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Entrepreneurs see hunger for soul food

A look at three soul food concepts with sights set on national expansion

Fans of the television show “America’s Next Great Restaurant” are familiar with the debate about whether a soul food concept could make it as a national chain.

The winner of the reality show was Soul Daddy, a fast-casual, health-focused soul food concept developed by Jamawn Woods, who was thrown head-first into the chaos of running three locations in three cities that all opened the same week.

Soul Daddy, however, isn’t the only soul-food-themed concept with sights set on multiple locations across the country.

Los Angeles last month saw the debut of Otis Jackson’s Soul Dog, a fast-casual concept featuring hot dogs with soul-food-inspired toppings and other traditional favorites. And out of the Dallas/Fort Worth area, a casual-dining soul food concept called Buttons has been growing, with a fourth unit opening this fall and plans to expand into other cities.

Soul food, also sometimes called Southern food, can be found in most major cities, but it is a niche traditionally dominated by mom-and-pop operators.

Soul Daddy, Soul Dog and Buttons, however, see their concepts as having broad appeal for multiple locations. All offer a more contemporary take on traditional soul food dishes, attempting to improve the health profile where possible while trying to preserve the cuisine’s home-style flavors.

Soul Daddy — New York, Los Angeles and Minneapolis

Woods, who didn’t know his concept won the reality show competition until just before the restaurants opened in early May, said the nature of soul food created a huge challenge in developing a chain model.

Traditional dishes such as fried chicken, pork chops, buttery corn bread and vegetables cooked with ham hocks can quickly scare off the health conscious, he said.

“I think we haven’t seen a soul food chain before because it was so unhealthy. People didn’t want to eat that way anymore,” Woods said. “That’s why I put a whole new twist on it by making it healthy.”

At Soul Daddy, for example, there is no fried chicken. Instead it’s baked with herbs. The biscuits are whole wheat, and side dishes include lighter versions of traditional vegetables, such as a black-eyed pea salad, cabbage slaw, kale and sweet potato salad.

Woods admits he has his naysayers. “Healthy soul food is not for everyone,” he said. “But if you’re watching what you eat, it’s a way to have soul food.”

Because of the publicity from the show, all three locations have been slammed with customers, Woods said. So far, the top-selling dishes have been the yams in Los Angeles, the cornbread waffles in New York, and the baked chicken in Minneapolis.

The restaurants have an average check of about $12, he said, and each has seating for about 90 to 100.

Though Woods developed the concept, he holds only a minority stake and said he is working hard to learn the business while representing the brand. Soul Daddy is operated under ANGR Holdings LLC, based in New York. The concept is backed by the show’s four judges: Chipotle founder Steve Ells and celebrity chefs Bobby Flay, Lorena Garcia and Curtis Stone.

Though Soul Daddy has been only open three weeks, the investors are already tinkering with the menu. For example, Woods said they are testing a garlic-butter corn in New York at the suggestion of Flay.

Woods said he still struggles with the urge to put more indulgent items on the menu, like fried chicken, but he wants to stay true to the concept.

“I’d like to be more hands on,” he said, “but at the same time I’m thankful. I have four great investors.”

Soul Dog — Los Angeles

Not having had the benefit of a national TV show behind them, Don Scott and his wife, Rasheedah Young, are opening their Otis Jackson’s Soul Dog concept one at a time.

Operated under the parent company OJSF Inc., Soul Dog debuted April 26 as a concept they plan to expand.

Scott, who wrote the screenplays for the movies “Barbershop” and “Barbershop 2: Back in Business,” grew up in the restaurant industry. His parents owned a soul food restaurant called Vel’s on the Circle in Cleveland for 35 years, and Soul Dog is named for an old friend of the family and “soul food lover” Otis Jackson.

With Soul Dog, however, Scott brought in a new twist with the combination of hot dogs and soul food flavors. The Original Soul Dog, for example, is an all-beef, preservative-free hot dog topped with collard greens, cucumber relish, sweet potato purée and bacon crumbles on a grilled artisan bun. At $5.79, it is the top seller, Scott said.

The menu also includes fried chicken — free range and all natural — as well as a wide variety of sides from macaroni and cheese to candied yams. For dessert: fried peach pie. The average check is about $11.50.

Scott and Young have tried to lighten dishes where they can. For example, instead of seasoning the collard greens with ham hocks, they use smoked turkey wings. The menu also includes two vegetarian sausages.

The more difficult challenge, Scott said, has been shifting the mindset that the soul food experience is slow.

“Traditionally, it was a slow, long half day spent with food,” he said. “You had to have time to have a soul food meal. It wasn’t run in and run out.”

At Soul Dog, however, Scott is trying to keep service times under eight minutes, and the concept will soon offer delivery.

Buttons — Dallas/Forth Worth

Owner Herbert Hughes opened the first Buttons in 2008 as a modern and more upscale take on traditional soul food with a dose of live music. He has three units in the Dallas area and plans to open the fourth in Houston in October.

Hughes is also looking for locations in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and he envisions Buttons as a casual-dining chain of 10 or more.

The menu offers traditional dishes, such as the signature chicken and waffles with collard greens, smothered pork chops and pot roast. However, Buttons also offers more healthful options, such as salmon Florentine.

“We do a lot of family and group celebrations,” Hughes said. “You risk losing a whole group if you don’t offer a piece of grilled fish or something for people who are serious about watching what they eat.”

Hughes, who left a career on Wall Street to pursue his restaurant dream, aims to elevate traditional soul food dishes by using higher quality ingredients.

“Every culture has its own soul food, but the origins come from the necessity of poorer people to make great tasting meals with what was available,” he said.

The average check at Buttons is about $23, and the restaurant offers a full bar. The venue features live music — more Motown and R&B leaning, to please older customers — and art shows, spoken word performances and other cultural events.

Noting that he and his wife are an interracial couple, Hughes said he wanted to create a concept “where people of all stripes can come together at the table.”

Though he has had offers to franchise the brand, Hughes fears losing control of that greater mission.

“The crucial thing is finding people who share your vision of what your restaurant is built on,” he said. “We like to say we’re conquering the world, one waffle at a time.”

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected].
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

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