Until you’re opening a restaurant starring the sweet potato, you might not know trademarking the name “Sweet Potatoes” can be tricky.
Such was the case for Vivián Joiner and Stephanie Tyson, who had hoped to name their first restaurant Sweet Potatoes, considering their menu features the likes of sweet potato cornbread, sweet potato biscuits and a scrumptious variety of other dishes featuring North Carolina’s state vegetable.
But they learned that another restaurant already had taken the name, and they would need a different one. So, as Tyson stared at a portrait of her and Joiner on the wall of their new restaurant – an artist gave it to them to celebrate their opening – Tyson read the words painted above their likeness.
“Oooh, well shut my mouth,” she said aloud. Then it hit her.
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“Oh, OK, We can do that,” she recalled saying. “We can use that. It’s such a Southern phrase.”
And so Sweet Potatoes (Well Shut My Mouth!!) was born, and the extra sass tacked onto the name not only illustrates the menu but the vibe of the restaurant that specializes in Southern cuisine and soul food with a sophisticated twist.
A sampling of the menu descriptions:
Freshly Fried Pork Rind Basket: They snap, crackle and pop all the way to your mouth!!
Fried Bologna Sandwich: Yes, fried bologna and grilled pimento cheese sandwich on Texas toast (or on wheat, but why?)
D.C. Burger (that’s Davie County): Angus burger topped with our house made pimento cheese served with lettuce, tomato and marinated onions... Add bacon (we dare you).
Sweet Potatoes got its start in 2003, when they opened on North Trade Street in downtown Winston-Salem. This June, after 14 years and four months, Sweet Potatoes (and the portrait) moved to a larger location down the street.
In July, they opened Miss Ora’s Kitchen, a smaller mostly take-out place that serves fried chicken cooked in a cast-iron skillet. Miss Ora’s chicken is different than the chicken at Sweet Potatoes; it’s made from a recipe belonging to Tyson’s late grandmother, Ora Porter.
Both places celebrate food and community and a time when families gathered for supper without cellphones and televisions interrupting the meal. That, plus the food, has earned the restaurant a following from residents along with national attention from travel writers and visitors.
“I’m very proud of being from the South and very proud of my heritage of food,” Tyson said. “The warmth, the whole food thing. If nothing else, in the South, we ate the same things at one point. We have that food as commonality. That’s what the restaurant is. It’s different people sharing food. That has been the integral part of our success, is that the food is color blind.”
Sweet Potatoes and the community have been intertwined since the beginning. Tyson and Joiner scoured Winston-Salem for months to find the right place to open their restaurant. Nothing seemed to work.
And there were challenges. Trade Street was just starting to transform into the thriving arts district it is now. But in 2003, with just a few galleries and no other restaurants, the duo had to overcome the neighborhood’s reputation.
“When I was growing up, we weren’t allowed on this street,” said Tyson, who was born in Winston-Salem. “It was that bad. My grandmother called it the ‘Buzzard Roost.’ ”
They found a spot that might be a good fit, but they had to convince its new owner that their vision – which included a need for a liquor license – would be the right one for his building.
Then there was a need for money. “Nobody loans restaurants money,” Joiner said. Tyson said they maxed out their credit cards to get started.
But they found help in unexpected places. One day, they were invited to cater a VIP dinner at the home of Philip Hanes, the former CEO of the Hanes Corporation and a champion of the arts in Winston-Salem. Joiner isn’t from the city and didn’t know who he was or how influential he could be. When they arrived at his house, saw the fancy silverware and learned of the guest list, the meal suddenly became all the more important.
“That’s how he was going to find out if Stephanie could really cook,” Joiner said. “Have 10 really important people at his house for dinner.”
Turns out Tyson, who once burned toast regularly and describes her early cooking skills as “at best, awful,” had become quite a chef. She served the guests fried croaker, creamy stoneground grits, greens and sweet potato cornbread. Hanes was pleased.
