I stand accused by Warhol’s Salvador Dali. The suspecting mustache pointedly hints at a parallel universe as the heavy door closes and scoops me inside. Before my eyes adjust, I register a harmonica licking the tune “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” Then in the corner I see Russell McClanahan playing guitar and a mouth harp under the protective gaze of a Zombie Marilyn Monroe collage. It’s early on a Tuesday afternoon and Not Yo Granny’s Soul Food Fusion is revving into a groove; customers stream in and lunch is served.
As one could anticipate an unorthodox menu from the eccentric décor of the restaurant, I was not disappointed. The fusion fare offers unexpected renderings of traditional soul food but with exotic and vibrant twists. My curried shrimp and grits defy explanation. Delicious flavor pairings liven up my mouth and I tap my feet to the beat. Russell starts singing Dylan’s “Wagon Wheel.” Russell is a regular attraction for the lunch crowd. Living right down the street, he comes to play music to support the young owners and new restaurant in his neighborhood.
Owners Joel and Hannah Wright, both artists, worked side-by-side for months to get this one-of-a-kind restaurant up and running. Hannah greets me at the counter with brightly tinted lipstick that matches the fresh punk pink painted on the walls. She is electric. Her smiling eyes welcome me with a hospitality one can only expect in the south. Hannah’s path toward owning her own restaurant is marked with obstacles and failures. But never through her hardships did she ever stop the fight to bring forth a better life for herself and her children. Hers is a story of challenging the odds and unbelievable love. This is a story of the possible.
At age 15, Hannah found herself a mother. From across the table, she smiles subtly, “I was always rebellious. Thought I could do it on my own,” shrugging, “I just didn’t know what life was fixin’ to throw at me.” Her ninth-grade education had done little to prepare her for the devastating reality that only motherhood and homelessness combined can conjure. As it turns out, Hannah’s self-described rebellious attitude would be the fire from which she forged a future. Hannah got her GED and found work to support herself and her son, but there were a lot of challenges that would promise to break her before she became the woman I see sitting across from me now.
She describes finding whatever work she could in those early years in her premature adulthood. Detailing for me her narrow escapes from abusive relationships and the daily battles to keep her children fed, Hannah paints a reality of which many young teen parents find themselves the subject. Lonely, afraid, isolated and tired – these are the colors that compose this mural.
“Last year I began volunteering at the Davies Shelter. Cooking there in the kitchen, I absolutely loved it. I loved to feed people, to make them feel better and to give them hope,” she tells me emotionally. This is when the mental beginnings of soul food fusion began to take shape. Hannah, gathering inspiration from the many places she and Joel ate together while living in L.A., has created an exotic flavor index to our traditional southern favorites. Together and with the help of many community passers-by, they renovated the building and created a space so uniquely them. Not Yo’ Granny’s Soul Food Fusion is the word buzzing on the street. That is exactly what brought Wendi Combes through the door and consequently turned her into a regular. She tells me, “It was my fourth lunch visit in two weeks – the tacos are amazing – when Hannah and I started a conversation.”
Wendi Combes is the Coordinator for Young Lives, a faith-based organization ministering to teen moms. The women hit it off immediately. Combes is mentoring a young mother, Destiny, who is trying to get on her feet. She is needing a job. “Well, that’s perfect – I am looking for someone to help with dishes,” says Combes as she recalls Hannah’s excitement. Destiny started work the next day. Young Lives’ mission is to impact teen moms and shape generations, yet “the heartbeat of the organization is the community connections,” Combes explains. These girls need mentors – advocates – to say, “Please, give them a chance.” This is exactly what Hannah Wright has stepped in to do.
Destiny, 18, has been Wendi’s protegee for nearly nine months. She speaks softly, and I can detect she is a little nervous talking with me. Destiny opens up about her childhood as hints of regret shadow her expression. She has a big family, six siblings in all. She tells me that growing up, most of the childcare fell to her older sister at the young age of eight. Destiny confides that beyond getting her own place for herself and daughter, Willow, she wishes most “that [she could] give that time back to [her] sister.” Here at the restaurant, Destiny is taking steps toward getting her own place and graduating from DFACS foster care program. She, like all parents, grips the desire to provide a better life for her child with utmost tenacity. But for girls like Destiny, without a community of support, it is a very difficult road to travel alone.
“Every day, I will share a little more of my story,” says Hannah. “With hopes that I might inspire [Destiny] to say, ‘Hey, I might be washing dishes now, because I have to, but maybe one day I can have a restaurant, or a beauty salon or whatever [I] may be inspired to do.’ Maybe If she knows the struggles I’ve been through and can see I got out, maybe she will believe that she can do the same. I hope that every person who hears my story will feel that way.” Hannah says, looking quite at home in this quirky restaurant. I find myself inspired by their food, their stories and the community that comes together under this roof.
Russell strums the last three chords to a bluesy rendition of Old Suzanna, and I head toward the door, striding past Dali’s mustache guarding the portal back to Rome. Not Yo’ Granny’s Soul Food Fusion is an eclectic masterpiece with a heart of gold.
For more information on how to support Young Lives or to reach out for a mentor, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org