Can Charlotte support a high-end soul food restaurant?


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How much would you pay for a really good plate of mac & cheese, collard greens, smothered pork chops and some fresh peach cobbler to top it all off?

$30? $20? $10?

Maybe none of the above.

I had this discussion with a reader shortly after Delta’s restaurant abruptly closed a few days ago. The reader argued that the Delta’s concept was flawed from the get-go.

With so many great cooks working their magic in home kitchens all around our city, she said, why would a black person pay what Delta’s charged for fried chicken ($19.95), pork chops ($17.95) or catfish ($21.95). The reader said good soul food is simply too abundant in the South to support that kind of a high-end restaurant, especially one that targets African Americans – the maestros of down-home cuisine.

Maybe the concept would work better in another region of the country, or maybe even in a bigger Southern city like Atlanta, she said, but certainly not here in Charlotte.

The unspoken problem with Delta's, the reader said, was that better-tasting food could be had for far less money at United House of Prayer or the Chicken Box Café – to say nothing about the spread served each Sunday for free at Big Mamma’s house or over at Aunt Flossie’s.

Okay, let’s not get into a fuss right now about food quality. If all things were even, would you pay extra – a lot extra – for a good soul-food meal at a high-end restaurant with tablecloths, a professional staff and maybe a live jazz band…especially if that restaurant were owned and operated by African Americans?

I argued a slightly different point. Dining out, I said, is also a social experience; it’s not just about whether I could get food just as good at home, in a church cafeteria or at a relative’s kitchen.

But a part of me thinks the reader may be right.

About a year ago my wife and I spent some time in Harlem and decided to visit the world-famous Sylvia’s on Malcolm X Boulevard. I remember thinking that the food was good but certainly no better than the typical meals I get when I visit my sisters, Barbara, Sandra, Helen or Sallie (Each of my eight sisters can burn, but these four take it to a whole new level.)

Would I eat at Sylvia’s each week if I lived nearby? Probably not, but I also would be no stranger there.

My reader went on to argue that high-end soul food is a concept best marketed to a white clientele that might see it as a novelty. (On the day we went to Sylvia’s, about half the patrons were white, and a good percentage was obviously foreign tourists.)

So what do you think, Qcity?

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User Comments (25 Responses)
posted by
Yvonne

Nov 30, 2013 at 10:57 AM

When the food is excellent the customers will come. When the customer service is excellent the customers will keep coming back. Yes, high end soul food served by high performing professional staff is sustainable in Charlotte.

posted by
YOURGIRL

Nov 30, 2013 at 11:04 AM

Sylvia's did not make it in Atlanta. Nana's Uptown location closed as well. The House of Prayer makes some of the best turkey wings in the state, I get my chicken from Mr. Charles Chicken and Fish on Statesville Ave, when I leave these places I have food for the next day for $10. Our meal for two with drinks at Delta's was $100. And I still encouraged people to go to support. It's not that we can't afford to pay for upscale soul food, I don't believe we are willing to pay for it.

posted by
Lauren Clark

Nov 30, 2013 at 12:37 PM

Unfortunately I didn't even get an opportunity to go to Nana' s uptown, so I can't speak on it. I've gone to Delta's several times, and each time was not a good experience. I kept going because I wanted it to do well. There were so many issues with Delta's. Food, customer service, even vallet parking, were mediocre at it's best. We are in the South, if you consider your food soul food it better be good. Good food will bring customers, regardless if you have white table cloths or not. But my real question is should soul food really be high end? I don't know of any high end soul food restaurant in any city that has made it that doesn't seem like a tourist spot. Good food, good cocktails, live music, reasonable prices, equals good dining experience...not a white table cloth.

posted by
pamela

Nov 30, 2013 at 12:51 PM

Good Points. However, I will disagree to a point. Honestly, I don't feel the prices at Delta's were that expensive. Dining out at a quality restaurant is no longer inexpensive. As a point of reference, I ate at the Carolina Kitchen, a soul food restaurant in Hyattsville MD on a visit and the prices were comparable. What set them apart is service. The service there is Phenomenal. We waited 2 hours (Several schools graduated that day and it was Mother's day Saturday) The wait was well worth it. You do not leave there a stranger.
Not having experienced Delta's I can only go by hearsay. The feedback i received was at best mediocre. Of course most of us can get a top notch meal at home that could surely rival many a restaurant, but that is not the main driver. We like to relax, soak in some atmosphere, and yes enjoy a good meal. We can also fire up the perfect steak at home too! Why doesn't Ruth's Chris, Chima or its ilk inspire this type of scrutiny.
I for one, would like to see the thinking around dining out change. No, you are not eating at home so its not going to be the same. You are paying for so much more than a meal. It's part of the entertainment.
Best to the former Delta owners. Too bad it didnt work out.

