Craves Soul Food was a family-run business, which meant almost everyone in the Meeting Street kitchen was equally practiced at peeling sweet potatoes; ringing up orders and taking out the trash. But the task of monitoring money collected and spent fell to Ragina Saunders, who found herself repeatedly scolding older relatives for their undisciplined cooking style.
"Certain things, like mac-and-cheese, they wanted to put a generous amount of cheese on it," Saunders says. "And we couldn't agree on how to cut down the menu: 'Why did you cook this?' 'Because I wanted to.'"
It's impossible to spend much time in the vicinity of turkey wings and lima beans without hearing the phrase "cooked with love." For many soul food practitioners, the cuisine is defined not by its African influences or gamut of ingredients that mirrors what rural black Southerners a century ago could raise or afford. Rather, they say that what puts the "soul" in soul food is the spirit in which it's prepared and offered.
"Our mama got us always cooking more than we needed, because someone might drop in," Saunders' mother Vina Scott recalls. "She didn't believe in offering someone just a drink," Saunders' aunt, Annette Smith, adds.
Yet as entrepreneurs who've attempted to transfer inherited soul food philosophies to restaurant settings have learned,
love doesn't come cheap. Craves, which opened in 2009 ("We've got our first African-American president; let's do it," the women reasoned), closed within a year.
"When we did leave, it was a sad crying day," Saunders says.
Since what makes soul food valuable, including an emphasis on family, improvisation and scratch-made dishes, isn't always compatible with commercial success, Saunders and her peers are now banding together to address the issues felling tiny lunchrooms and established institutions alike. Representatives of local restaurants, including Bertha's Kitchen, Martha Lou's Kitchen, Addielee's Kitchen and Seafood Alley, recently formed the Soul Food Foundation, an organization dedicated to keeping soul food purveyors afloat.
"There's no support system for our industry," says Saunders, who now operates Scott's Grand, an event facility on Dorchester Road. "It's mothers and grandmothers sweating."
Soul food restaurateurs in Los Angeles and Columbus, Ohio, have toyed with the guild model, but nothing much came of their efforts: Persuading business owners to help prop up their competition isn't an easy sell. But Charleston's soul food community was swayed by the optimistically titled First Annual Lowcountry Soul Food Expo in 2010. Although the event was never repeated, participants, who had long referred surplus catering gigs to each other, began to appreciate the advantages of formalizing their relationships. None of the featured restaurants could have singly drummed up the kind of publicity that surrounded the show.
"I think these associations can help," says Adrian Miller, who visited 150 soul food restaurants in 35 cities in the course of researching his James Beard Foundation award-nominated "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine."
Miller concedes that other "ethnic" cuisines, such as Mexican and Italian, are thriving without the aid of associations. There is a loosely organized Chinese American Restaurant Association, but only a small fraction of the nation's 45,000 Chinese restaurants are affiliated with it.
"Other ethnic restaurants have broken through the barrier, but soul food has such a bad reputation. The term 'soul food' has become toxic. One of the benefits of having this association is maybe they can change the rules and define the cuisine on their own terms," Miller says.
"I tell people 'welcome to the party,' because we've been eating kale for 300 years."
In addition to rehabilitating the status of a cuisine that's always leaned harder on fresh vegetables than frying oil, an industry association can attend to logistical details that may go overlooked when a pot of red rice is on the cusp of burning and a worksite has just called in an order for 40 catfish dinners.
"These soul food entrepreneurs are very good at making food and not so good at running a business," Miller says. Without a hint of irony or derision, Miller suggests an association could hold workshops at which leaders "talk about how you should answer the phone."
Soul food restaurants nationwide also are lagging in the digital sphere. Miller, an active user of social media, is disheartened by how few restaurants use free online networks to promote themselves. (There are exceptions: In Charleston, Nana's Seafood & Soul daily posts its menu on Instagram.)
