Black History Month: Restaurant owners grateful for past, but ‘every day of the year is black history for us’
Just as Italian-Americans and Michiganders of other backgrounds contribute to the state’s diverse menu of local food offerings, so do African Americans.
We’re taking the occasion of Black History Month to note and celebrate the influence of black restaurant owners across the state – from Eugene Allen, a “country bumpkin” who grew up hunting squirrels in northern Michigan and has deer and turkey mounts on the walls of his bar, to Godwin Ihentuge, a first-generation American who’s bringing the food culture of his Nigerian heritage to the Mitten State. And from Cory and Tarra Davis, who barbecue award-winning ribs in Grand Rapids while broadening the menu to include plant-based options, to Lloyd M. Talley, a Ph.D. in human development who’s conducting a “social experiment” in Detroit by opening a new kind of eatery that’s a model for the future of urban food.
They all have vastly different stories. Yet, they share in common the experience of being black business owners working to make Michigan’s local food scene more delicious than ever.
Continuing a legacy
Slow smoked barbecue runs in the family at Daddy Pete’s BBQ in Grand Rapids. Not only are owners Cory and Tarra Davis husband and wife, but the popular food truck with a dine-in location at 2921 Eastern Ave. SE on the corner of 28th Street gets its name from Cory’s pit master father, Pete.
Since Black History Month is about remembering the past and “continuing on the legacy for the up-and-coming generations,” as Cory says, Daddy Pete’s is a perfect black-owned restaurant to highlight. After all, Cory and Tarra have been carrying on Pete’s BBQ legacy since 2012. And they’re living up to the challenge. Combining Cory’s barbecue skills with Tarra’s gift for entertaining, Daddy Pete’s is one of Michigan’s Top 21 Restaurants to Visit in 2021.
“I love the connection between taking something from its raw state and turning it into something beautiful that people enjoy,” Cory said. “The secret to great barbecue is having a passion for it.”
In addition to succulent slow-smoked meats including ribs, pulled pork, chicken wings and beef brisket, Daddy Pete’s has award-winning side dishes and also has launched a plant-based menu with vegetarian and vegan options. There’s even a plant-based version of the restaurant’s iconic “Hot Mess.” Instead of a BBQ sundae served in a funnel cake with baked beans, six-cheese mac and cheese, a meat of your choice and creamy coleslaw, the plant-based “Hot Mess” features vegan ingredients and smoked jackfruit.
The plant-based menu has been one of Daddy Pete’s biggest sellers, “at a barbecue place of all places,” Tarra said.
“We are a husband-and-wife team together in the sauce and doing the best that we can with the gifts that we’ve been given,” she said. “Cory and I know we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors who have not had the opportunities that we do, and that we are making them proud.
“Our goal when we started was to change the financial trajectory of our family tree and to leave a legacy of ownership and self-sufficiency. Every day of the year is black history for us. We live it, and we try to be living examples of black business excellence. We are certainly not perfect, but we are always aiming towards that goal.”
Building upon the foundation laid by those who came before
Everybody seems to know Geno’s Sports Bar and Grill. The restaurant in Thompsonville, not far from Traverse City, is a popular stop for northern Michigan tourists who come to ski or golf at nearby Crystal Mountain Resort, to fish or kayak the Betsie River and to snowmobile or bike on trails that run right outside the door.
Yet, lots of people are surprised to meet Eugene Allen, the African American man who has owned the place for the past 12 years.
“They say, ‘Oh, you’re Geno? You’re not Italian,’” Allen explains, with a laugh.
A graduate of Benzie Central High School, Allen is northern Michigan through and through. He grew up hunting and fishing with his dad, who was born in Thompsonville in 1933 after Geno’s grandparents came up from Georgia because they heard how great Michigan was.
Allen’s dad used to catch raccoons for their pelts as one of his money-making hobbies. Then one day he caught sight of a pretty girl named Lucille, who had moved with her family from St. Louis to a farm east of Thompsonville.
Good thing for Geno. His parents’ genes helped make him a state wrestling champion. And his mother’s talent in the kitchen has helped him succeed in the restaurant industry.
“She could really cook,” Geno said. “Even when we were growing up we would tell her she should open a rib place.”
Lucille passed away last year, but she lives on through her recipes including the “sweet with a little heat” sauce that Geno uses for Lucille’s St. Louis Style Ribs, which is the special on Thursdays. The rest of the menu at Geno’s features American classics from Philly Steak Flatbread and broasted chicken to the best burger and best fish fry in all of Benzie County. And everything at Geno’s comes at great prices. There’s even $1 pints of PBR on tap.
“My accountant keeps telling me I’m not charging enough,” Allen joked.
