The chef of Columbia’s Capital City Kitchen and Grill and a Philadelphia celebrity chef are partnering to bring soul food to Northeast Columbia.
Richard Conklin, of Capital City Kitchen and Grill, and Kenny McDuffie, a contestant on the most recent season of "Hell's Kitchen," are launching Esther’s Soul Food + Kitchen. Inspired by their grandmother and great-grandmother’s influence on their careers, the two are bringing a soul food restaurant and coffee cafe combo to the Village at Sandhills retail development.
It was initially McDuffie’s idea to start a new restaurant in Columbia. He ran a catering business for 10 years in Philadelphia, but dreamed of opening his own restaurant. The pandemic gave him the opportunity to move to Columbia for a “fresh start" and open the restaurant, he explained.
COVID-19 opened the door for Conklin to shift his longtime Decker Boulevard restaurant Capital City, too. His eatery, like almost all independent-run restaurants, struggled throughout the pandemic. He was forced to lay off employees and go almost exclusively to-go for a time.
Conklin said Esther's is a transition/renaming for Capital City, which is temporarily closed.
“(After) losing my grandmother to COVID last year, this is one of my main reasons to pay homage to her as well,” Conklin said. “When Capital City Kitchen was growing, I would get a lot of compliments, like ‘wow this is like Sunday’s at grandma's.”
“The both of us want people that come in here to experience the recipes and the stories for my grandmother’s kitchens.”
Esther’s Soul Kitchen is named after McDuffie’s great grandmother, who, like Conklin’s late grandmother Jerusha (better known as “Big Mama”), taught him how to cook. That’s inspiring the menu as well, which they say will feature the grandmothers' “signature items,” such as a passed-down potato salad recipe.
The restaurant’s offerings will also incorporate a range of classic soul food items, like Conklin’s baked and fried turkey wings and pork chops. McDuffie will bring a seven-cheese mac and cheese and Philadelphia cheesesteaks .
“Y’all do not make Philly cheese,” he joked. “It’s like we definitely bringing authentic Phillies and stuff like that.”
The restaurant’s coffee shop side will offer espresso drinks and baked goods. And the restaurant will be offer quick casual-style items, like wraps and paninis.
The two also have plans to host events in the former Panera Bread space — musical artists, open mics and more.
Connklin explained the restaurant will be full service, but meld in quick-casual aspects, too, like getting a number when ordering and taking it to the table. The restaurant will also adopt the COVID protocol of having a QR code to scan to get the menu and order on your phone.
“We’re going to kind of adopt the new business model that COVID has forced,” Conklin said.
The two plan for Esther’s Soul Food + Kitchen to open mid-summer. It will be located at 631 Promenade Place.