Food, Family, Soul: Shug's Comfort Food Welcomes AllMay 27, 2022 03:28PM ● By Chris Hatch
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Brandon Davis makes soul food. More than that, the young chef/entrepreneur/restaurant-owner with deep ties to his North Omaha neighborhood and his city is soul food.
In the history of being Black people, that’s predominantly what we eat, that’s what I enjoy,” Davis said at his restaurant, after he briefly appears from the kitchen, where he’s doing what a multi-hyphenate does: a little bit of everything.
“I try all different kinds of food, but I found out that soul food is what I love to do,” Davis said. “You can do so many spins on it, put whatever you love in it. Any food, I guess, can be soul food if you’re putting love and time into it.”
“Any food can be soul food”? That depends on the soul making the food. Davis certainly seems to have the key ingredient down.
Somewhere along the way, before he made his mark at the corner of West Mission Avenue and Jefferson Street in Old Towne Bellevue, he found the kind of flavoring that one can't find on a spice rack; the kind of seasoning that doesn't come canned or bottled, but feels lived in.
Whether it was his short-lived stint at Metropolitan Community College's culinary school or the myriad jobs he worked before finding deliciously spiced clarity, it’s the food. Those prior jobs were merely a collection of non-food-industry occupations—it’s always been the food.
The oldest of seven kids, a younger version of Davis often found himself in the kitchen, watching his mother, the eponymous Shug, create that gilded magic that has entranced him ever since. “Watching her trial and error, she was always the person cooking in our family. Holidays, special events.”
Even though she passed away more than 11 years ago, the matriarch has somehow managed to flip the script, and now she watches her son do the cooking.
With a smile as warm as the gleaming plate of food that she holds, Davis’ mother looks down from the wall—her painted throne on high, as present in the décor as she is in the very food served at the restaurant that bears her name.
“Hopefully she’s very, very proud,” Davis said. “It’s been a long road for me, coming from all over the place. Being a young teenager who lost their parent but growing up to have my own restaurant. To having the support of my family, my siblings, things like that. It would make her very proud.”
As he continued to hone his craft, he quickly discovered that his food was too good to give away for free. So, the young chef started cooking for cash.
“I used to cook at home. Just make stuff out of the house,” he said, grinning with a sly entrepreneurial spirit. “I was always cooking on Sundays and having my friends over eating and I was like, ‘Ummm…I might need to start charging y’all!’ One thing led to another, people were posting on Facebook. A lot of people were hungry.”
It wasn’t only family that was instrumental in his journey to restaurant owner and soul food chef.
His five years at Quick Bites Soul Food, under the kitchen tutelage of the recently deceased Justin Epting, the former owner of the restaurant that resided where Shug’s now serves people, had a profound impact on him. “Justin, he kind of mentored me,” Davis said. “Taught me a lot of things you don’t learn in school, a lot of things I didn’t know about cooking.”
“The first time we met Brandon, he came to the restaurant and he brought us both enchiladas that he made,” said Epting’s widow and coworker at Quick Bites, Carolyn Epting. “That was pretty much his job interview and he was hired right then.”
Davis always had a knack for tantalizing the five senses with his cooking, but began to learn from Epting about how exactly to craft food that opened customers to a sixth sense. A kind of alchemy where people don’t just taste the food created, they feel it.
“Our saying in the South is that he ‘Put his foot in it,’” Carolyn said. “That’s the type of cook he is, he puts his whole heart into whatever he does. He’s a natural at putting seasonings together...that’s the kind of cook Justin was, too, so it was perfect that those two worked together.”
After Epting died, the end of Quick Bites appeared imminent. Davis had a decision to make—stay with Epting’s restaurant or let it close. He took the crossroads laid before him, and chose to give it his own twist. Suddenly, the two paths converged before him, looking more like an X marking the spot.
“He ended up passing away and I was like, ‘Well let me go ahead and take this over.’ I had been here from the start, I had seen it grow, and I just kind of hated seeing it go by the wayside,” Davis said. “I had to kind of get my stuff together and say ‘this is what I’m going to do.’”
He put his foot in the food, then he put one foot in front of the other. Before long, Davis had a plan.
“It can be very, very overwhelming. Especially with it being my first restaurant, first time doing this. I knew it would do good, because I can cook good. But I didn’t expect the over-pouring of support. Some Fridays and Saturdays we have lines around the side of the building,” he said. “I literally get here at 6 to 6:30 in the morning and don’t leave until 9 at night.”
Throughout it all, the family spirit hasn’t left him. Davis has seen his restaurant take off, making sure to point out that he’s teaching his younger siblings how to cook, and watching glowingly as his grandma—a woman who has her own name on the menu, featuring her legendary sweet potato pies—tidies up around the restaurant in a most grandmotherly way.
“The thing about him is, he lost his mom at 18, right when he was about to graduate,” Epting said. “She passed away, and he has made sure his little brothers have been taken care of.”
“I watched him grow, make little mistakes here and there, I watched all of it, and he’s just an awesome man.” she continued. “I’m so proud of him. I know his mom is proud, I’m definitely proud, and I know Justin is proud. Couldn’t ask for a better person doing the job that he’s doing and being part of a community, doing something that he loves, carrying on what my husband started.”
Davis isn’t sure what the future holds. He’s got people to feed, food to create, and the local community clamoring for more.
“I wasn’t looking for a certain demographic, or anything. I want to fill everyone’s stomachs and make everybody happy,” he said. “So far, that’s what I’m doing. I get so many people from different walks of life, different cultures. Everybody comes, the people that have never had soul food—they’ve never had greens or they’ve never had this or that—and it puts a smile on my face.”
Davis’ grandma, Cathy, sweeps her way toward the table at which Davis sits. She leans over, with her daughter above and her grandson seated beneath her, smiling so big that one can see her grin from behind a surgical mask as she softly speaks.
“Can I interject something?” she asked. “All the paintings. All this stuff,” she gestured to the homey, warm décor and the pictures of African American leaders who adorn the walls of a new generation’s restaurant.
“This was Brandon’s work,” she said, her voice as warm as her grandson’s cooking. “This is Brandon’s dream.”
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