“He started calling different leaders in the community, both black and white, and said, ‘These two ladies need to open a restaurant. I need you to write a letter of commitment that once they get open, you’ll support them,’ ” Joiner recalled.
They got more than 30 letters from PTA presidents, City Council members and more.
“When we unlocked the doors, they came,” Joiner said. “They enjoyed what they had, and they kept coming.”
The restaurant serves lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. And while sweet potatoes can be found in many dishes, there are other influences from Tyson’s travels, experience at culinary school and working in Italian and Mediterranean restaurants. Tyson gives them all her spin. St. Peter’s Fish and Shrimp is tilapia and shrimp on top of Hoppin’ John risotto. Fried Chicken and “Waffles” has fried chicken tenders atop sweet potato waffle fries with honey drizzle.
The PBJ – fried pork chop with peanut butter and banana aioli on a sweet potato bun – is deemed “dangerous” by longtime employee Fred Harden. He worked his way up from dishwasher to bartender to stints as manager.
“It looks crazy,” he says. “Chef Stephanie puts the flavors right together. It’ll make somebody slap their mouth.”
And while the food is creative, it’s still recognizable, and it’s still Southern comfort food, Tyson said.
“Some of the food is just what I remember eating growing up,” Tyson said. “Even though I did go to culinary school, a lot of it is memory food, those flavors you remember, what your grandmother cooked. A lot of it is from traveling. You still do greens, but you do it this way.”
It’s the kind of food that brings David and Carole Jones to Sweet Potatoes at least twice a week. They drive 35 miles each way from their farm south of Mt. Airy. The New York transplants found the restaurant when they moved to North Carolina five years ago.
The staff makes them feel like family. The couple stopped coming to Sweet Potatoes for about a year after David Jones had health problems, and they got quite a welcome the day they returned.
“This is the kind of people they are,” David said. “They ran out to the sidewalk to give us a hug.”
The feeling seems to be mutual between the restaurant owners and their customers.
When Joiner and Tyson decided to open Miss Ora’s Kitchen next to their new location of Sweet Potatoes, a Kickstarter campaign raised $18,785 in 30 days to go toward the costs of the new venture. It wasn’t a big chunk of money – Joiner estimates less than 10 percent of the startup costs. “But every little bit helps,” she said. The names of people who donated a certain amount of money are engraved in the Miss Ora’s countertop.
Tyson, making a rare appearance in the dining room, spotted regulars and customers she has seen grown up.
“We’ve had babies being born here,” she said, realizing she needed to explain.
“We have sweet potato biscuits on the menu,” she said. “Somehow, people have gotten the idea that if you eat a biscuit if you’re pregnant, you’ll give birth faster. Somebody actually called up once and asked if we have any more of these ‘birthing biscuits.’”
Turns out, the nutmeg in the biscuits could help induce labor. It sounds crazy, she said, but some customers have told her it has worked.
“We’ve seen a few babies that are allegedly sweet potato biscuit babies,” she said, somewhat skeptically.
Good Eatin’, the News & Observer’s weekly visit to local eateries in North Carolina, will continue through Labor Day. To see other installments, go to nando.com/goodeatin.
If you go
▪ Sweet Potatoes, 607 N. Trade St., Winston-Salem. 336-727-4844. Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. Brunch is 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays. No reservations accepted. sweetpotatoes.ws
▪ Miss Ora’s Kitchen, 605 N. Trade St., Winston-Salem. 336-725-6257. Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. Closed Mondays and Sundays. missoraskitchen.com
On the menu
▪ Pan of sweet potato cornbread: $4.75
▪ Fried green tomato and okra basket: $9
▪ 3-cheese macaroni and country ham soufflé: $5.25
▪ Ragin’ cajun turkey burger: $10.49
▪ Oyster po’ boy salad: $11.99
▪ Drunken pork chops: $16.99
▪ Catfish NOLA: $16.99
▪ Slap Yo’ Mamma ribs: $14.99 for half a rack (served at lunch, too), $21.99 for a full slab