"A lot of restaurants don't have websites," Miller adds. "In the 21st century, you're almost half-closed if you don't have a website. You could have a Charleston soul food website that features every restaurant. I think there are a lot of opportunities for them, because Charleston is a food town."
Miller offers a few other examples of soul food restaurants setting themselves up for financial distress. The common practice of supporting every junior sports team that comes calling may shore up a restaurant's position within its community, but it's an expensive habit: "It's a one-way street," Miller says. "If you look at Fortune 500 companies, if they sponsor something, it's because they believe they're going to get something out of it." (Saunders is already talking about the Soul Food Foundation helping to ease the charitable burden weighing on its members.)
That same yearning to function as a community fixture has caused many soul food restaurants to underprice their plates: "We love an atmosphere where all walks of life can come and be comfortable," Saunders says. "One of the challenges we had is we wanted to keep it to $5-$7 a plate. But to keep the food authentic, it costs us $5-$7 plate. Believe it or not, oxtail is now considered to be a gourmet item in Europe; the prices are sky high."
Saunders envisions Soul Food Foundation members pooling their buying power to get better deals on oxtail, shrimp and other pricey items.
But business savvy can't fix many of the problems plaguing soul food restaurants, such as the dispersion of black neighborhoods and the difficulty of obtaining bank loans. According to Miller, opening a restaurant without at least $5 million behind it is risky. "I don't know any African-American entrepreneur who has $5 million," he says.
Planning for the future
Saunders has major aspirations for the Soul Food Foundation, which she's conceived as an international organization. She's already signed up a grocery store owner from Jamaica, and she's started mentoring a young chef in North Carolina. Still, it's her localized plans that are most impressive.
"A small stove is $2,500," she says. "If that stove goes down, (restaurant owners) don't have $2,500: They're closed. We want to be able to help with that."
Maybe the foundation will provide grants, set up a trading network for used kitchen equipment, or negotiate purchasing discounts for member restaurants, she suggests.
"A convection oven is golden," Saunders says. "Tilt skillets would be awesome. I have a poster board in the hallway with a wish list."
At Scott's Grand, clients are allowed to use any caterer of their choosing, which gives a boost to soul food cooks who can't afford to open restaurants of their own. Saunders also would like for the association to enrich soul food careers by underwriting culinary school scholarships for scions of restaurant families.
"Your personal issues aren't our business," Saunders says of families that choose to get out of the soul food field. "But as far as those who want to continue, the Soul Food Foundation is wanting to offer help."
The Soul Food Foundation's to-do list is long, and understandably daunting: At a recent board get-together, much of the time was devoted to swapping stories and reviewing pictures of Julie Grant's new grandbaby, which share space on Grant's phone with images of Bertha's macaroni-and-cheese. There was a short discussion of a newsletter, and everyone nodded when someone suggested it should include a list of member birthdays. Mostly, though, the tough work lies ahead.
John Middleton, a board member who isn't affiliated with a restaurant, is confident the association will succeed.
"Soul food is not just physical food," he says. "It's food for the heart, mind, body and soul. We're saving the heritage; the places where everybody knows your name, and talks about things that grandma liked to talk about, too. It's a cultural experience. We're saving the foods that feed our souls and our communities."
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.
Julia Grant (from left), Joseph and Helen Fields, Ann Whitlock, Debra Worthy, Tonya Maynor, John Middleton, Ragina Scott-Saunders, Vina Scott, Brandon Myers, Shawn Richards and Constance Heyward came together to form the Soul Food Foundation to bolster local restaurants.×
Addielee's Kitchen at 2705 Bonds Avenue in North Charleston. Wade Spees/Staff Wednesday, April 23, 2014×
Seafood Alley at 35 Spring Street in downtown Charleston. Wade Spees/Staff Tuesday, April 22, 2014×
Bertha’s Kitchen at 2332 Meeting Street Road in North Charleston.×
The Fish Hut at 2671 Spruill Avenue in North Charleston. Wade Spees/Staff Thursday, April 24, 2014×