In the same way Geno benefits from his mom’s rib sauce, he also knows that his success owes in part to civil rights pioneers. Without them, he may never have been able to buy his hometown restaurant when he came looking for a change of pace after nearly 30 years of working in the auto industry. While spending some time in town figuring out what he could do if he accepted a buyout, he asked the restaurant owner if she wanted to sell. Two weeks later, they made a deal over the phone.
“(Black History Month is about) all the efforts people went through to help afford us the opportunity to better ourselves,” Geno said. “Back in the day you weren’t even given the opportunity. You couldn’t get a bank loan, for example, or move into a certain neighborhood.
“A lot of those efforts made back then paved the way for folks like myself to have a chance. All you ask for is a fair shot.”
Celebrating the past
When Godwin Ihentuge started a pop-up restaurant in Detroit, people told him there was no market for African food. Yet, in a city populated primarily by people of color, including many like himself with family ties to Africa, the chef’s pioneering spin on fast casual Afro-Caribbean cuisine has really taken off.
The pop-up evolved into a food truck, then two years ago Ihentuge opened Yum Village in Detroit’s New Center neighborhood. The menu of “African raised, Detroit made” food features dishes such as Moin Moin, a bean dish from Nigeria, Maafe, a West African peanut stew, and Caribbean jerk chicken – many with ingredients imported from overseas.
“I grew up eating this food,” said Ihentuge, a first-generation American whose father survived civil war in Nigeria and came to the United States. “We take part in black history every day by serving African food to people of color.
“I’m here to open up the dialogue so we can start talking about all the different types of African food there are. It’s important for us to see and acknowledge representations of ourselves (in the food we eat).”
Ihentuge has an extensive food background, from working as a dishwasher in the cafeteria at Wayne State University to cooking in the kitchens of several Michigan restaurants. But he envisions Yum Village as more than a restaurant bringing African food culture into the Michigan market. In fact, he’s broadening Yum Village into a market pantry with a variety of products and services including lessons in cooking and West African djembe drumming, sauces, spices, fresh-made juices and smoothies, take-out meal kits, bath and body items inspired by the restaurant’s recipes and clothing.
Some of the expansion has been driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, which overnight shifted the restaurant’s business from about 85% in-person transactions to 90% online. Yum Village needed to generate new streams of revenue to keep providing employees with good wages and quality benefits.
The wider focus also is a natural fit for Ihentuge’s merchandising skills, which he honed as a former district manager at Target.
“We’re inventing things here. We’re doing a lot of pioneering things,” he said. “By the end of it we’ll probably be like an Afro-Caribbean Target or an Afro-Caribbean Trader Joe’s.”
Forging a new future
At East Eats in Detroit, Black History Month brings a sense of gratefulness for the past. It also implores the owners to sustain and advance progress into the future, and their innovative restaurant is an effort to do just that.
Birthed out of the COVID-19 pandemic, East Eats has no indoor dining nor even an on-site kitchen. Instead, it’s a collection of geodesic domes set up in an abandoned lot in the city’s Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood.
Guests make reservations and place orders in advance from an intriguing menu that changes seasonally to reflect the owners’ diverse African American, Caribbean, Liberian and Ghanian heritages. Each reservation includes two sides (soup, salad or dessert) and an entrée such as butter shrimp, roasted chickpeas or salmon tikka. East Eats offers lots of vegan and vegetarian options, too. When visitors arrive for their picnic in a dome, their meals already have been prepared in a catering kitchen about a mile away and are there in hot bags to meet them. It’s merging the best of remote delivery with in-person dining.
East Eats not only gives people the chance to go out safely during the pandemic, benefitting both mental and physical health. It’s also a relatively low-cost alternative to a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant that makes it more affordable for many guests.
And you can tell by the sound of kids playing and of dogs barking in backyards that the neighborhood setting meets people right where they live.
“There are neighbors here that drive past every day and say ‘I didn’t think that could be in my hood,’” said Talley, who teamed with fellow Howard University alum and Detroit Black Restaurant Week founder Kwaku Osei-Bonsu on East Eats.
Talley, Osei-Bonsu and a third partner, Flint native Nygel Fyvie, say the model of East Eats can happen quickly and affordably in an eco-friendly way that empowers the community. And they believe it can be replicated across Michigan and throughout the country, especially in urban areas with large amounts of vacant land and large populations of people of color.
To them, East Eats is a way of taking the celebrated legacy of black history and pushing it forward toward an even brighter future for underserved communities in metropolitan areas around the country.
“Black History Month is a reminder that there are a lot of things that have occurred and a lot of work that has paved the way for us to be here right now,” Talley said. “But I also think about it as a responsibility to ensure that black history is not stopping with us. I hope my role in Black History Month is to show a new black future.”