Tacoma has many amazing hidden gems scattered across it’s hills, but our spotlight for today is much more gem than hidden.
With a resume thicker than a snicker, this diner’s heavenly food has been recognized and featured on the Food Network, Kevin Hart’s show on Comedy Central and listed as the best of the Northwest in Sunset Magazine.
A place that tastes, feels and smells like home.
Yes, Southern Kitchen!
For this month’s local business feature we spoke with the ever tasteful Gloria Martin, owner of Southern Kitchen.
Gloria had some great things to dish on how her business became so successful, but first, did you know she had very little cooking experience pre-Southern Kitchen? She also had no intention of owning a diner.
That is, until a rare opportunity came her way.
“I was a business-woman, not really a chef. I actually owned a bookstore across from Southern Kitchen. One day the previous owner stopped by and asked if I would be interested in buying it. And here we are 25 plus years later.”
While her culinary skills developed she leaned on the knowledge of her dad, who was a chef, to guide the menu into the divine yumminess it is today.
One of the characteristics she prides her business on is her menu’s transparency. In the first years of being open almost all of the meals served were pork-based. We’re talking hamhocks, chitlins, bacon– foods customary to southern cooking.
However, things took a turn when she realized many of her regulars were older, retired military with diabetes or high blood pressure and requiring low carb/low salt meals.
“I had to evolve. Owning a bookstore helped…I was able to read about how I could make food more wholesome. So I completely stopped serving pork.”
When she told her staff she was going to stop serving pork they were in complete shock and didn’t think the diner would survive without it! Pork has so much history and weight in southern cooking that it’s pretty unheard of to go without, especially 20 plus years ago.
“People have always assumed Black people eat nothing but hamhocks and chitlins, but you know what, we’re survivors. We ate what we had to in order to survive.”
Gloria was motivated to do right by her customers. In her reading she also discovered that many African countries are predominantly vegetarian or vegan. This knowledge inspired her to change the narrative on soul food actually being good for the soul.
“I feel I’ve done a good job being transparent about my food. I could tell you where it comes from exactly, how I make it, where all the ingredients are sourced, what’s artificial and what’s not.”
Years later her diner is thriving and forever packed with lines of people patiently awaiting their turn for a taste of food honoring the roots of southern cuisine while plating the way for a new legacy.
What makes Gloria most proud of all her success?
Surprisingly, it’s not the food!
“What I’m most proud of, besides giving out good food, is providing jobs for Black men in our community…They’re able to work here without feeling like they can’t succeed because of their skin color.”
As a Black woman growing up during the Civil Rights Movement witnessing and experiencing brutal racism she fought hard and faced many challenges to own a business. While she had many business ideas she was able to narrow them down to one sustainable idea: providing good jobs to Black people.
“It makes me sad to see that we’re in the year 2020 and my people, my staff are subjected to the same exact racism I was subjected to at their age while I was in college..I’m glad things are coming to light and people are looking to make real changes.”
She also has advice for Black entrepreneurs.
“It’s really hard to be successful in business. I’ve worked 15 hour days since I started mine, but you have to go for it and you have to know the business side – the numbers. When you go into ownership, that’s when you can make decisions…I would love for us to support each other more. The best way I can do that is to pass my knowledge and experience on because I’m all about empowerment.”
If you haven’t been to Southern Kitchen, do yourself the greatest flavor of ordering take-out ASAP.