The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

JoCo small business owners go from mobile food to stationary eats

For Da Flava Unit owners Zee and Tony Brown and Early Bird Cafe co-owner Rachael Scott, running a restaurant has been a learning curve.
Grace Smith
Owners of Da Flava Unit Express Tony and Zee Brown pose for a portrait in Iowa City on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023. The duo, who have been together for over 20 years, opened the restaurant about a year ago and now sell their Caribbean-inspired street food in Sycamore Mall Shopping Center.

On a vacation in Miami, Florida, Zee Brown expected to see the beach and swim in the ocean, however, her husband, Tony Brown, had other ideas.

“He told me that he had an appointment to go get a food truck made,” Zee Brown said. “He promised me that if I do this for him, I have plenty of oceans and seas to visit. I took him up on his offer.”

As the pair sat down to discuss possible names for their restaurant, they concluded that a common remark from customers was that the pair’s food was flavorful.

“Both of us at the same time. We was like, ‘Da Flava Unit,’” Zee Brown said. “I said, ‘Yeah, but we’re going to spell it differently, like in slang.’”

Zee Brown said the concept for the food truck flowed smoothly after Da Flava Unit was named. The couple brainstormed seasonal menus based on multiple musical genres and catering events, sit-down restaurants, and fancier venues.

“It’s an ode to hip-hop, to all the connections, the ideas just are rolling out and we just start writing it down because it just flew,” Zee Brown said.

Da Flava Unit opened four years ago as a full-kitchen food truck parked on Fifth Street in North Liberty. In its third year of business, the owners opened a permanent location of the restaurant, located in an available space in Iowa City Marketplace, previously known as Sycamore Mall.

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Zee Brown said the business setup of Da Flava Unit could be a new concept for people with limited incomes to create a small business or food truck to grow into a restaurant. Other small business owners in Johnson County have also taken the food truck to storefront route.

“We noticed that wow, this can be a really cheap, inexpensive way to enter into the restaurant business,” Zee Brown said. “That way we can gain some knowledge and experience being new restaurant owners in
Iowa City.”

The Iowa City Marketplace sold in 2022 for nearly $14.3 million.

For Zee and Tony Brown, their food is their art, and Da Flava Unit is essentially part of the couple’s identity and culture. It is an ode to hip-hop both in its slang-derived name and the urban street foods that it serves.

“We believe in the foundations, the old school, you know we like the ‘90s, the 2000s, the ‘80s,” Zee Brown said. “We love the unity, the uplifting messages. That’s what we feel like is definitely needed in today’s society.”

Susanne Doerdelmann a frequent customer of Da Flava Unit, has been eating at the business since its
opening because her aunt and uncle are friends with Zee and Tony Brown.

Doerdelmann said the restaurant has the best jerk chicken.

“Yeah, we usually come back a couple times a week,” she said.

Another local business food truck and storefront owner, Rachael Scott, owns and operates the food truck Cafe on the Go and the restaurant Early Bird Cafe. She started as a coffee roaster at another Iowa City coffee shop, Cafe del Sol. Early Bird Cafe opened last spring in the South District Market.

The South District Market opened in April in Pepperwood Plaza as part of an effort to bring local businesses and start-ups to the South District of Iowa City.

“I had customers asking me to have a place where they can actually sit down inside of a building,” Scott said.

When the South District Market opened, Scott said she partnered with Tasha Lard — owner of JD Beauty Supply in Iowa City — to open Early Bird Cafe.

“The community was very happy and appreciative to have a coffee shop in their area,” Scott said. “A lot of people in the community still don’t know we’re here.”

To raise community awareness of Early Bird Cafe, Scott said the business is focusing on hosting community events including game nights and open mics.

Scott is also an ambassador with the Iowa City Area Business Partnership and works to support fellow partnered businesses and help others get signed up and connected to resources.

To further connect with the community, Da Flava Unit is adding items to its menu to grasp the attention of teenagers and senior citizens by adding street foods to its menu to be sold on Fridays.

“Friday night, they literally can make that their hangout place and go to a movie. We close before 10 o’clock, so I felt like I want to make it a safe environment,” Zee Brown said.

In addition to discounted street foods on Fridays, Zee Brown also discussed changes for the Saturday menu including an earlier opening time to allow for lunch.

“There’s a lot of seniors in that area and they’re out early,” Zee Brown said. “I want to be able to have some corned beef sandwiches for them and some soup this fall.”

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About the Contributors
Archie Wagner
Archie Wagner, Amplify Editor
Archie Wagner is a second year student studying English/Creative Writing and Journalism/Mass Communications. They previously worked as a news reporter for student life and undergraduate student government.
Grace Smith
Grace Smith, Senior photojournalist and filmmaker
Grace Smith is a fourth-year student at the University of Iowa double majoring in Journalism and Cinematic Arts. In her four years at The Daily Iowan, she has held the roles of photo editor, managing summer editor, and visual storyteller. Outside of The Daily Iowan, Grace has held an internship at The Denver Post and pursued freelance assignments for the Cedar Rapids Gazette and the Des Moines Register.