Thursday, July 07, 2011

Can Boston Be a Soul Food Town?

(I must admit, I really hoped to get this one published somewhere, but I've had no bites. Mostly, I wanted to offer the publicity to the Webster family, who are lovely people with a great business. Thanks to them for talking to me.) 

Sometimes it takes a moment to realize that something is better than you are anticipating. Much better. The first thing you notice when you open the Styrofoam container is that the food is hot, like it came straight from the pot and not off a delivery truck. You bite into a chicken leg – the fried skin is crisp and crackling, the meat pulls free of the bone and coats your fingers in juices.  You turn your attention to the black-eyed peas, which are tender but not mushy, and rich with smoked turkey. It’s when you first taste the candied sweet potatoes, not just coated in brown sugar, but imbued with its flavor of molasses, that you find yourself thinking, wait, am I still in Boston?
The man who just exploded your expectations is Gary Webster, owner of Down Home Delivery & Catering, Dorchester’s newest purveyor of soul food.  In their spacious, open kitchen in Four Corners, Webster’s brother Willie and Tennessee-born son-in-law, Darren Payne, whip up collard greens, ribs, meat loaf, and potato salad using family recipes.  The homespun meals and the friendly greeting at the take-out window might give the impression that this is a great neighborhood eatery. But Webster has set his sights a bit higher. This entrepreneur believes he can make Southern cuisine – his family's version – a  cornerstone of the Boston culinary scene.
“We did not come into this to be a soul food place on the corner,“ asserts the Georgia native, who moved to this city when he was just six years old.  Playing what he calls “old-timer basketball” keeps him looking younger than his fifty-two years, an impression reinforced by the track suit he wears and the energy he exudes. He leans forward in his chair, eyes glittering, and chooses his words with deliberation as he describes how the business came into being. His brother Willie had been laid off, and the job market was bad.  Webster himself was working in neighborhood services for the mayor’s office, his most recent position in twenty-five years for the city. He wanted something more.
“I said I can stay in the job where I am the next fifteen years, twenty years –geez,  I couldn’t see sixty-five down the road.” He shakes his head and smiles.
Webster knew his family had some serious culinary chops: they have long done all the cooking and baking for the clan's massive get-togethers, including an annual Labor Day reunion that draws over a hundred people and lasts all weekend. That’s a lot of corn bread. 
“We do things that people always enjoyed the food from – even after the events were over, people would come to us and say, who made the macaroni and cheese?” Webster brags.
His brother has large-scale production experience from jobs as a cook at Pine Manor and Boston College. Webster’s  own background – a degree in business administration from Newbury College in addition to his long tenure in city administration – provides a business-savvy he believes will set his family’s company apart from the small chicken and rib joints that remain unknown outside their particular corners of Roxbury or Dorchester.
“I just want us to be able to take it to the next level beyond that, because we have the capacity to market a product, a food, to an audience that may not traditionally reach out to it and get it.  We do a lot of business in West Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Roslindale.  We’re now going to branch into South Boston,” the self-starter declares. In a city of culinary diversity, he wants Southern cuisine to become a staple for weeknight takeout. “We want to be able to compete on that end with the Italian foods that are available – the Italian foods, the Greek foods, the Indian foods.”
This businessman has his work cut out for him; Boston has not been kind to purveyors of Southern home-style cooking.  Legendary spots Bob’s Southern Bistro, Chef Lee’s, and Poppa B’s are all gone. The J’Way Cafe in Jamaica Plain disappeared almost as soon as it arrived, while tiny Mrs. Jones restaurant in the quiet neighborhood of Lower Mills is not well-known outside of walking distance. The community of black displaced Southerners in Boston is small, so instead of soul food restaurants, the city has a thriving barbecue scene, one dominated by white owners and cooks, with restaurants located in predominantly white neighborhoods and suburbs.
Jessica Harris, author of several major books on African-American cuisine including the recent High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America, describes the success of barbecue restaurants as grounded in discomfort over issues of race, “No one is comfortable with that on the plate. BBQ restaurants neutralize that, and that’s part of their popularity.” 
On the other hand, Cherelle Webster-Payne, Gary Webster’s daughter and catering manager, just sees barbecue as soul food’s little brother – one with a lot to learn.
“There’s a big difference, I think, between Southern soul food, traditional Southern favorites, and barbecue. People think of them together, but they are two different things,” she insists. “Barbecue also too is easier than soul food.  Anybody can barbecue, go out there and barbecue some meat, put some nice sauce on it, but when it comes to soul food, there is a difference. There are intricate recipes, a slow process of doing things.”
One distinction lies in the value placed on side dishes in soul cooking, Webster-Payne says. “Each piece is the star dish, so it’s like the macaroni has to be just as good as the fried chicken.”
“People will judge you on your mac and cheese,” she adds emphatically.
Down Home also offers Sunday dinner favorites rarely seen in barbecue outfits, like roast chicken and pot roast.
To introduce the largest possible audience to the joy of perfect collards, tender meat loaf and rich bread pudding, Webster began strategically in 2010 with a catering and delivery operation out of a rental kitchen in Jamaica Plain. Soon the surrounding neighborhoods were crisscrossed by vans bearing the jaunty Down Home logo - a black chef holding a covered dish out the window of a speeding red truck. The company also pursued and won contracts for catered events with government agencies, where its certification as a Minority Business Enterprise is an asset.
Harris describes catering, a relatively low-capital start-up, as a “classic African-American business model“ that has historically allowed blacks entry into a competitive market. There used to be a saying in the community: “if you're in catering, you're in the swim; if not, you're in the soup”. Of Webster, who started this venture with his own savings, she says, “Obviously, what he is doing is taking a traditional business plan and modernizing it.”
The foundation laid, Webster moved the business into its permanent home in Four Corners, where a take-out window was added. But this go-getter wants to ensure that growth won't affect quality. He insists on testing and retesting Down Home's recipes – and tasting his competition's. Every new customer is asked for feedback; comparisons with Grandma are invited. Webster also monitors the online buzz, reveling in the accolades building up about the red velvet cake, pork chops, and especially that fried chicken on Yelp and other sites where the meal-obsessed go to share their latest finds.  Ultimately, he believes the key to success lies in the excellence of his product and, just as importantly, the strength of his tight family bonds.
“At the end of every day, we come together as a family, pray as a family, and just be thankful for what we’ve been able to accomplish for the day,” says Webster, who wears a tiny gold cross on a chain around his neck. In addition to his brother, son-in-law, and daughter, the businessman employs his sisters, nieces and nephews. Working together has not always been easy, particularly in the first months, when no one made a penny. Arguments can break out, too, particularly over important issues like whether Tennessee or Georgia-style banana pudding is better. But this close-knit family shares a vision, led by a man who knows all too well the story of those who have come before him, but is determined to beat the odds - and more.
The dynamo spills over with ideas for potential new projects, including a sit-down restaurant and a website to sell their sweet-potato cheesecake nationally. Franchises someday, perhaps? Webster’s ambitions, for his food, his family, and his company, are summed up in his favorite dictum, which he repeats often: “We’re not just looking to survive in this business, we’re looking to strive.” If he prospers, Boston baked beans may just have to move over and make room for some black-eyed peas.