by Heather Henderson
[published in the Minnesota Women’s Press, December 2001]
In a strip mall in North Minneapolis, there’s a little corner of Louisiana where you can find chicken wings, catfish, gumbo and sweet potato pie. Bottles of Crystal hot sauce adorn each table. On the walls, prints by local artist Charles Caldwell celebrate black heritage. For five years, Lucille’s Kitchen has fed good Southern soul food to a loyal clientele. The restaurant has also brought nourishment and spice to the community in another way, by serving as a center for public discussion and lively debate. Each week, the Public Policy Forum, sponsored by Insight News and KMOJ-FM, takes place in the dining room.
The woman behind this phenomenon is Lucille Williams, a gifted home cook who changed careers late in life and taught herself the restaurant business. She now has a staff of 12 that includes her brother and her three grown children. A youthful-looking 61-year-old, Williams has a calm, dignified demeanor and a rich laugh that comes easily. Though she’s lived in Minneapolis for decades, her quiet voice still holds a Louisiana drawl – she was born and raised in Shreveport. She first came to Minneapolis in the summer of 1961 to visit her sister, who was expecting a baby. She immediately fell in love with the Minnesota weather. “The summer was so beautiful,” she says. “It wasn’t hot and it wasn’t humid.” After her sister gave birth, Williams went back to Shreveport and told her husband she wanted to move. “He said, ‘Well, we need a change, we need to get out of here,’” she remembers, “so we packed up and got out.”
The change they found was dramatic. They arrived in December, in the midst of a harsh winter in which subzero temperatures were the norm. Settling in, they realized how different it was to live in a city where most of the inhabitants were white. “There weren’t many black people,” Williams says. “It was real strange.” In her first job, she was one of two black employees. In a few of her later jobs, she was the only one. “I’d never been around so many white people in my life!” she remembers, laughing. “But I didn’t have any problems with them. You realize they’re people just like you. They just happen to be a different color, that’s all.”
In Minnesota, Williams was liberated from the racial segregation that controlled her life in Louisiana. “I know it’s hard to believe now,” she reflects, “but we actually had black and white water fountains and restrooms. We couldn’t go out to a movie and sit just anywhere. There were certain places where we were supposed to sit. But up here, you were free to be wherever you wanted to be.”
Williams eventually made a career working in the admitting departments of hospitals around the Twin Cities. In recent years, she decided to leave that field and open her own restaurant, something she had always wanted to do. “Cooking was always a big thing in my house,” she says. “It’s something I like doing.”
To realize her dream, Williams had to run a gauntlet of city bureaucrats and construction contractors, paying hefty fees along the way; but she refused to give up, even when the outlook was bleak. When she was finally about to open after extensive remodeling of the space, she discovered that she had to pay a $2,000 sewer access fee to the city before the restaurant could use the dishwashers. She opened the restaurant anyway, serving food on paper plates. She laughs, “We were operating on a real small shoestring!”
That was in 1996. Today the restaurant is well-established, with an extensive menu. Last year, Williams began offering an all-you-can-eat buffet on Sundays from noon until four. The price of $10.95 includes fruit, salad, dessert, and beverage. Williams says, “There’s everything on our regular menu, and also two or three extra items, like liver and onions, spaghetti, and roast beef.”
The fame of Lucille’s is spreading. Customers have come from as far as the Carolinas, Florida, New York, and Tennessee. This September, the restaurant was discovered by attendees at the National Baptist Convention in Minneapolis. Soon crowds of them were arriving at the restaurant by bus and by taxicab. “We had a line all the way up to the door, for hours. I couldn’t believe it!” Williams exclaims. “They were shocked and happy to find food like this in Minnesota. Some of those people were in here every day that they were in Minneapolis.”
When she can take the time, Williams comes out of the kitchen and chats with customers. Sometimes celebrities drop in, such as the New Temptations, bluesman Clarence Carter, Stephon Marbury, and several of the Vikings. “Korey Stringer was a regular,” Williams says. “Randy Moss and Dante Culpepper were in here last week.” Another distinguished visitor was Jesse Jackson, who came in to do a KMOJ broadcast. Recalls Williams, “He wanted to sit down and eat but they were rushing him out of here. I handed him a peach cobbler and a spoon. He said ‘At least I can eat this!’”
Williams learned traditional recipes from her mother, but over the years she has changed many of these dishes into something uniquely her own. “Over time you change whatever you were taught anyway, and create your own style,” she says. “Like smothered chicken. When I was growing up at home, it was fried chicken that was placed into brown gravy. I never liked it. The crust would fall off into the gravy. So I created my own smothered chicken that’s not fried. When I make sweet potato pie now, it’s nothing like I used to make it. It’s a process – it goes on and on, and it changes as it goes.”
Lucille’s Kitchen is famous not only for its food, but for the role it plays as a community meeting place. Every Tuesday at 9:30 a.m., it serves as the home of the Public Policy Forum, a public meeting broadcast live on KMOJ. Lucille’s may be unique among restaurants in hosting a forum of this kind. Its spacious dining area makes it ideal for large assemblies. When she was approached about using her restaurant as a meeting place, Williams was eager to help. She says, “We were the first place available in years to do that type of thing. So I just said, hey, go for it, go on and do it.”
The forum provides an opportunity for residents of the community to listen, learn, and talk back. Debates between political candidates have included participation from the audiences. The forum has even ventured beyond radio: thanks to videoconferencing technology provided by KTCA-TV, participants have held discussions with people in South Africa and in the rural community of Crookston, Minnesota.
Williams doesn’t get involved in any of the political discussions, but she finds them interesting. “It’s been informative,” she says. “I think that’s been really good for the community as a whole. Sometimes people stay after the forum to discuss things. And eat!” she adds with a smile.
Running the restaurant is hard, timeconsuming work. Williams is usually in the restaurant seven days a week, even on Mondays, when they’re closed. But it has paid off: she enjoys her independence and is gratified that the restaurant fills a need in the community. She explains, “I’m my own boss, and I’m doing what I want to do. I get to cook, which is what I love. I see people enjoying themselves and saying ‘Whoo, this is good!’ We work hard to bring a good product to the community and to be a place where people can come in, sit down with their family and enjoy a nice meal.
“It’s been one of those uphill battles, ever since we started,” she says. “But somehow we keep hanging in here. And I figure as long as we’re hanging in here, God must want us to be here.”
Lucille’s Kitchen is at 2013 Plymouth Avenue North, Minneapolis. Telephone is 612-529-3350. The Public Policy Forum is broadcast live each Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. on KMOJ-FM (89.9) and on theWeb at http://www.kmoj.com.