This Excellent Memphis Restaurant Neighborhood Is Reinventing Food Activism
Driving through Memphis’s Crosstown neighborhood, it’s hard to miss Crosstown Concourse. The former Sears distribution center turned mixed-use development anchors the area with an arts center, shops, school, and public health center. Walk inside and it’s clear that the food is the heart of this place. Most of the restaurants are local, and three of them have made giving back to the community a core part of their mission.
An arch of pink, green, and white balloons adorns the door at Global Café in Memphis. It’s the restaurant’s first anniversary, but for the refugee chefs who run the kitchen, it’s one of many big moments. Most of them passed through three countries, abandoning their former lives behind before resettling here. Global Café serves food from Sudan, Syria, and Venezuela.
The cafeteria-style restaurant is the brainchild of Swiss migrant Sabine Langer, who moved to Memphis with her husband and children six years ago. She noticed that the city had a large refugee population, mainly because World Relief and Catholic Charities resettled many people in the Binghampton neighborhood. As she started volunteering in the community, she noticed that many of the women catered parties, and a restaurant seemed inevitable.
“I noticed a lot of people were cooking as a side job to make extra money, but they couldn’t save enough money to open up their own restaurant,” said Langer, who does not collect a salary. “So, I thought I could provide the structure for them. It was scary because I had never worked in the restaurant industry—I can’t even cook.”
They were profitable after six months, which is a rarity in the restaurant industry. The menu at Global Café highlights the cardamom, saffron and grape leaves found in different parts of the world, but also showcases commonalities. Potatoes, spinach, cilantro and tomatoes are all found in tabbouleh, arepas, and sambusa.
“People try the food and then they ask about our culture and our country,” said Fayha Sakkan, whose chicken kabob and okra and beef stew are two of the day’s most popular dishes. “Then, they start to wish us happy holiday when they know it’s a Muslim holiday. Everyone is like family here."
Just a few doors down from Global Café is Next Door Eatery, where the core mission is making fresh ingredients more accessible. The chain is owned by Kimbal Musk, the brother of Tesla founder Elon Musk. From the curried cauliflower to the sriracha broccoli, they source produce from American farms and fisheries for their vegetable-filled comfort foods.
They've partnered with Big Green to put learning gardens in local schools. The goal of the program, which as 120 gardens in Memphis alone, is to teach kids where their food comes from. Next Door Eatery also hosts 25forU percentage nights, where any non-profit that brings at least 25 people to the restaurant will receive 25 percent of the night’s profits.
“To see yourself grow something, tend to it and nurture it—you’re more connected with your neighborhood when you’re sharing and preparing with other people,” said general manager Douglas Gordon.
For sweet endings, nearby Lucy J’s Bakery serves confections with heart. The shop collaborates with the Dorothy Day House, a nonprofit that keeps homeless families together and provides jobs for parents who are transitioning their families out of homelessness. Every employee makes at least $15 per hour.
Husband and wife co-founders Joshua and Tracy Burgess named the bakery for their children, Lucy and Jacob—Tracy jokes that people often confuse the name with Memphis rapper Juicy J. During a difficult time in their marriage, the couple found that baking brought them closer together. Then, when they started taking cake orders for church members and volunteering at Dorothy Day House, that bond ballooned into a business.
“The families that we met through the Dorothy Day House can’t survive on the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour,” said Tracy. “As we were putting together our business plan, we knew the Fight for $15 had to be a part of our mission. There are people who have asked, ‘Why should they earn so much?’ We continuously reply with facts and show them what it looks like to create a monthly budget on $7.25 per hour. It opens their eyes.”
The bakery currently employees three professionally trained culinary instructors, in addition to Dorothy Day House residents. As customers, drift in and out with fluffy croissants, glazed fruit tarts, and crispy chocolate chip cookies, it’s clear that this place is more than just a bakery.
“I love the interaction with people and I need to feel like I’m helping somebody,” said head baker Jenny Riley. “You’re giving people a hand up, teaching them a trade and helping your brother. That’s what it’s all about.”