Inspired by their father’s long-gone West Duluth restaurant, two brothers have announced plans to open a new eatery that will feature time-tested fried chicken recipes taken directly from the family cookbook.
Stephan and Solomon Witherspoon said last week they are actively searching for a location to house a new restaurant to be named Doc Witherspoon’s Soul Food Kitchen. The Witherspoons will launch a series of fundraisers this week and plan to open their new establishment and catering business in 2021.
“We have a history in Duluth,” said Stephan Witherspoon, who serves as president of the Duluth NAACP. “My father had a restaurant back in the day in West Duluth. He had a church, he had a house, so we were always in the community feeding people, giving back, and his gift was he could preach really well and cook for people to bring people together.”
The late Reverend Sylvester Witherspoon and his wife Sharon raised 10 children in Duluth. Sylvester Witherspoon, who also went by “Doc,” served as a pastor at New Hope Baptist Church and Calvary Baptist Church. He also operated a restaurant called Doc Witherspoon’s Chicken Shack near the now-closed K-Mart in the mid-1980s. Sylvester Witherspoon died in 1999.
“I was in the kitchen with my father when he cooked all the time, so I know all the recipes really well,” said Stephan Witherspoon. “He fed a lot of people with good soul food, so we want to bring that back out.”
Witherspoon said his father was born in 1914 and learned to cook growing up in the south. A World War II veteran who traveled the world in the military, the elder Witherspoon moved to Duluth area in the 1960s with the U.S. Job Corp. where he perfected his recipes and passed them down to family.
“I make the best fried chicken in the northern hemisphere, let me tell you that,” said Stephan Witherspoon. “My cornbread-based dressing speaks for itself — it’s incredible.”
The restaurant and catering service will feature chicken, catfish, oven-baked mac and cheese, cornbread, blackeyed peas and other southern specialties and comfort foods. The Witherspoons are currently evaluating spaces in the Lincoln Park neighborhood.
Solomon Witherspoon said he was excited to see plans moving ahead for the restaurant.
“It’s actually more than a dream come true. It’s been a vision for us,” he said. “This is who we are. It’s our unity. Every time we get together it’s pretty much over food. We’ve been cooking our whole life. So to incorporate our pop’s recipes from 40 years ago, we’re elated.”
The Witherspoons said Duluth Grill owner Tom Hanson has been guiding them through the project. “He’s been a major mentor for us,” said Stephan Witherspoon. “He’s just amazing. We’re excited to be working with him.”
Hanson said he is not a vested partner in the restaurant but has provided assistance through things like menu concepts, logo design and business paperwork. He also plans to share the business systems and formulas that have worked for the Duluth Grill.
Hanson and his wife, Jaima, started working in the Duluth hospitality industry in 2001 with a partnership that operated the Duluth Grill Embers on 27th Avenue West. The couple eventually gained sole ownership of the restaurant, shortened its name and have since added two more restaurants in Lincoln Park.
“We have a cap on what we can afford, but we’ll put that money toward seeing a minority entrepreneur open a business in Lincoln Park,” said Hanson, who intends to also donate money to the restaurant’s startup. “That’s my self-interest. I want Lincoln Park to be diversified and to look more like what the future of the country will look like and get it there quicker.”
Hanson said Oasis Del Norte food truck owner Eduardo Sandoval has also expressed interest in finding a permanent location in Lincoln Park.
“It would be fun to have some ethnicity and some cultural restaurants as part of the fabric of Lincoln Park,” Hanson said. “I think that’s what tourists are looking for in some ways.”
The Witherspoons said they are working to raise funds to invest in Doc Witherspoon’s Soul Food Kitchen. The brothers will host a pop-up, drive-thru restaurant at Peace United Church of Christ at 1111 N. 11th Ave. E. on Sunday, Oct. 4.
“People would just take (their food) to their car and hopefully we’d get some donations so we can have some seed money to get our project really rolling,” said Stephan Witherspoon. “We think our food will speak for itself.”
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