From High Point with love, Filet of Soul
The day Filet of Soul opened manager Joy Lee was still dealing with a fire inspector and wondering if the restaurant would be found up to code. Customers were lined up outside the door. Her husband Ricky wasn’t taking any chances.
‘“My husband was in the back putting out hamburger steaks,’” she says. ‘“I was like ‘what’s the point of cooking if you don’t know if we’re going to open?’ Ricky was like ‘I got to get dinner on.””
The restaurant opened at 1 p.m. on August 15 during the first week of fall semester at UNCG. Since then the Lees have gradually built a clientele, winning loyalty with their six-dollar fried chicken plate with two side vegetables, cornbread or roll, and iced tea. The restaurant offers a second meat choice that alternates day to day (a tasty meatloaf slathered in a sweet tomato sauce on the day of this reporter’s pilgrimage). The restaurant also serves a breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast, grits and the strange and popular chicken-and-waffle combination.
The couple has put college students in aprons, enlisting them as wait staff, and 36-year-old Ricky Lee insists on seeing term papers and grades when they show up for work. Filet of Soul offers a student special: six-dollar plates all day; regular working stiffs pay $7.50 after 2 p.m. The Lees clearly know their market.
Ricky learned how to cook from his aunts in High Point, who run a restaurant called Becky & Mary’s CafÃ©. He worked there for about 10 years. That’s where he met Joy, who was working as a teacher then. When they met in 2000 he told Joy ‘— who is now 35 ‘— he wanted to open his own restaurant. Three years later they were married, and five years later they were looking for a place in Greensboro to open a restaurant.
They considered a place on Yanceyville Street but the Tate Street location won out because of the steady flow of traffic past the university. These premises, uniquely set into the hillside next to New York Pizza and graced by a walled-in patio, have a reputation. Tate Street hangers-on vaguely remember this real estate as being a magnet for violent bikers back in the day. Some of the parking signs in the back still refer to an establishment called ‘Phases.’
‘“This building has a negative history,’” Ricky says. ‘“Five or six bars. A lot of wild-out parties. For some reason no one’s been able to stay in business more than a year to eighteen months. We weren’t deterred by that. In fact, we were encouraged by that. We always like a challenge.’”
From the get-go they’ve taken dramatic steps to dispel the bad vibes. For starters they repainted the solid-black walls UNCG blue and gold. They also don’t plan to sell alcohol.
‘“First and foremost, we don’t want to contribute to other people’s misery,’” Ricky says. ‘“Secondly, without the element of alcohol you don’t get the rowdy crowds that come with it. We think you can make a dollar without selling alcohol. The main goal is to attract families to a wholesome environment where they can enjoy themselves.’”
The engine of Filet of Soul seems to be powered by the couple’s affection for each other and their slightly quirky sense of humor. It’s a soul food establishment, so obviously more goes into the food than poultry, flour, shortening and egg whites.
‘“Jordan, our menu isn’t very extensive, but did you know we cook with love?’” Ricky asks. ‘“Now, cooking for me is just second nature.’”
Then he disappears to go get an iced coffee. It’s around 4:30 during the lull before the supper crowd starts coming in, and Joy takes up the story of their restaurant and their relationship with a slight giggle.
‘“My husband’s father is a big James Bond fan,’” she says, adding quickly: ‘“My husband is very intelligent’… There was this movie where James Bond is going to this restaurant in Harlem and it was called Filet of Soul. So we checked it out and made sure nobody else had it, and then we trademarked it.’”
‘“He is very scatterbrained, so he needs a manager,’” she adds.
Ricky’s cooking is a passion that sometimes needs to be reigned in.
‘“It was Sunday when we usually take the afternoon off,’” Joy says. ‘“He bought some crab legs and some shrimp at the grocery store, and he’s in the kitchen cooking. I said: ‘Will you sit down?””
Ricky, who grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn is a reverse-migration New Yorker. He’d spent childhood summers hanging out in the High Point restaurant owned by his aunts, who are originally from Wadesboro.
So when his mother died of breast cancer about 10 years ago, the combination of economic opportunity and family ties drew him back down south. Although he didn’t start working fulltime at Becky & Mary’s CafÃ© until he was in his mid twenties, he’d been in his aunts’ restaurant since he was 6 years old.
‘“A lot of my cousins came through the restaurant, but they didn’t stay,’” he says. ‘“My aunts’ restaurant was always the central hub. In the day, I’d go to the YMCA to play and I’d be back and forth to the restaurant all day.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at email@example.com.