Down-home cooking delights visitors to Avenue D restaurant
BY CAMILLE S. YATES
When Hassie Russ’ husband, Charles, opened a grocery store on Fort Pierce’s Avenue D in 1965, she helped stock the shelves, sweep the floors and mind the counter. She was content to do this for a decade, but she harbored a dream of her own. Russ had always loved cooking and wanted to share her favorite Southern dishes with friends, neighbors and the business community by opening a restaurant.
“I told Charles that I really wanted to do this,” says Russ, 66. We had a grocery store next door and I had the space to start the restaurant on the corner.”
At first, Russ’s husband was hesitant. “Charles felt that the work would be hard with long hours,’’ Russ says. He finally relented in 1975 and Russ opened Granny’s Kitchen. Russ’ children suggested she name the restaurant after their grandmother, Helen Morris, who was a boardinghouse cook in Brunswick, Ga.
Russ remembers her mother cooking during the morning and noon shifts and then waitressing at night. Most of the recipes served at Granny’s Kitchen originated from her mother, as well as her Auntie Hassie Elliott.
After four years of operating the restaurant by herself, Russ’ husband became a believer in the business. Since the restaurant was doing better financially than the grocery store, he closed the business next door to work full time at Granny’s Kitchen. The operation is a family affair. Charles cooks the main meals, Russ prepares desserts and their daughter, Angela Jethroe, is the restaurant manager.
Charles said he was converted from the grocery to the restaurant business when the family had to close the restaurant one weekend because Hassie attended a funeral in Georgia and nobody was left to run it. He calls most of his dishes soul food but notes the influence from coastal Georgia.
Charles was so keen on his mother-in-law’s cooking that he and his wife made sure the recipes were recorded. Mrs. Morrison gladly gave her recipe away when Charles approached her, saying “I don’t want you to die and take that great potato pie recipe with you.” Several minutes later he had the recipe in hand; Mrs. Morris passed away one month later.
Meals at Granny’s Kitchen are down-home style. The menu changes every day with prices ranging from $5.95 to $7.95 for entrées that include meat, two sides, rice or mashed potatoes and cornbread or rolls. Oxtails – a secret family recipe – are served every day. Smothered steak, meatloaf and pork roast are also included on the menu. Russ says that chitterlings, which are served only on Fridays, are one of the favorite menu items. “I put them out at 11 a.m. and they are usually gone by 1 or 2 p.m. if it’s a slow day,’’ she says.
One frequent patron is lawyer Steve Hoskins. “I will take anyone to Granny’s.” he says. “Traditional Southern cooking is becoming a lost art. I love the okra and tomatoes, butter beans and collards. There are no other places in the area where you can get food like this.”
Fran Ross, another lawyer, likes to visit Granny’s for breakfast. “I love the homey atmosphere,” he says, “I go for the salmon cakes, grits and eggs dish. But, I have to get there early because they will run out of the salmon cakes. Granny’s salmon cakes are better than mine.”
From the affluent to those down on their luck, Russ says she’s blessed with a cross-section of clientele. “I have people who come from all walks of life.’’
Granny’s employs two full-time employees and one part-time employee. Russ says she makes it a point to hire kids during the summer. “It gives them money for school supplies, teaches them good work ethics and shows them how to get along with all types of people.”
Russ and Charles have four children seven grandchildren, with photos of all on display on a large bulletin board near the restaurant’s door. She boasts of the daughter with the doctorate degree and the son in South Florida who volunteers his time teaching underprivileged kids to repair discarded computers so they can use them.
Not only has Russ and her family invested in a grocery store and restaurant on Avenue D, but in the past she also owned a clothing store and a Laundromat across the street. Now, she also owns a beauty shop with her daughter on Avenue D.
Russ says she is optimistic about Avenue D’s future and notes the recent designation of Lincoln Park as part of the Florida Main Street program. The designation brings with it three years of intensive training and technical assistance from the Florida Department of State’s Florida Main Street Program to support local revitalization and historic preservation efforts in the community’s traditional commercial area.
While others have urged Russ to move her restaurant business elsewhere, she is steadfast about staying on Avenue D. Granny’s Kitchen is the longest continuously running business on Avenue D, with the exception of Sarah’s Memorial Chapel.
“My friends often ask, why don’t you move your business to Port St. Lucie? But I tell them that I want to set an example for the kids in this area of town. I work hard and I want to show these kids that you, too, can be successful.”