Soul Food in the Mile High City

diners-drive-ins-and-dives-001On November 17th, Accion and the Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream program will host its fourth regional finals event for the program’s Pitch Room Competition in New York City. Culminating in the December 4th national finals, the competition is designed to help entrepreneurs perfect the art of the sales pitch. Meet the entrepreneurs who are putting their stamp on the food and beverage industry with the help of mentoring and access to capital. 

We recently sat down to talk with Priscilla Smith, the charismatic owner of Denver’s famed Corafaye’s Café, about life, cooking and the surprise of having a world famous, award-winning soul food restaurant in one of the healthiest cities in the country.

Paint a picture for us of the last 24 hours at your business. Describe what it feels and looks like?

We’re closed on Mondays but Sunday was extremely busy. It started out with me getting more supplies. When we opened at 11 am, people were already standing outside and we had a good rush for about an hour and a half and then it let up and I was thinking it was the Broncos playing Sunday. Then we got slammed with folks until we closed at 5:30, so it was pretty hectic in our little place with four in the kitchen trying to get the food out and three in the front.

Why did you pick this type of business? What motivated you to start a soul food restaurant?

Actually I was trying to do an event center and the restaurant was going to be the smaller part of it. As it turns out the restaurant has become the major part of it. In fact, I have yet to do the event center and I’ve been doing this already for eight years. The recipes came from my mom and two of my grandmothers and my great grandmother and these are family recipes. I started out with Southern home cooking and people kept calling the recipes soul food, and I decided to do Southern home cooking and soul food and that’s how it came about.

Did you have prior experience in the restaurant industry?

None at all. My mom and my dad had but not me. I was from corporate America and then I had my own publishing company for over 16 years. I thought the restaurant business was going to be a piece of cake but it turned out to be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life but I love it.

Mostly it’s been difficult to find good people. I find there’s a lack of motivation with a lot of folks–most people only care about making money or take no pride in their work so every time I get my hand on that special person I try to keep them. I’ve built up a very good team of loyal and hardworking, dependable, reliable and trustworthy folks.

What do your customers love about your spot? What attracts them there?

We’re very diverse. Basically the type of food I cook is poor man’s food and that translates all over the world. We get people here from Russia, Asia, Africa, Ireland from all over the world, black, white, blue, purple, and I’m serving the same food they’re accustomed to but in a different way. The food is universal. For example, ox tails: A lot of cultures make ox tail soup or braised ox tail and I do here. I use centuries old family recipes like the gravies and the black eyed peas but these are all just common foods and people can relate to it because food is another language of togetherness. A lot of people we serve don’t even speak English but they know what this food means.

Why start a business in the Denver area, and specifically, the Park Hill neighborhood?

Quite frankly I used to live two blocks away and I was trying to get a bigger spot further away and I had some personal issues in my life and I had stopped doing my publishing company because the economy had turned and I was burnt out on it anyway. At the same time the bills were still coming in. I kept seeing this little spot—I wasn’t attracted to it because of the lack of parking but I liked the fact that it was on Colorado Boulevard and the realtor kept calling me and saying take the spot, take the spot, I’ll make you a deal and in the end, I took two spots. I’ve been here since November 2006 and been around the world three times since then.

Describe your customer base.

We’ve been very blessed our customers are anywhere from just regular folks, homemakers, single folks, families, Park Hill and northeast Denver folks who come to celebrate their birthdays. So it varies, we don’t have just one particular group of folks. We do get folks from all over the world and especially since we did Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives but it really started with the 2008 Democratic National Convention–that gave us world-wide exposure and got picked up by the Associated Press. Now there’s another one possibly coming in nine months like Diners. And I thank the neighborhood because I’m on the dividing line of Park Hill and Northeast Denver both and they’ve been very good to me.

What is it like to have a business right now in Park Hill while things are still slow going?

Thank God for the national exposure I’ve gotten through being on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. That’s been a huge boost for Corafaye’s. Every time we air we get people from all over the world. When it airs in Denver, it’s standing room only here.

What are three things you’ve learned about the restaurant industry since you opened more than seven years ago?

First of all, it’s not an eight-hour a day job. You have to put your heart and soul into it because whatever happens, if someone doesn’t show up let’s say, you have to fill in so it’s more like 10 or 12 hour days here. Another lesson? Cooking this food is like making Christmas dinner every day and thank God I’ve got a good staff to help me. Last, I’ve met the most wonderful people I’ve ever met in my life and a lot have become friends over the years. We get hugs a lot and we’ve had people cry because the food brought back memories of home and people love the environment and sometimes we have jazz and blues. I enjoy the restaurant business and the first two years were questionable but I’ve also learned that there are people like Accion out there who are willing to help. The business loan from Accion and the Samuel Adams Brewing the American Dream program helped me get much needed refrigeration equipment and a new point of sale system.

What are the biggest challenges you face today as an entrepreneur?

When I first got the place I was really nervous. I’m opening up a soul food place in one of the healthiest places in the world and it turns out Denver folks love this food and so do a lot of other people. There are other soul food places around but my second year here, the Denver Post named us Soul Food Restaurant of the year. A big challenge for any restaurant is that you have to be consistent and deliver great food and great service. And that’s hard because it’s hard to find good people. This past year I’ve finally put together a crack team.

How many jobs have you been able to create with the business?

Currently there are 12 folks working for me because we do a lot of catering as well. Most of my front staff are young and they have families and are single ladies with kids and so they can’t work full time. Then a lot come from the surrounding community; they grew up here, they know people. I also have people who are developmentally delayed working for me and sometimes I just train them to see if they would like to go into this business. And then I have also helped a lot of people coming out of the prison system to get back on their feet. So Corafaye’s serves a lot of purposes.

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