Over the last couple of decades, Atlanta has become a city mostly of transplants, but if you want to see if someone really knows the city, ask them about Bankhead Fish & Soul. In the city's African-American community, the fast-casual seafood restaurant—with its iconic wood paneling and brown booths—was an essential gathering place. It was also the longest standing restaurant in the Bankhead area before the owner, Helen Brown Harden, announced last year that she was being forced to close down after 50 years.
Harden cited her health as the primary reason for closing the restaurant, which stood on the corner at 1651 Donald Lee Hollowell. (Hollowell was a civil rights attorney who fought to integrate Atlanta’s public schools.) Following the announcement, there was an outpouring on social media from longtime restaurant patrons.
For my family, it felt like the end of an era. Going to Bankhead Fish & Soul was often our summer treat. We drove from our home in Stone Mountain, a suburb just outside of the city, to northwest Atlanta for a Styrofoam container overflowing with fried fish and hushpuppies, served with a side of Harden’s sweet and tangy tartar sauce. On some occasions, we ate a slice of her homemade sweet potato pie for dessert.
My memories of Bankhead Fish & Soul are shared by many Atlantans, and for many in the Grove Park community, the shuttering of Bankhead Fish & Soul was not just the loss of a restaurant, but another casualty of gentrification. Over the last five years, new developments have popped up in the area with homes selling for $300 to $400K. This is a sharp contrast to some older homes in the area, which go for as little as $40K.
The potential displacement of residents in this historic black community was not lost on rapper-entrepreneurs Michael Render, known as Killer Mike, and Clifford Harris, who goes by T.I. A year after the restaurant’s closing, the two announced that they would be reviving Bankhead Fish & Soul under the name Bankhead Seafood. They will be rolling out a food truck this spring, with a full-service brick-and-mortar restaurant slated for next year.
Both men grew up in the Bankhead area and are invested in providing a means of economic empowerment for legacy residents. Render attended the official announcement of the reopening on Feb. 29, which was fittingly held at their alma mater, Frederick Douglass High School.
This is not Harris’ first venture into the restaurant industry; his upscale downtown Atlanta eatery, Scales 925, opened in 2015 and closed in 2016. Harris is also behind the label Grand Hustle Records, as well as the Trap Music Museum.
“Bankhead Seafood is way more than a business venture for me. I grew up going there to eat all the time and knew it couldn’t close its doors,” Harris said. “The restaurant has been a strong pillar in the community for decades, and I want to do everything in my power to keep that going. It’s always been my mission to give back to those in need and provide economic opportunities to our communities.”
Render is best known as one-half of the hip-hop duo Run the Jewels and host of the Netflix docuseries “Trigger Warning with Killer Mike.” In Atlanta, he and his wife own a chain of barber shops called The Swag Shop. In addition to describing future plans for the food truck, Render also encouraged the students in the building to think big and give back to their communities.
“I remember a time when I could drive down the street in this community and eat at a restaurant with my grandparents. Now, I have to drive to Camp Creek or to Buckhead, neither of which keep tax dollars in this community,” Render said at a press conference. “I believe you should have a place to eat with your children, parents, and grandparents. It is my sincere hope that just like a TGI Fridays, the community will support us.”
Under the name Bankhead Seafood, the new food truck will serve Harden’s signature fish, fried and hushpuppies, plus a new Dope Boy Po’Boy and Trap Biscuits. Render said that the price point will remain affordable, starting at $8 a plate. He also added that the duo is looking into adding plant-based items to the menu, such as vegan “catfish” nuggets.
More than anything, the Render and Harris want to create a sustainable business that the Bankhead community can trust, just as they did Bankhead Fish & Soul for 50 years. The two also have their eyes focused on expansion.
“It is our job to end up in other communities so that this becomes a regional and national brand,” Render said. “Just like Waffle House and Chick-fil-A were born out of Atlanta, we can be the next one. We owe it to our communities to be the next one.”