posted by
James W

Nov 30, 2013 at 1:41 PM

Service and value are key indicators of success. While an excellent idea, their cost/revenue model was a challenge from Day 1. They probably needed at a minimum a 75% full house every night to meet their numbers. There is a reason Big Mama only cooks 'Sunday Dinner' on Sundays. The restaurant business is extremely challenging!

posted by
Wiseguy

Nov 30, 2013 at 2:49 PM

Delta's New Jersey location has been open since 1999. I wonder why the concept worked in New Brunswick but not in Charlotte.

posted by
Charlotte Original

Nov 30, 2013 at 8:49 PM

Keep it real Charlotte. How many of y'all would roll off the couch put on clothes and make the trip to Deltas for the FOOD? Deltas was about everything but the FOOD. Instead, Delta became the place where the Gray's threw nice happy hours, where neo-soul bands kicked it, and the place where you could take out-of-town guest to make them think Charlotte was Atlanta...but Delta was NOT about FOOD. In short, Deltas was a club mascaraing as a restaurant. And if you have been in Charlotte long enough you know Charlotte is the place where nice spots come to die. Grown and Sexy wont work here because all the superficial fake important people wont support it. Case in point: First Mr. P's, Side Effects, Apostrophe, 5th Element, Kalu...and now Deltas.

posted by
Al

Dec 1, 2013 at 5:04 AM

Excellent comments here, so it seems like a great topic. I agree with one of the post that Delta's cost/revenue model was flawed from the start. They did not open for lunch (doubtful they would have gotten meaningful numbers from uptown workers - they were located at one end of the Tryon business district), so they were trying to make their revenue entirely from the Saturday and Sunday crowd,hence the meal prices. A few years ago there was a restaurant on East Blvd (same location where Bad Daddy's is now thriving) called Jaimama that was promoted as "Southern with a flair" aka expensive Southern food. I thought the food was excellent, but my wife and I thought $25 per person for the Sunday Buffet (I had shrimp and grits) was a bit much. Jaimama closed after about two years.

To contrast, one of our favorite places in Atlanta is The Pecan Restaurant in College Park, which promotes itself as Southern fusion (yet another variation of expensive Southern food). I suspect no one goes there for an inexpensive meal. You will find buttermilk chicken at $23, lamb chops at $29,crab cakes at $30, and soups and salads in the $10-12 range. Seems to work in Atlanta, where I suspect there is a larger number of people that believe a good dining experience is worth those prices.

posted by
Al

Dec 1, 2013 at 6:23 AM

Two restaurants, Palomino's and G. W. Finn's, were unable to survive in the same space Delta's leased, and I suspect those restaurants closed because of the reason alluled in my prior post. The weekday business crowd flows to other parts of Tryon Street and there is little energy around the 525 N. Tryon Street location to drive natural traffic on weekday evenings. This meant Delta's tried to meet their $16k monthly rent by operating as Saturday and Sunday destination. My guess is Palomino's and G. W. Finn's faced the same economic hurdle. The property owners apparently want to charge a typical uptown Charlotte price for the square footage at that location, and the cost structure has not worked for three different restaurant concepts.

I believe Delta's could have survived at another location (i.e. one with a lower expense base) with the same upscale image. It was obvious they were not trying to compete with the Beatties Ford Rd. restaurants or attract the crowd looking for The House of Prayer or Mr. Charles Chicken and Fish prices (smile). Delta's was aiming for the same demographics willing to go to Ruth's Chris or Chima (to use examples of one of the post) without complaining about prices.

posted by
Lauren

Dec 1, 2013 at 10:21 AM

WOW! Everyone has really made some good points, high rent therefore high prices, other restaurants that didn't make it at that same location, other similar restaurants in different cities, etc. Bottom line I went to Delta's several times. Each time I went, terrible experience. Every time I filled out comment cards, spoke with the manager, never saw any changes. I even saw blogs on yelp and other foodie sites that shared my same concerns....no changes. I'm more than willing to pay any amount for a fine dining experience, but Delta's just wasn't up to par. I wasted money trying to support them hoping it would get better. Trust me if it wasn't black owned I wouldn't have given it a second chance. I really hope someone learns from Delta's misfortune, and will try the same concept. Charlotte needs an establishment like that.

posted by
TSo

Dec 1, 2013 at 1:04 PM

The problem with a lot of "black owned" establishments is primarily the lack of customer service and high expectations of their customers. With any business, you have to know your market, study your competition, and listen to the needs of your customers. Unfortunately, I never visited Deltas; but I was in no hurry to go based upon the mediocre feedback I received as well. As Black business owners, we must make a concerted effort to DO BETTER BY OUR CUSTOMERS in every aspect.

