By Susan Swagler
Yo’ Mama’s, a homegrown lunch and brunch place in downtown Birmingham, has long enjoyed a loyal local (and regional) following. And last year, the eatery attracted some welcome, timely national attention, too.
Yo’ Mama’s was one of about three dozen restaurants around the country – and the only one in Alabama – to receive a James Beard Foundation (JBF) grant through the organization’s Food and Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans.
Crystal Peterson, co-owner and the general manager of Yo’ Mama’s, said they were thrilled with the grant. “It’s really cool to be included in something that is considered so prestigious in the food industry.”
These grants are part of JBF’s efforts to recognize and provide financial resources for food and beverage businesses that are majority-owned by Black or Indigenous people.
The foundation notes: “Black and Indigenous people often have portions of their cuisines and cultures appropriated, their hand in creating major American food and beverage items and dishes erased, and their images exploited and racialized to the benefit of their white counterparts. We recognize these facts and seek to highlight the merits and contributions of Black and Indigenous people.”
Peterson said one of the many contacts she’s made through the years forwarded an email to her about the grants. “I sent it to my sister, and I was like, ‘Hey, let’s just try out for it. You never know, but the fact that we are Black, and we are women-owned, we’re pretty much a double minority, and we may be able to get this thing. The least we could do is just try.’”
She said the grant money – $15,000 – helped cover payroll, but it’s more impactful than that. The additional money helped them help others.
“It’s gonna alleviate pressure on us on the financial side, sure. But it also frees you up to be creative. As a business owner when you’re stressed about the income and cash flow, it takes you away from other things. … By having that financial freedom, it helps us stay … involved in the community.”
Yo’ Mama’s employs women from Jessie’s Place as well as people with autism. They feed families at the Ronald McDonald House. They feed Birmingham’s homeless. “Street homeless,” Peterson said, “not just the homeless who stay in the shelters. We’ll go to the people who are actually street homeless.”
They also work with community-focused nonprofits. “It’s hard enough for the 501(c)(3)s in the area already,” Peterson said, “because so many businesses are seeing losses, they’re not spending money on the giving side. Because they already have so much loss, they don’t have it to give. So, we still try to stay active in those things because we know that they need the money now more than ever.
“We firmly believe in ‘to whom much is given, much is required.’ Every time we are given something, we definitely give back.”
The grants are part of the JBF commitment to be more inclusive overall, and “to recognize, celebrate and support the efforts of all types of food and beverage businesses, not just those that have been acknowledged for decades at the James Beard Awards.” This includes lunch places like Yo’ Mama’s as well as pop-up supper clubs, food trucks and brewpubs. “In speaking with the foundation,” Peterson said, “they’re saying that they’re about to change how they award the James Beards; it doesn’t have to be fancy food anymore. They’re going to try to actually include all genres of food that are just good food.”
Yo’ Mama’s has been in business since 2014, when Crystal, along with her father (who does the finances) and her sister (who handles the website, digital media and online interface) helped her mom, Denise Peterson, realize a longtime dream of owning a restaurant. The place was popular from the get-go. They specialize in homestyle cooking with Southern roots and are perhaps best known for their fried chicken and waffles and the daily specials that, Peterson said, are dishes her mom cooked for the family when she was growing up. With the exception of a few Meals of the Day, everything is gluten-free or has a gluten-free option.
But there’s more than that at Yo’ Mama’s.
“We have a lot of people who think that all we sell are soul foods,” Peterson said, “because most of the time, when it comes to Black people, we only are referred to as ‘soul food.’ But I always tell people, ‘It depends on where your soul goes.’ Because, if you want tacos, we’ve got it. If you want shrimp and grits, we’ll take you to a little bit of New Orleans. We got it. Where’s your soul going? We can take you there.”
According to JBF, the fund uses the most recent census data to help disburse grants equally across Black and Indigenous populations throughout the United States. The foundation identified six regions of the country, each containing 16 percent to 17 percent of the total Black and Indigenous population in the U.S. Yo’ Mama’s received its grant in the second round of funding; other recipients in the region that includes Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, Mississippi and Oklahoma were Fify’s Caribbean Cuisine and Food Friends Catering, both in Florida.
The grants are part of the JBF Open for Good campaign, launched last year “to rebuild an independent restaurant industry that is stronger, more equitable, more sustainable and more resilient when it re-opens post-COVID-19.”
The aim is to lift up Black and Indigenous business owners within the food and beverage industries during these difficult pandemic times and keep supporting them moving forward so they can survive – and thrive – into the future. To that end, JBF is enlisting other organizations and industry experts to provide guidance on professional skills like marketing, structuring business plans and negotiating contracts.
“What James Beard found out is that money is not the biggest problem; sometimes it’s education,” Peterson said. If you can educate and finance at the same time, you can really help people cope with something like going from 200 customers one day to 20 customers the next, she adds.
Peterson said her family has been thinking about franchising Yo’ Mama’s and expects that the various Zoom meetings, forums and expert advice offered by JBF can help make that dream a reality.
“It helps when you know that information,” she said, “when you’re trying to make a deal versus letting a lawyer talk you to your deal.” Peterson is looking for guidance on a business model that best suits their homestyle, gluten-free niche. “Between all the contacts they have and the mentorship I can gain from them, they also connect you with other business owners who are chefs or people that are in the business areas – not necessarily the food side. And they also have help with the food side … recipes, calorie counts … all the kinds of things you are required to have as a franchise.
“We’re ready to get all the information, because I’m ready to start negotiating contracts to franchise.”
The JBF grant Yo’ Mama’s received is a kind of personal affirmation, too, Peterson said.
“To me – to us – it’s really just a blessing. And we know that we’re running our business right simply because we keep getting blessings. … It’s just awesome.”
For more info about the James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans, go to https://www.jamesbeard.org/investment-fund.
Yo’ Mama’s 2328 2nd Ave. N. Birmingham, AL 35203 205-957-6545
Open Monday through Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Twice-monthly brunch (the second and last weekends each month).
This post originally appeared on the Alabama NewsCenter on April 30, 2021.