Deborah Monfries: A Guyanese Cuisine Pioneer

UMANA YANA means “the meeting place of people” and that is exactly the environment Deborah Monfries has created.

Deborah ‘Debbie’ Monfries, 57, is the owner of Umana Yana, a Guyanese and Caribbean takeaway restaurant in Herne Hill. She opened her successful business in 2009, she said ‘I was a manager at Sainsbury’s but then my son had Leukaemia and I was offered 3 and a half years, so I just didn’t see myself going back into a job where I would’ve lost touch and I didn’t want to start again because I’m not a spring chicken anymore!’ instead she went on to open the only Guyanese restaurant in the country, Umana Yana. 

umana yana

Being a qualified chef it was natural for Debbie to come up with the idea of a restaurant and it wasn’t long before she got the approval of the High Commissioner of Guyana, ‘While doing research I phoned the High Commissioner of Guyana and he said “That’d be great! You’d make Guyana proud as we don’t have one in this country.” So I thought oh, that’d be good!’ after receiving the go-ahead from him she was ready to start looking for somewhere to set up shop. From living in Croydon Debbie originally wanted to open her sit down restaurant there, however after a friend had recommended her to the roti shop in Herne Hill she went to view it, fell in love with the location and Umana Yana was born. 

Umana Yana counter

Umana Yana was named one of the best places to get its speciality Rotis by the Evening Standard. However, despite being so well loved in the community, in 2014 her sales declined forcing her to let go of all of her staff and work alone. This was because of the ‘hideous’ mobile phone boxes that were put outside of her restaurant by large telephone companies. This has reduced the amount of passing trade that Debbie receives and has made life for her very difficult, ‘It’s very hard because I work longer ours to maintain it. I just gotta do what I have to do to save my business.’ In total there are 5 boxes outside Umana Yana, each being put there at different times. ‘We started complaining to the council when they put the massive one and before we could get that sorted they put the second one down. While we were fighting those the others 3 came.’

phone boxes

The decline of sales and lack of staff has made life for Debbie really difficult and having customers that love and appreciate local businesses so much meant that within the last year locals have come together to help Debbie keep her shop open. Lucy, a writer on Herne Hill Forum came up with the idea of a petition which showcases just how many people in the community love and care about Umana Yana. Another loyal customer Sophie along with David took the issue into their hands and went to the council with Debbie to discuss the issue ‘The council gave us 5 minutes and we needed to get our point across and they did it. It was brilliant. Everybody clapped!’ Debbie is now waiting to hear back from the council, ‘I’m just hoping everyday the sales come through.’ 

umana yana