The way they abruptly closed their business without even properly notifying their employees is indicative of how they treated their patrons all along - UNPROFESSIONAL. As a side note - if anyone closely affiliated with the historical Excelsior Club is reading this post - PLEASE CLEAN UP YOUR ACT or you could be next. Each time I've been to this establishment it has a foul odor; not very clean; the same mean/menacing woman collects money at the door; and the bartenders are not "up to par". When you KNOW BETTER, you should DO BETTER!!!

posted by
James W

Dec 1, 2013 at 2:13 PM

Has anyone been to Celeb's at Trade & Graham. I remember Jaimamas on East Blvd. Very good food!

posted by
Wheelsturning

Dec 2, 2013 at 9:56 AM

Oooh TSo, you make a valid point about The Excelsior Club. It looks like a health outbreak just waiting to happen.

posted by
Carolina Blue

Dec 2, 2013 at 3:23 PM

I agree with the others who say it was the high rent that was the problem. Coming from the North, they probably thought that was a good deal. But down South, that was an excessive amount to pay. They would have been more succesful in a location with a much lower rent. Everyone needs to keep an eye on what's getting ready to happen at the Mosiac development on Trade Street just outside of Uptown. Several retail establishments are getting ready to open there that will replace the crowd Delta's catered too. It will be interesting to see how they do. If they do well, Charlotte could have a nice little entertainment district catering to African-Americans.

posted by
svenus01

Dec 2, 2013 at 10:39 PM

Simmons on Graham is a staple and as been around forever!

posted by
jmoney

Dec 3, 2013 at 11:00 AM

Great comments!! At the end of the day, I think it comes down to the food. Personally, I don't want to pay those type of prices for soul food. I grew up on soul food and had it at least 2-3 times a week counting leftovers. I'm still eating grandma's cooking from Thursday and its Tuesday! Christmas will be the same way and you think I'm going to go and pay 30 bucks for the same type of food next week at "high end" restaurant? Probably not. For those prices, give me some different food AND a nice atmosphere, not one or the other.

posted by
Mark

Dec 3, 2013 at 11:32 AM

I think service is the key. People go for an experience, and poor or rude service is a deal-breaker for coming back, regardless of the food. I actually thought their food was pretty good. Yes, you can find better, and cheaper, but the overall atmosphere was nice, especially with the live music. The service killed it for me. Rude Hostess and Server during my trip. A white friend of ours joined and I was embarassed at how he was spoken to. That was early on, but I knew then they would not make it.

posted by
KenJ.

Dec 3, 2013 at 11:42 AM

This is once again, an anomaly that I find hilarious. The terms Soul Food & High End Dining do not go together. If one of ANY background wants the true Soul Food experience, there are plenty of honest & quality places to dine. Simply by throwing in a live jazz band & expensive surroundings, does not a meal or experience make.... If one wants the "TRUE EXPERIENCE", take off your $200 jacket & designer dresses & go eat with the locals. Get past your egos, fears & hang-ups & join the masses for the experience of good company of the friendly commoners. Spend time TALKING & MENGLING with those around you, people that aren't more concerned with the Stock Reports or how they're being perceived by others & learn how to communicate & become a part of the community. TRUE Soul Food is served fresh, hot & with all the trappings of a real dive joint. Nor does it have anything to do with Race. That very blind concept IS what makes certain classes of people THINK that they are any better than the average citizen. And it not only impedes community relations, it drives wedges between a society & fosters all of the negative stereo types of the South. Simply because a plate of food is prepared & served by someone that studied abroad, certainly does NOT make it any better than Aunt Sally that learned to cook in her Grandmother's kitchen as a child & by the sweat of her brow. Nor will it EVER truly give the ambiance or experience of what REAL SOUL FOOD is all about. If you want GREAT Soul Food, go stand in line at the Chicken Shack ! And forget about the $75 tab & the White Coats.

posted by
TSo

Dec 3, 2013 at 12:10 PM

OMG!!! KenJ. thank you-thank you-thank you!!! Soul Food is not exclusive to BLACK'S ONLY; as many other ethnicities have been eating SOUL FOOD for centuries. SOUL FOOD is enjoyable because it truly warms the soul; provides comfort; and makes one feel good - therefore I don't know of any ethnicity that doesn't enjoy that.

