Chef Tamra Patterson, a Texas native who comes from a long line of restaurateurs, bakers, and cooks, has been running Chef Tam’s Underground Cafe in Memphis, TN, since March 2017. It’s the largest Black-owned restaurant in the city, specializing in Cajun Soul Food fusion.
After just a few months on the scene, Chef Tam's was nominated for Best New Restaurant in Memphis and Best Overall Food in the city. The restaurant grew in popularity in April 2018 after Patterson won The Food Network’s Guy’s Grocery Games and then went on to make three more appearances on various Food Network competition shows. Soon, her 36-seat establishment could no longer accommodate customers clamoring to try dishes like her Muddy Waters Mac-n-Cheese, made with crawfish, crab, and shrimp.
In January 2020, the café moved to its new three-story, 155-seat location at 668 Union Avenue. It had been open only two months before the COVID-19 crisis hit.
Patterson searched for the right words to explain how COVID-19 has affected her operations. "It wrecked my business," she responded. "We took about a 90 percent loss in revenue." Prior to COVID-19, she was operating on a three-hour wait time, and then, when the crisis hit in the middle of Black Restaurant Week, the café had been prepping for that level of demand and more.
Instead, "the business came to a screeching halt," said Patterson. She laid off 22 of the café’s 38 employees when the back-and-forth of city-wide COVID-19 restrictions began. The city briefly ordered all restaurants to close, and then changed the regulations so they could open for off-premise orders only. A week later, Chef Tam’s was back in business for takeout and delivery. Patterson modified the café’s hours, and if business was slow, the restaurant would shut down.
She focused on making her employees feel safe enough to return, providing them with a "Welcome Back to Work" kit, which included three masks, hand sanitizer, and a hundred pairs of gloves. She was more lenient with staff schedules to help them feel comfortable through the transition, and she stocked up on cleaning supplies. Together, they’ve gotten through the rollercoaster of restrictions.
Patterson is also thankful for her customers, who have rallied around the café to ensure it kept going. "I've never experienced anything like this in my life," said Patterson, summing up the previous months.
Being a Black Restaurateur in 2020
Being a Black restaurant owner during these tumultuous times has been difficult for Patterson. "Dealing with COVID-19 and people murdering someone right in front of your face is disheartening and heartbreaking. It’s like having PTSD," she explained. Protests against police brutality and social injustice took place less than five minutes away from the café, and when her 16-year-old son wanted to talk to her about police officers murdering George Floyd, she decided she could no longer remain silent.
She had to stay true to herself. "If I felt it, I said it."
When she did this, her son became more expressive and the tension began to ease in her home. "I just said, 'If people don't come back to my restaurant because I feel like it's wrong for innocent people to be murdered, then those weren't my customers and God will provide.'" Once Patterson took that firm stance, she no longer felt any pressure.
I just said, 'If people don't come back to my restaurant because I feel like it's wrong for innocent people to be murdered, then those weren't my customers and God will provide.'
This freedom has allowed Patterson to keep her eye on the prize. She encouraged her fellow entrepreneurs to "remain hopeful and remember why you started," she said. "Be willing to get super creative and be ready to pivot."
Be Ready to Pivot
Patterson shared some of the ideas she's implemented during the pandemic. First, she started focusing on selling products on her website. She already had a line of spices, but she wasn’t promoting them much. People were starting to cook at home, so she had to make her products readily available. For three or four days, she focused on production, and she created user-friendly shipping on her website.
"We saw opportunities to serve and to grow while providing jobs for people in the community," says co-owner Nikisha Bailey.
When people visited the restaurant in the past, they only had three spices available for them to bring home. Now, five spices, three food products, two sauces, and lots of cast iron pans are on hand for sale. "We would’ve never had that if it wasn’t for the pandemic," she said. On social media, she reposts photos that customers share when they try out her spice mixes at home for themselves.
Since she’d realized that not everybody was ready to come into the restaurant, Patterson started offering online cooking classes, where students and home cooks can learn along with her.
In her efforts to recover, Patterson also plans to reimagine her overflow area, typically used for large parties, by converting it into a storefront where the restaurant will offer quick, grab-and-go meals like healthy salads and protein choices. "Nobody is doing that in downtown Memphis," she said. This will also help address the lack of healthy food options in her community.
Finally, Patterson has invested lots of time in social media. She uses social media every day, almost nonstop, to engage with and retain customers. She maintains an open and authentic attitude across platforms, streaming live and chatting with her community in order to stay connected, on Facebook as well as Instagram.
Currently, Chef Tam’s Underground Cafe is open for patio dining as well as takeout and delivery.