MONROE — “It’s a big shoe to fill,” Amy Vasquez said about becoming the new co-owner of The Derby Restaurant and Bar off of Skyway Drive.
“It’s very exciting,” she continued. “We feel fortunate that we got this chance to keep this place open. So many people have been coming for so many years. We are fortunate to have it. It’s a dream come true.”
She and Johnny are the fourth owners of the restaurant that has a cult-following among some of the natives.
Johnny and Amy hail from New York. It’s where Johnny began his 20-year career in the restaurant business at the age of 17.
In the first restaurant he worked at, he spent five days washing dishes before moving up to salads. He worked his way up to the grill and left there as head chef a decade later. He also worked at Landmark Diner as a sous chef in Roslyn, New York before moving to North Carolina. He said working at that restaurant inspired him to make a career within the food industry.
“Working in the restaurant business woke up my passion for food,” Johnny said. He had a desire to expand his repertoire of unique and interesting recipes.
Later, Johnny and Amy moved to Monroe to help his brother run another restaurant — AJ Family Restaurant on Old Charlotte Highway.
They wanted a restaurant to call their own, and a real estate agent showed them a listing for The Derby.
Amy said before the COVID pandemic, the transition into becoming the new owners went seamlessly; however, when the virus became more prevalent in the state and limitations were put on restaurants, it delayed the progress they were making.
What do you do when a restaurant like The Derby has a legacy lasting more than 20 years? There answer was to find ways to spice it up.
Johnny and Amy said they plan to keep the menu patrons love, but they would like to add tacos in the future, including the fish and shrimp variety.
They also plan to add breakfast hours to the Derby in a couple of weeks, he said. Johnny will serve skillets, casseroles, home fries and omelets. Often using his New York style recipes, Johnny will serve French toast using challah bread (A thick, braided bread generally eaten on Jewish holidays). Toppings like banana foster and strawberry cheesecake will be options for customers ordering the French toast.
Classic, Southern items will be on the menu like biscuits and gravy and grits. Amy said many customers have already requested livermush. Johnny said in 15 years of cooking in New York, he never came across livermush — a delicacy from western North Carolina, according to Our State Magazine. Johnny said okra was also new to him when he moved to Monroe.
He is studying a cookbook on Southern cuisine to learn about regional foods.
Regardless of the additions they plan to make on the menu, Johnny and Amy will make sure the Southern cuisine restaurant maintains its Southern hospitality.
“They can feel they are welcomed here,” Johnny said.
“We have a lot of faithful and very supportive customers that come every day. It’s been a pleasure to meet them all,” Amy said.