By Aaron Allen, The Seattle Medium
In the Black community there are two essentials that Black folks pride themselves on — family and food.
In Kent there is a place that exudes just that. Nana’s Southern Kitchen. The restaurant, which opened last December, serves Southern staples like fried chicken, catfish, fried shrimp, pork chops, potato salad, mustard or collard greens, and candied yams and is drawing customers from across the region.
COVID-19 has devastated the business landscape, and many restaurants have either closed their doors for good or are very close to shutting down. Despite having the deck stacked against them, especially being a start-up in their first year of business, Nana’s has defied the odds and is not only surviving but has thrived as the demand for the coveted comfort food has grown.
Their growth is punctuated by their commitment to continue hiring people to meet their increasing demand. Nana’s started in December of 2019 with just 4 employees. Their success enabled them to hire up to 5 more people before COVID, and surprisingly they are now operating with a whopping 15 employees.
Nana’s owner Todd Minor says that modeling his business after soul food restaurants on the East coast helped him weather the storm, as the model was in line with the operating restrictions imposed by state and local officials due to COVID-19.
“On the East coast there’s a million different takeout spots, even if you had dine-in you still ate out of a takeout container,” says Minor. “I had built Nana’s to have everything takeout and so when COVID hit, I was a bit nervous because you didn’t know if people were going to be eating out, but the model was already set up to take your food to go.”
Minor and his wife, Tanieka, migrating from the East coast, came to the Pacific Northwest like most others because of opportunity. Microsoft offered Minor a position and he jumped at the chance. The parents of five children — Mercedes 16, McKenzie 9, twins Madison and Todd Jr. 5 and Anson 2 — the family embarked on their endeavor to become restaurant owners last December not knowing that the next year would test their resolve as a business and family unit.
The COVID crisis would start the year testing all of the world and Nana’s was not immune. The Minors were nervous when, as new business owners, the country began its lockdown.
If you speak to many experts, they will tell you that the restaurant business is not an easy endeavor but this did not deter Minor from his vision. He did his due diligence, studied the market and the business model, but one thing he didn’t factor in to the equation was COVID-19.
Minor wasn’t sure just how this adversity was going to affect the future of his business but he and his family pressed on. Like most businesses when March 2020 hit and the state mandated a shutdown, their future was uncertain.
“After we opened it was going really well, we were really busy and COVID hit and we couldn’t have anyone in the restaurant and at that point I was nervous,” says Minor.
“You have to remember when COVID hit a lot places closed, we are next to Starbucks, Starbucks closed, everybody closed but Nana’s stayed open,” Minor continued. “We were one of the only places besides the McDonalds of the world that were still open, we stayed open the whole time.”
Shekinah Brown, who is in charge of daily operations at the restaurant, says that the support from the community, even in the middle of a pandemic, has been a key factor to the success of the business.
“I was the second person hired when they opened, and even through the pandemic, we were still able to hire and offer opportunity,” says Brown.
“Honestly, I think that we have been blessed,” continued Brown. “We were a new business as we all tried to figure out how to run it. But we created a system and worked to execute it perfectly.”
Family is the most important thing to the Minors and it was important that they centralize their family and so Minor needed to find a way to get the rest of his family to the Puget Sound. As he pondered, he decided the best way to do this was through food.
Minor’s great grandmother, Myrtle Henderson, affectionately known as “Nana” in whom the restaurant is named after, was a well-known chef in Connecticut for more than 40 years. Her recipes were passed down through the family and the Minor’s thought why not start a restaurant in Kent and kill two birds with one stone — uniting their family and the community through the love of food.
Minor was raised by his grandmother, Dorothy Marion, and he wanted to get her to the West coast, so he began formulating his vision and plan for a restaurant ran by his family. He suggested his business plan to his family and persuaded them to relocate to Seattle.
Today, Nana’s is indeed a family affair. His mother, Jackey Minor, is the genius behind the flavor as she manages the kitchen along with their grandfather, Philip, who preps the greens. His grandmother exemplifies hospitality by greeting everyone who enters the restaurant. Minor’s wife, Tanieka, is in charge of all pastries and desserts, his 16-year old daughter, Mercedes, works the weekends while in school. But it is the recipes of his great grandmother “Nana” that provides the soul and spirit of the place.
“Originally before I opened up Nana’s my original idea for the name was actually ‘Soul To Go,’” says Minor. “But as I thought about it, meditated and prayed about it, I said I wanted to do something with a legacy in mind, something that will help people and provide a place with a certain spirit about it and I couldn’t think of a better spirit than my great grandmother.”
During this time, with all of the nuances of being a restaurant owner, Minor continued his work at Microsoft and as the pandemic evolved it became necessary for Minor to tap into his personal finances to help keep the business viable and maintain his staff.
“We have been fortunate,” says Minor. “We have a terrific staff and it was important to us to maintain everyone’s hours particularly when things got slow. As a business owner I had to make tough decisions and during the beginning of COVID I had to front monies from my own pocket to make sure my folks were able to keep the same hours as before COVID.”
Despite having to take money out of his own pocket for his employees, Minor maintains a positive attitude and says that the support of the community, particularly the Black community, has helped him remain focused, energized and optimistic. According to Minor, campaigns throughout the area to support businesses have been a blessing for the fledging business.
“When you talk about a tail wind, what happened is all the people started focusing on supporting Black-owned businesses and that brought so much awareness to Nana’s,” says Minor. “The African American community supported Nana’s and I will tell you the support throughout COVID where people came specifically to make sure that we were good made me almost want to break down as they came [through the door].”
But support campaigns are not the only reason for Nana’s continued success. Simply put it’s the food. Coveted comfort food is hard to find, and, in Nana’s, customers like Mark and Crissea Nickell have found a place to eat that they truly enjoy.
“Nana’s provides a very friendly and family-oriented service with a very good and consistent menu,” says Mark Nickell. “At the time, my wife had been going through health issues and having trouble finding foods she could eat and enjoy and when we discovered Nana’s it was a breakthrough for her and did a lot for her health, it was a godsend.”
Soul food defines comfort food and family and Nana’s defines soul food. Nana’s also defines perseverance as it has defied the adversity brought on by this unfortunate time and pandemic. Nana’s has endured because the Minors were brave enough to take risks and because of those risks the community came together to support them in these uncertain times.
With his mother in charge of the kitchen, his wife as the master baker of desserts, his daughter offering her energy, the leadership of Shekinah Brown and a committed staff, Nana’s has not only weathered this pandemic but they are a success story in how one can overcome.
The Minors are greatly appreciative of the blessings bestowed upon them and to have this opportunity to serve the people, as their success is a testament to their perseverance and believing in a dream.
“Some many people said how difficult the restaurant business would be,” said Minor. “They said it was going to impossible to find good people, I will tell you every one of those people were wrong.”
“Whatever dream that you are out there trying to realize and the naysayers are out there telling you all the reasons why it won’t work, I will tell you to persevere, go out there and dream big, put your dreams on the canvas of your imagination and take one step every day towards fulfilling that dream,” concluded Minor.