as diners, and food business owners.
“This is not a pivot, but it is a direct response to the fragility of the restaurant industry,” Willis says. “To me, opening another restaurant that was just my own felt like status quo. I wanted to try to create something that felt sustainable for small businesses.”
Backed by the experience of successfully running MeMe’s for several years, Willis wanted to not only open another welcoming, queer dining space in the city, but also help other queer owner-operators establish their own footholds in the industry, too. To do that, Willis brought onboard at KIT several of the small businesses that she had begun working with after the diner closed down: Eastern European spot Dacha 46, wine bar Black Cat, and artistic jelly cake company Solid Wiggles.
The varying businesses have linked together to create a unique dining experience at KIT. For those missing MeMe’s beloved gay brunches, Jessica and Trina Quinn of Dacha 46 are now throwing Banya brunches on Saturdays and Sundays with piles of pelmeni, breakfast flatbreads, and sweets like medovik, a multi-layer honey cake. Katie Zanin and Rocky Owen of Black Cat keep the shelves stocked with a collection of in-demand $20 to $30 natural and sustainable wines. Jack Schramm, who previously worked as a bartender at well-regarded NYC cocktail spots Existing Conditions and Booker and Dax, partnered with the former director of culinary operations at Milk Bar, Jena Derman, to sell eye-catching jelly cakes that are “the fun exclamation point in it at all,” Willis says. KIT’s daily cafe staples of coffee and pastries, made by Willis, act as the sturdy, consistent backbone for the space.
The establishment isn’t divided into separate selling areas — “It’s not a food hall,” Willis says — but rather remains one cohesive spot where each of the owners split rent, sell each other’s food and drinks, and otherwise contribute equally to keep the cafe running.
Much of the cafe space will feel familiar to past MeMe’s regulars — the curving bar is still in place, as are the comfy brown banquettes — but Willis’s brother, T.V. and film set designer Dieter Willis, added some fresh elements to better support the incubator. New maple shelving on KIT’s back wall is designed to plug in and out, allowing the space to shift as needed; another banquette was added; and a bright outdoor patio now sits out front.
Each business works out an individual contract with Willis to determine how long they’ll stay in the space — Dacha 46 is on a three-month contract, for example, while Solid Wiggles will likely stay longer — and Willis aims to keep rotating in new businesses as spots open up.
The idea is that the shared space and sense of ownership will lift the isolating burden of running a restaurant from any one business — and together, each company will be able to grow faster and further than they would on their own.
It’s an operating mindset deeply rooted in what Willis learned in the years spent running MeMe’s Diner with co-owner Bill Clark, before they went separate ways. “It was obvious to me that what MeMe’s had was not just its food, it was also its community and its people,” Willis says. “And I really wanted to figure out a way to preserve that and to share it with even more people and figure out what was sustainable.”
KIT is open from Wednesday to Sunday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Dacha 46’s Banya Brunch takes place on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.