The reason why some of the other long-standing SOUL FOOD restaurants have been able to survive in Charlotte is because each of them embodies those principles - however grand or small. There is nothing wrong with having an "upscale" or "nice" environment that specializes in serving SOUL FOOD - but the key is maintaining its authenticity and the principles mentioned.

For example, Chima's specializes in Brazilian food - yet it is inviting/welcoming to ALL races. They infuse essences of their culture into their food/entertainment/ambiance; but it does not exclude any other RACE or take away from its authenticity. Bottom line is, BE WHO YOU ARE, WHEREVER YOU GO. I love ALL people with a special fondness and closeness to my race; however, the reality is that "WE" have a tendency to always assimilate and imitate other races instead of embracing our own culture with PRIDE, RESPECT, and DIGNITY.

Furthermore, with GENTRIFICATION being so rampant in the Charlotte community; I'm more so concerned with why haven't the likes of Harold Cogdell and Herb Gray INVESTED back into some of the neighborhoods in which SOUL FOOD originated and created more SOUL FOOD restaurants that embody the elements we all seek?

posted by
lj

Dec 3, 2013 at 4:32 PM

I think that the common factor with high end soul food restaurants that succeed primarily deals with drawing tourists. As indicated in the article, Sylvia's draws a lot of tourists. Sylvia's is able to do this as a result of having a longtime, favorable reputation. Sylvia's also has some historical relevancy which newer restaurants yet to have established. Sylvia's development as a high end soul food restaurant was much more organic in nature. I don't think you can start off as a high end restaurant, you have to earn it.

I think if any soul food restaurant has the potential to reach this status, it's Merts. And that's only going to happen when Charlotte becomes a larger tourist destination.

posted by
jennifer love

Dec 3, 2013 at 7:57 PM

Charlotte can support this type of restaurant. I had high hopes for Deltas, but the food and service was just bad. I had been warned that the food was just ok, but I really thought is was awful. I tried every course and with each serving it got worse. I'm not the best cook among black females but I could do a much better job. We were served by a young female who just didn't have the skills to serve in a highly priced restaurant. Her hair was worn down and I watched it touch my husband's drink glass multiple times. We vowed never to return. We really wanted it to be good but it just wasn't. Seriously, I ordered the chocolate dessert and it looked like a hostess cake. I knew they wouldn't make it. They could have made it if they just served drinks, music and light snacks. There website made everything look amazing, but what a letdown.

posted by
Harv

Dec 10, 2013 at 3:04 AM

Many good points on Delta however on my personal visit to Deltas was not even mediocre. I had just had my wisdom teeth extracted less than 3 days but settled for some gumbo due to pain and the gumbo rice was crunchy! If they can't get rice cooked right you know that they are slacking in all other entrees! The service was below average and when our people patronize a business of Delta caliber we expect above and beyond service as we get at Chima, Ruth Chris etc... When we go to these establishments we know that we are gonna be leaving with exceptional service and food and if not then we are going to make it known to management and they are going to do everything in their best interest to make it right. So, in a nutshell, if you gonna open a business and cater to prodominately african american folk then you need to step up your A-Game and that includes food quality, customer service, and Ambience!

posted by
Denise

Dec 10, 2013 at 7:08 AM

I moved down here a few months ago from New York City. Delta's was one of the first places my friend proudly took me to. I went on a Tuesday night and enjoyed a live music and $5 drinks. I was very impressed and embraced the atmosphere. I went back for dinner a couple of months later on a Sunday Evening, and the scene was a lot different. The dining room was empty, except a few people sitting at the bar. The waitress was very friendly and attentive. We both enjoyed our food and drinks. Coming from an area of the country where its an exception not the rule that people greet you with a smile, I appreciated the warm southern hospitality that I experienced at Delta's. I agree however that to survive in Charlotte they should have promoted themselves as an entertainment venue, with a small plate concept which included soul food, but not exclusively. I am very sad that Delta's didn't make it here. I believe they had great potential.

posted by
JSU in the Carolinas

Dec 22, 2013 at 1:33 AM

Darn, I was hoping Delta's made it. I had a great time there one evening. The food and service was pretty good. I guess The King's Kitchen will keep it going.

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