$1.2 million in donations from social media keep Roswell couple’s cafe afloat

When Sebastian Gracey and Cristy Kisner moved from Peru to Roswell in 2019, they placed their hopes in each other, their spiritual faith, and the café bakery they would name Cristy’s Kitchen. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
When Sebastian Gracey and Cristy Kisner moved from Peru to Roswell in 2019, they placed their hopes in each other, their spiritual faith, and the café bakery they would name Cristy’s Kitchen. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Money pours in to help them out after Humans of New York Instagram account shares their struggles

When Sebastian Gracey and Cristy Kisner moved from Peru to Roswell in 2019, they placed their hopes in each other, their spiritual faith, and the café bakery they would name Cristy’s Kitchen.

They had no way of knowing a pandemic was on the way that would test their power to survive in business and as a family.

The couple opened Cristy’s Kitchen a few days before Christmas in 2019.The business started slowly, but improved each day until the coronavirus shut everything down.

Devoted customers who sometimes spend hours at the cafe watched as Gracey and Kisner worked hard to keep their business alive. Brandon Stanton, the creator of the Humans of New York account on Instagram, is one of them. In March, he decided the couple should share their story with his 11 million followers.

The sudden Instagram stars received $1.2 million in donations after sharing their struggles in 12 posts. The social media fame also garnered Kisner a cookbook deal in the works, she said.

“It’s amazing because we are regular people with normal problems, normal fears,” Kisner said. “But our story changed people’s lives because they probably have the same problems as we do.”

Sebastian Gracey and Cristy Kisner (right) help customers Natalia Meneses-Toler with her children Ignacio (left), 9, and Antonin, 6, at Cristy's Kitchen in Roswell. Gracey and Cristy were featured on the Humans of New York account on Instagram where creator Brandon Stanton helped raise more than $1.2 million for the restaurant.  (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Sebastian Gracey and Cristy Kisner (right) help customers Natalia Meneses-Toler with her children Ignacio (left), 9, and Antonin, 6, at Cristy's Kitchen in Roswell. Gracey and Cristy were featured on the Humans of New York account on Instagram where creator Brandon Stanton helped raise more than $1.2 million for the restaurant. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Since the Instagram posts, Cristy’s Kitchen has seen long lines of customers, many who come from out of state, she said. People want to express how the couple’s story or food has inspired them, she said.

Less than three years ago in Peru, Gracey was recovering from a heart attack, in bankruptcy, and ready to let go of the furniture manufacturing business he spent two decades growing. The couple says that while they were uncertain about the future, they knew any change would be good for their family.They have five daughters ages 6-16.

Gracey has a brother in Roswell where they would decide to open Cristy’s Kitchen at 1066 Alpharetta Street. Kisner had become a years-long expert on gluten-free food.

In 2013, their oldest daughter, Camila, was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease after doctors diagnosed a brain tumor behind her eye, Kisner said. In surgery, doctors discovered it was not a tumor, but the event set Camila on a course of months of treatment.

Kisner researched how to use food as a supplement for medicine for Camila and then her younger daughter who has celiac disease.

That success led to a bakery business in Peru, and then she penned a 2018 cookbook called “Mi Cocina Saludable,” which translates to “My Healthy Kitchen.”

Kisner said the Peru bakery was a training ground for Cristy’s Kitchen.

They opened the café in December 2019 as Huh! Natural and Real Food. Last year, they decided to rename it Cristy’s Kitchen.

Just before the first day that the cafe would open, their investor and friend pulled out of the partnership, deciding a gluten-free restaurant couldn’t succeed, Gracey said.

The partner suggested the family pack up and move back to Peru.

“We were crying,” Gracey said. “In that moment, I say, ‘We have $200. We can buy supplies and tomorrow we’re going to open a little business.’ ”

They used money they made on opening day to buy more food supplies and the business grew gradually over the next few months until the pandemic hit in March.

The couple fell months behind on restaurant rent while struggling to stay afloat. But Roswell neighbors came in with takeout orders and a café patron purchased heating lamps for the back patio. They also had the benefit of a customer, Nanette Autera, who enjoyed the place so much that she offered to work there for free.

“There was something that pushed me to offer to help them,” Autera said. “I knew they couldn’t grow without help and they had absolutely no money. I was happy to help them out.”

In recent months, Stanton, a former Marietta resident, has become a frequent customer at Cristy’s Kitchen. As he got to know the couple, he encouraged them to share their story with the public through Humans of New York.

“It was very scary because your life, fears, mistakes – everything is now open to all these people to see,” Kisner said. “Every step and chapter in our story is a lesson.”

The couple said that as their notoriety from Instagram dies down they want to continue to connect with people through food and the message for people to try to stay open-minded and persevere through hard times.

“When I was in the hospital, I was thinking, ‘I can’t die,” Gracey said. “I told Cristy, ‘We have to begin again.’”

Cristy Kisner (center) is busy working in the kitchen at Cristy's Kitchen in Roswell. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Cristy Kisner (center) is busy working in the kitchen at Cristy's Kitchen in Roswell. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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