Funding a restaurant is a challenge. While some go the route of bringing on investors and building out visually appealing (albeit costly) concepts, others start at more humble beginnings on a shoestring budget. Both paths certainly have their merits, and with those merits come unique obstacles.
For the latter route, those pros and cons are seen pretty clearly at one local restaurant. J's Chicken and Waffles has had a rocky start, making compromises and changing locations all while trying to pump out some of the Old Pueblo's best soul food.
In June 2015, chef and owner James Williams opened his little restaurant in the Afro-American Heritage Museum on South Park Avenue. The space was formerly home to a Caribbean restaurant, a Mexican restaurant and, more famously, Williams' then-partner's former barbecue joint Mr. K's Barbecue. During a conversation with Williams in that location, he revealed plans to eventually showcase his own barbecue, though due to a dispute among his partner's family, that restaurant couldn't legally serve said BBQ until August of this year.
Still, Williams was able to one-man-show the back of house in that unique location and serve up some of the best, most flavorful fried chicken in the city overall. And those waffles? Sweet, fluffy heavenly discs that captured butter and syrup like they knew it was good for them.
But Williams didn't make it until August 2016 in that space. Somewhere around the end of last year and the beginning of this one, JK Heritage Museum Café, as it was known then, moved into a space on Sixth Street, just west of Campbell Avenue. Dropping the K, which was effectively his ex-partner Charles Kendrick's portion, J's Chicken and Waffles took over the joint restaurant space shared with ATL Wings Your Way that was previously occupied by a shawarma joint. There's a paper sign hanging on the front door still that says, "Sorry, No Mediterranean."
With new partners and a new space came new concessions, though. Williams inherited a restaurant in which the ambiance is far less charming and inviting than his former, with a tucked-away counter, a few tables and a massive TV looming over guests. Painted in UA colors, the near-campus space is very casual, and the lack of windows makes it a little dim and closed in.
Service at J's is also a little confusing. With two menus, one for each restaurant, it can feel a little weird to pick one over the other in the first place. Once you've selected your menu, the counter server will likely tell you to have a seat, which would seem to imply a switch to table service. However, depending on staffing, table service can be really slow, with missed drinks or unrefilled beverages and checks left undropped. With the soda fountain accessible to customers and the counter a short walk from any table, it seems like picking counter service would be the way to go, but, as is, the hybrid style leaves customers wondering if they should help themselves or wait. Still, it seems the J's staff seems genuinely interested in making sure you enjoy your experience, even if systems aren't set in place clearly to help the process.
While the waffles at J's have managed to make the transition unscathed, the fried chicken isn't consistent. If Williams is working the fryer, you can expect tender, moist chicken with a generous coating, seasoned to perfection. If he's not back there running the show, the coating is more sparse. Either way, though, if you order the Queen's combo (a chicken breast and waffle for $6.50), you'll be met with three chicken tender strips atop the waffle, rather than a chicken breast. Personally, I go for the thigh anyway, as the fatty and rich meat is more what I look for when ordering chicken and waffles.
The rest of the menu offers standard breakfast fare, as well as some lunch plates. Pre-formed hash browns don't steal the show, but the biscuits with peppery gravy, heavily studded with sausage, are more up to snuff. The restaurant also offers bacon, ham and sausage patties, along with eggs your way, to start the day.
Another disappointing concession comes as the catfish and grits. Although J's still makes some of the best, straightforward, butter-topped grits in town, creamy and smooth, the catfish is unavailable, though still mentioned on the menu. Williams explained that, in order to not step on toes from ATL's catfish offerings, he stopped serving it.
It's in this moment I couldn't help but wonder what if Williams had funding behind his own restaurant. If he could stay in the kitchen and cook, staff front of house and offer all of the barbecue and catfish he wants. If the chicken breast was a breast and not tenders. If they made the hash browns instead of buying frozen premade patties.
Tasting his fried chicken and waffles, as well as the gravy and grits, it's obvious he knows what he's doing and does it well, but it's hard to do it all. It's clear why he's partnered up with other restaurants in the way he has, but I guess what I am trying to say is: If you have the cash flow and you're reading this right now, give Williams some money so he can open his own restaurant independent of any others and to the standards it's clear he has. I'm certain that place will be a hit, but until then, I'll still go to J's and hope he's in the kitchen.