When Michelle White turned 45, she gave herself an ultimatum: keep running a daycare center or chase a new dream. That’s what led her to open up Next Step Soul Food Cafe in Codman Square in 2017. With the help of her mother and a rotating roster of volunteering family members, White slings her classic collard greens and fried chicken dishes to a community she’s proud to belong to.
Below, she describes her love affair with Dorchester, recommends dishes for first-time guests, and explains what International Women’s Day signifies to a female restaurateur in her 50s.
Soul food has always been in my veins. My parents are from South Carolina and they were perfect for each other because they didn’t like eating out, so they always cooked. My mother’s mother and my father’s mother all had gardens, so I grew up around people who cared about farm to table to kind of things and that planted the seed long ago. I’d come home from school and help my mom in the kitchen, just watching her; I was one of those ankle biters. My mother did catering for her church Freedom Christ-Ministry, and they always joked that she should open up her own restaurant. Meanwhile, both my mother and I studied early education and childcare. By the time I turned 45, I was running a daycare and I thought, “I need to find something else or I stay in my career.” I took a job skills test and it said I should be in customer or food service, so I enrolled in a kitchen training program for 12 weeks. I wanted to be able to cut it in a commercial kitchen, you know? I graduated top of my class and I loved it. My mom said, “Why don’t you open up a little soul food place?” So, at the age of 46, I got started in the restaurant business.
Officially, it’s just me. No one has titles. But my mother and I work together; she does the majority of the food prep. Soul food isn’t like regular fast food, you can’t just come in here and turn on the fryer. All of the food prep takes hours and we have a small kitchen, so everything is small batch. Different family members volunteer when they have the time and do things like go shopping for me. In my head, I just wanted a window and a few tables, maybe two or three, and you could pick up food or you could eat there if you want. I never thought I would have a restaurant with 30 seats. We’re a small business and this is just the beginning; we’re still changing and growing. I couldn’t do it without my family.
I always knew I wanted to do soul food, but I didn’t want to push that on people. I wanted to give the community what they wanted, so I went around here and surveyed people about what they’d like to eat. Everyone said they had no soul food around them and they wanted that to change. I went to community meetings with the Neighborhood Development Corporation and got to know the people so I earned their full support. Here, in Codman Square, if they don’t like you, you aren’t going to be here. You need the respect of the people in the community, from both the merchants and the residents. We’re here in the center next to lots of churches and several charter schools, a clinic, courthouse, banks, all that. So, I make sure I’m here for them and that’s why I call it a community café.
The biggest challenge, as weird as it sounds, is just having to be here all the time. I didn’t realize I would need to be here constantly. I thought I’d have opening hours, then lock the door and go home. But that’s not the case. I’ll be here at 1 or 2 a.m. cooking and trying to keep up with what we’re doing that week. It’s a good thing I live barely 10 minutes away. I also have to schedule maintenance and cleaning and deliveries, and it’s just a never-ending rush. I thought it would be more organized or coordinated, like an orchestra or something. But it’s always changing.
The biggest reward is the fact that I can provide some economic stability for my family. That’s my goal. All my family is right here, we all live in Dorchester. It can be tough out here and people can’t just have one job. You need multiple jobs to make it. I’m happy that at least I have something that can help.
You’ve got to try the fried chicken. Get the traditional stuff: collard greens, candied yams, mac and cheese. Those are the hallmark dishes of soul food. If you’re really adventurous, you can try the pork offerings, which is like chitlins, pig’s feet, all that stuff. My regulars like the pork chops smothered in gravy. People come in looking for comfort food and that’s what soul food is. There’s nothing for the lighthearted. We’ve got heavy dishes and good food.
We run on women power here. Me and my mom—we’re two single ladies! It’s very difficult for women to make it in the restaurant industry. The fact that we did open up is kind of crazy. We’re also women over the age of 50. We are tried and true, and we’re hard workers. Sometimes as you get older, people think women are done and you should settle in. But I feel like this day and month makes women everywhere say I’m going to do something and I’m going to make a change. That’s what I think we’re doing in our community.
Primark is celebrating International Women’s Day all month long with four female leaders who are changing Boston for the better. Check back next week for a new interview with another amazing local lady. You can inspire your own style with pieces from Michelle’s wardrobe at three nearby Primark locations: Downtown Crossing, South Shore Braintree, and Burlington.
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