Wednesday, 28 March 2018 15:49

Beacon of Soul: Forty Acres Soul Kitchen plants its flag in ‘Gentrification Central’

Written by  Andy Balaskovitz
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Forty Acres Soul Kitchen, a modern adaptation of traditional Southern-style food opening this month, will be Grand Rapids’ only African American-owned full-service restaurant — that means a host, waitstaff, full bar and food menu. Let that sink in for minute. In the state’s second-largest city of 200,000 people. In 2018.

Co-owner Lewis Williams admits the notion is a little startling.

“It does take you aback a little bit,” said Williams, 48. “At the end of the day, we just want to be a good restaurant that happens to do soul food.”

Coincidentally, Williams and co-owner Darel Ross II, 45, have planted their flag at ground zero of the city’s housing and gentrification problem. And Forty Acres is making a deliberate push to bolster minority-owned businesses and start a conversation here, by way of modern takes on classic soul food. It’s not a middle finger to what’s happening along the Wealthy Street corridor in East Hills, more of a welcoming wave to come inside.

“Gentrification Central is what we call it,” Ross said with a smile, before adding: “That’s what it is, let’s be honest.”

While the move into the newly built, mixed-use property at 1059 Wealthy St. SE was a “perfect combination of a lot of great events that came together,” Ross said “there is no better place to be,” based on Wealthy Street’s history of minority-owned businesses.

“Now — when opportunity is so segregated to certain portions of the community — to have the opportunity to participate in that and open doors for others is real cool,” Ross added.

What is soul food?

The history of soul food is firmly rooted in the slave trade, a reflection of the conditions enslaved citizens endured in the South. Traditional dishes were based on the rations allowed by slave owners.

Adrian E. Miller, the author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, reports weekly rations typically included five pounds of starches and a few pounds of the cheapest smoked or salted meats. Outside of that, enslaved citizens were left to garden or forage to supplement their rations, leading to a largely vegetable-based diet.

The name Forty Acres references the “40 acres and a mule” promise, or the “first systematic attempt to provide a form of reparations to newly freed slaves,” wrote author and historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

“We wanted it to be an unapologetic celebration of black culture,” Ross said. “We wanted to celebrate that through good food and a quality, laid-back atmosphere.

“Whether it’s Southern or comfort food, I think the soul part comes from the love you put in food, the culture and the passion — and making a whole lot with a little bit of ingredients. If you acknowledge history, there’s a reason why it’s unhealthy and made out of the ingredients it’s made out of. It’s holding that history as valid and real and sticking to the roots of some of that.”

Growing up in New York, soul food “was everything,” Lewis said. “I was raised on it. It’s basically who I am today.”

Lewis finalized his move to Grand Rapids in 2000 after living in Brooklyn and working the restaurant scene there. He previously managed Bar Divani as well as the now-shuttered Louis Benton steakhouse and the Sierra Room. After years in the local fine-dining scene: “I wanted to come full circle and flip it. There is no soul food here where you can sit down, have a full-service meal,” Williams said.

(Carolina Lowcountry Kitchen in East Grand Rapids, which opened last year, draws on the coastal cuisine of South Carolina and Georgia and draws “influences from other southern areas, such as New Orleans,” according to its website.)

The Forty Acres team was still finalizing the menu at the time of our early March interview, going “back and forth” on items, Williams said. In addition to a build-your-own section of classic soul-food items — fried chicken, collard greens, pork chops — Forty Acres and chef Trimell Hawkins are showcasing their various regional backgrounds. For example, the menu features a grits flight with “three or four different versions of it depending on where you’re from,” Williams said. Items also will draw on French and African cultures.

(Above) Grits Flight. (Below) Chicken & Waffles. Photos courtesy of Forty Acres Soul Kitchen.

“Some people have never had grits before,” Williams added. “This will be a good way to introduce them to different versions.”

Hawkins, 34, attended the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education at Grand Rapids Community College. He was formerly the executive chef at Black Heron on the West Side. He said the menu reflects classic dishes he grew up on and “putting a new spin on it, reinventing some soul food classics.”

Intentional and unapologetic

Lewis and Ross have close ties to the Grand Rapids-based nonprofit LINC UP, a community revitalization agency with annual investments topping $10 million. Williams is the former manager of LINC UP’s Soul Food Cafe, which closed in 2017 after four years. Ross co-directed LINC UP for nine years.

“There definitely has to be some intentionality around wealth-building in the community, because without that intentionality, we’re going to get what we’re getting,” Ross said. “But at the end of the day, we’re a great restaurant that serves soul food and the owners are black — in that order. And we’re unapologetic about all three of those things.”

This approach also applies to the vendors they’ve chosen to supply the restaurant, as well as hiring employees from the nearby neighborhood south of Wealthy Street. Ross and Williams describe it as a sort of social sustainability, extending the concept beyond an environmental framework.

“A lot of people talk about being sustainable, especially in the restaurant industry,” Ross said. “Forty Acres is a sustainable restaurant, but we’re looking at sustainability as more than our garbage and trees. Are we hiring locally? How are we affecting the community as a whole?

“We’re looking at sustainability through more of a people-focused lens, while at the same time recycling,” Ross chuckled.

A ‘beacon and a flag’

Jamiel Robinson, founder and CEO of Grand Rapids Area Black Businesses, said Forty Acres’ distinction as the only African American-owned, full-service restaurant in the city shows there’s still a need to support black-owned businesses here. A 2015 Forbes article listingGrand Rapids as the second-worst city in the U.S. for African Americans economically “stated what we already knew,” he said.

Robinson has known Williams and Ross for the past five or six years, previously working together through LINC UP. He said it’s significant that Forty Acres found a home where it did on Wealthy Street, which was “more representative when it comes to the number of African American businesses” up until the late ’90s.

“It emphasizes that the Wealthy Street corridor is open for all entrepreneurs to find a home, thrive and survive,” Robinson said. “Good for Darel and Lewis to open up there to be a beacon and a flag — to say we belong there as well. Not that anyone said we couldn’t, just that it’s possible.”

That’s also how Ross and Williams see it — that Forty Acres will be the first of many doors to open for Grand Rapids’ minority community.

And if Forty Acres ends up becoming a popular spot among white hipsters, so be it.

“We welcome it,” Lewis said. “That’s the education component.”

Ross added: “Our tagline is that it’s a celebration of culture and food that we want to expose to as many people as possible.”

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