New soul food café for Codman Square
Serves as anchor in commercial district
With 34 dining seats, free Wi-Fi and coffee options, Next Step Soul Food Cafe will be the first of its kind in the Codman Square district in Dorchester. It will be the only sit down restaurant in an area where other nearby establishments are either take-out or self-seated. It also will be the district’s community café, as designated by Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation.
Since 1981, the Codman Square NDC has worked to rehabilitate the Dorchester neighborhood, once fraught with vacant homes and arson, by creating housing and commercial spaces that are safe, sustainable and affordable. The agency’s economic development department focuses primarily on supporting local businesses and cultivating local entrepreneurs, like Michelle White, owner of Next Step.
“The whole organization is to prevent displacement and grow local community capital, and that means both socially and economically,” said Charles Vlahakis, small business development specialist at the Codman Square NDC.
White, a longtime Dorchester resident, ran a daycare business for 25 years. An avid cook, she then started a catering business with family members after completing a 12-week training course at Community Servings, a nonprofit food enterprise in Jamaica Plain that sponsors a kitchen curricular program. “I knew I could cook, but I wanted to know if I could cut it in a fast-paced work environment in food,” White recalled. She said she graduated with top marks at the Community Servings program.
When space became available at 657 Washington Street, White partnered with the NDC to put a plan together for her own restaurant. She also enrolled in DotBiz, the agency’s small business development program, where she drew up a business plan, strategized marketing, and was taught software programs such as QuickBooks and Clover.
“You need a business plan, no matter what,” said White. “And technology is key. Period.”
According to Vlahakis, who helps to teach the course, DotBiz is a 12-week program that meets two hours a week and occurs in conjunction with technology training program, Tech Goes Home. Currently, 41 people are enrolled in the tuition-free class that teaches participants basic business skills such as market analysis, startup costs and bookkeeping, as well as online tools to help manage a business. At the end, students have the option to purchase a laptop at a discounted price of $50.
“Next Step is one of ten businesses that exist, or will exist, that we’ve been working with, one-on-one, and Michelle is our all-star,” said Vlahakis. It was May 2015 when White began developing a business plan, securing permits, procuring the space and then launching a soft opening in September 2016.
Before that, White surveyed residents of Codman Square on what type of restaurant and cuisine they would be most interested in having. According to White, about 88 percent of responses were soul food related. This was good news for White because her mother had spent 10 years making soul food for her local church, passing down her recipes to her daughter.
With the café’s soft launch, White has continued her hyperlocal market-driven business model by adjusting and perfecting her menu according to customer feedback.
“We take surveys all the time, asking people, ‘What could we better? What could be on the menu?’” said White. “We’ve catered to what the people in the community want and need.”
One of Codman Square NDC’s initiatives is the Millennium Ten, a community planning process for the next ten years in the Codman Square and Four Corners neighborhoods. Goals outlined in the plan include establishing a Youth Job Hub, developing a Business Cooperative and opening a Community Cafe.
As a Community Cafe, Next Step Soul Food will be a place for residents to gather and exchange ideas through partnerships, events and meetings. “We actually already had a Men of Color health meeting in the space,” said Vlahakis. Men of Color/Men of Action is another NDC-led initiative that focuses on issues of employment, education, parenting, health and leadership development.
“We’re going to be a hangout type café that happens to serve soul food,” said White who operates the business with her mother and brother.
For the official opening in 2017, the hours will be slightly extended, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and complete seating will be available. White says she is planning to serve coffee and breakfast.
“I was ready for a change,” said White about her new role as restaurant owner at age 50. “I retired at 45 and was looking for something to do.”
Serving up authentic homemade southern food like fried pork chops smothered in gravy and onions or mac and cheese with candied yams is plenty to do.