Cluster of Southside restaurants offers competitive fare

By Ashley Williams
Outlook writer

A former hair salon was converted to what’s now known as Earley’s Kitchen. Less than the length of a football field away is Olean’s Cafe on South Adams Street.

Just up the street, a few buildings separate Olean’s from Auntie’s Kitchen, which is a stone-throw away from Chicago Chicken & Grill. Just behind that Toni’s Southern Cafe recently opened adjacent to Checkers.

Add in the number of other eating places, including fast food joints and there are more than 16 restaurants for Southside residents to choose from.

But never mind their close proximity. They all seem to be thriving, especially the ones that specialize in food with a southern twist.

Yet, the owners say that there is no competition between the mom-and-pop businesses for the same dollar. It all comes down to the customers’ taste, they say.

Having as many restaurants as there are on the Southside means patrons now have a choice of eating something different every day. And, therein is the competition — having choices.

“I feel like there is competition but then again not really because the customers choose what they have a taste for,” said Derrick Williams, an employee at Chicago Chicken &Grill. “There’s always a lunch rush in the fall, same for spring and summer just not as bad,” he added.

“There is always going to be competition amongst anybody, everything depends on what the customer wants to eat that day,” said Williams.

The cluster of South side restaurants that caters some variety of Southern dishes arguably is the largest in one area in Tallahassee. Vanessa Mitchell is a good example of how determined some of these owners are to get a piece of the financial pie when it comes to selling food.

Mitchell is now owner of Auntie’s Kitchen, where she was once an employee. Six months ago she bought the business and changed the name to Auntie’s Kitchen.

“At first the new ownership had people confused but because I worked here prior to owning, the people come here for my people person personality,” she said. “I greet them and the food is great too.”
The restaurant is located in the historic Baker’s Plaza, where the first pharmacy in Tallahassee was located. Despite the plaza’s popularity, Mitchell said it often is overlooked. An upgrade could bring even more business, she said.

However, she seemingly relishes the challenge of being owner in a crowded pack of restaurants.
“It’s not about competition,” she said. “It’s all about survival. There’re so many soul food restaurants on the Southside because that’s what we like to eat. Nobody wants to eat fast food all the time.”

But there is a drawback from having so many restaurants serving a fare that is similar. Some like Queen Sharp sometimes chooses to go outside of the Monroe-Adams street loop to Leola’s Crab Shack on Orange Avenue, located just under a mile from the congested area to grab a bite.
Some of the franchise stores in the area also offer an option that Sharp favors.

“I would rather eat at a franchise versus a locally owned restaurant because sometimes they are not as clean,” said Sharp,” who works at nearby Ace of Spade Tattoo Shop. “Franchises have different standards they have to uphold and when it comes down to family owned restaurants they do whatever they want.”

Toni’s Southern Cafe is one of three cafeteria-styled restaurants between Monroe and Adams streets. However, owner Toni Footman said she is not worried about the competition.

Owners of Toni’s previously operated Cassandra’s on Adams Street before opening their new location three months ago on Monroe Street as Toni’s Southern Cafe.

“I love this location especially since it’s a single building,” Footman said. “The restaurant before was majority college students. This new location has strictly been the local community. In August, we plan to do a lot of promoting to cater to the college.”

Anthony Footman, who backs his 22-year-old daughter’s venture, said he intends to do upgrades to the restaurant’s parking lot and other cosmetic features to the building.

As for the competition, the older Footman said it’s nothing different from what he’s seen while growing up on the Southside.

Several have come and gone, but Oleans has been a fixture over the years. Owner Olean McCaskill attributed their longevity to customer service.

“I treat my customers like family,” she said. “It’s home away from home and I’ve seen a lot of (college) kids come and go. I’ve been doing this since I was 14. This is my passion.”