The late summer months will see the Central District a few pies, biscuits and barbecue sandwiches richer, as Simply Soulful, a mom-and-pop soul food cafe currently nestled in Madison Valley, prepares to relocate to a retail space in the new Jackson Apartments off Jackson and 23rd.
The cafe blossomed from a mother and daughter’s farmer’s market stall in Kent. Owners Barbara Collins and daughter, Lillian Rambus, would arrive every weekend with 75 to a hundred sweet potato pies and sell out within a couple of hours, packing up their stall and heading home well before other vendors. Collins learned to make these wildly popular pies from her mother, who was allergic to a spice included in most traditional sweet potato pies; consequently she crafted her own singular recipe.
That market stall eventually became a cafe which feeds the neighborhood, despite operating with only a single small fridge, five burners, and a turkey fryer. “You know, the kind you cook in at Thanksgiving,” Collins says, laughing. She and Rambus use it to fry their chicken to a golden crisp year-round, a repurposing that exemplifies the ingenuity of two women who, in defiance of limited resources, have been able to build a business and community gathering space that outgrew its current digs long ago.
Collins is as passionate as she is resourceful. “I feel like we all are put here on earth for a reason, and I think cooking is my reason for being here. And feeding people. Whether they pay for it or whether I give it to them.”
And she has been cooking practically since she was put here on earth. Her family worked a cotton field in Mississippi when she was growing up, and because she was a substandard cotton picker in comparison to her siblings, she was put to work in the kitchen at the age of eight. “You’ve probably never even heard of a cotton field,” she chuckles wryly, acknowledging the many miles, both literal and metaphorical, that separate her neat little cafe in Madison Valley from her childhood in the South.
The rapport between Rambus and Collins is a physical presence, even over Zoom, clear in their conspiratorial laughs and seamless co-storytelling. “How do you not get along with family?’” Collins asks, with a tone of delightfully genuine incredulity.
Vulcan Real Estate developed this new complex on the former site of the Red Apple Market. It faced, as many developers do, heavy scrutiny for its venture in this historically Black neighborhood that has spent the past decade gentrifying at warp speed. Community demands, when Vulcan expressed initial interest in developing the Jackson apartment complex, included affordable retail space for locally owned businesses. “I think it’s such a great story,” says Lori Mason Curran, Director of Real Estate Investment Strategy for Vulcan Real Estate, of Simply Soulful’s mother-daughter team.
Alongside an array of classic soul food dishes, the cafe plans to showcase local art, with a particular focus on the work of POC artists. Simply Soulful’s IFundWomen Campaign, which has raised nearly $2,500 to help finance the restaurant’s expansion, neatly demonstrates the loyalty of the cafe’s existing following. When asked if she thought their regulars would follow them from Madison Valley, Rambus answered with immediate, unwavering confidence: “I do."