Stories / Impact

These 6 Food and Beverage Businesses Are Serving Up Local Flavors

Maggie Borden

April 14, 2021


Chicken and Waffles with fresh fruit and whipped cream from Yo' Mama's Restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama photo by Tan Crowder Photography
Chicken and Waffles from Yo' Mama's Restaurant (photo: Tan Crowder Photography)

The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for the restaurant industry, permanently shuttering 17 percent of restaurants nationwide, and revealing inequities and vulnerabilities baked into the foundation of these businesses. But there is hope on the horizon, as vaccines roll out and more food professionals are immunized. At the James Beard Foundation, we’re looking forward with optimism, while also striving to provide resources and tools to help the industry recover and rebuild with equity and sustainability at its heart.

A key part of our efforts to support and rebuild the industry is the Food and Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans. Over the past few months we’ve disbursed grants of $15,000 each to 37 independent businesses across the country, who are not only using the funds to keep the lights on or rehire staff laid off during the pandemic, but to grow as leaders in their communities and beyond. For the next few weeks, we’ll be showcasing our grantees, from their menus to their local impact. Read on for inspiring stories and delicious dishes, and learn more about supporting the Investment Fund here.


Exterior view of The Avenue Grill in Jacksonville, Florida photo by Kacheryl Gantt
Photo: Kacheryl Gantt

The Avenue Grill

818 A Philip Randolph Blvd, Jacksonville, FL

The Avenue Grill has been a community staple in Jacksonville for almost two decades. Owner Kacheryl Gantt decided to open up a spot in the neighborhood where she was born and raised, and has been providing her neighbors with fresh made sandwiches, salads, and platters, including highly acclaimed burgers, fried chicken, and breakfast options. Gantt says that COVID-19 cut down on her base of customers traveling to dine at the Avenue Grill, but that the business has made it through the last year thanks to the support of local regulars.

Melissa Guzman leaning against her food truck with The Caribe Vegan logo photo by Melissa Guzman
Melissa Guzman in front of her food truck The Caribe Vegan (photo: Melissa Guzman)

The Caribe Vegan


Food saved Melissa Guzman’s life. The chef/owner of Miami’s The Caribe Vegan food truck was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 28, at one point losing the ability to walk on her own. To combat inflammation, Guzman turned to a raw vegan diet and physical therapy. These days, Guzman is walking, boxing, dancing, and running her food truck, which offers vegan spins on dishes from across the Caribbean from Cuba, to the Dominican Republic, to Haiti and beyond. Diners go nuts for Guzman’s plaintain-packed and cheesy Caribe Burger, the vegan conch fritters, and the loaded fries.

Fify’s Caribbean Cuisine

320 Alachua St., Immokalee, FL

Sibling team Francesca Sainvilus and Rosica Legrand are the owners/operators behind Fify’s Caribbean Cuisine. Through their restaurant, the duo have fulfilled the dreams of their parents, who emigrated from Haiti in the late 1970s and always hoped to own a business in the United States. In 2016 they opened Fify’s, a nod to their mother’s childhood nickname, with a menu inspired by the recipes Sainvilus and Legrand ate growing up. Since then the restaurant has truly become a family business, employing aunts, cousins, nieces, nephews, and more. Immokalee is home to large migrant farming community, which meant the small town experienced an outsized impact from COVID-19, and Fify’s had to close for several weeks when an employee tested positive for COVID-19. Sainvilus and Legrand have foregone their salaries to ensure the restaurant stays open and serving up the oxtail, goat, and coco bread that keep customers coming back for more.

Headshot of Kenrith Lawrence, chef/owner of Food Friends Catering photo courtesy of Food Friends Catering LLC
Kenrith Lawrence, chef/owner of Food Friends Catering (photo: Food Friends Catering LLC)

Food Friends Catering

936 West Tropical Way, Plantation, FL

Kenrith Lawrence’s passion for cooking started in the home kitchen, spending time helping his grandmother and great grandmother get dishes on the table. He funneled that passion into a business in 2017 with the opening of Food Friends Catering, a full-service catering company serving South Florida. Food Friends Catering is known for putting a spin on Southern comfort classics like their shrimp with fried cheese grits, but Lawrence has expanded the menu (think: birria tacos) to meet growing demand. COVID-19 had a significant impact on the business, as Lawrence faced not only pandemic-related ingredient shortages and higher food costs, but also a reduction in revenue from canceled events and festivals. Lawrence is still looking ahead, however, and planning the next phase for Food Friends—a brick-and-mortar restaurant and catering kitchen to reach even more customers.

Sweet Magnolia Gelato

Oxford, MS

Sweet Magnolia Gelato is a small-batch artisan gelato company based in Oxford, Mississippi. Owner and head gelato maker Hugh Balthrop sources his ingredients from local farmers markets and farms and transforms them into delicious and unique flavors like Whiskey Pecan, Sweet Potato, and Roasted Cherry Brownie Chunk. Balthrop started making ice cream for his children before growing Sweet Magnolia into a thriving wholesale business and opening a retail location in 2019. During the pandemic, Balthrop has experienced a drop in revenue for his wholesale business due to restrictions on dining, and ultimately had to close the retail location. But as warmer weather returns, Sweet Magnolia Gelato is once again expanding—opening two new retail shops, one in Oxford, and the other in Memphis, Tennessee.

Yo’ Mama’s Restaurant

2328 2nd Ave N, Birmingham, AL

Denise Peterson and Crystal Peterson are the mother-daughter team behind Birmingham mainstay Yo’ Mama’s Restaurant, which has been drawing lines out the door with their bacon-wrapped meatloaf, chicken and waffles, and macaroni and cheese since 2014. What started as a long-held dream by Denise has become a dining destination, counting Hillary Clinton, Pete Buttigieg, and Charles Barkley among its happy customers. The pandemic forced the multi-year Best of Birmingham winner to shift to curbside pickup, but the Petersons are still planning to expand their brand, with dreams of someday having a black-owned national chain of restaurants.

Learn more about the James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans. 

Read more about our Investment Fund grantees.


Maggie Borden is content manager at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.