Chef Erica Barrett blames Facebook. In 2018 she was an Atlanta-based caterer, using social media to promote her food business and show off her jaw-dropping party spreads. Little did she know, her posts were drawing the ire of her family back home in Mobile.
“I was talking to some friends here and they’re like, ‘You’re always posting this amazing food. You haven’t come home and done anything for us!’” she said, laughing. “And I said, ‘If I do a food pop-up, you guys better show up.’”
So, she posted that she was doing a pop-up restaurant in Mobile, and show up they did: 400 people bought tickets. The only problem? She didn’t have a venue. She walked around downtown, stumbled upon a vacant building on Dauphin and contacted the owner, convincing him to let her use it for the pop-up.
It was a rousing success, and after the 2018 event, the building’s owner — restauranteur Chakli Diggs of NoJa fame — asked Barrett if she wanted to turn the property into a restaurant of her own. He offered to gift her the kitchen equipment and furniture that was already there, and she could just take over the lease. It was something she had never considered.
“That just doesn’t happen to people every day, where a previous owner’s that generous, to give you everything that he’s built, spent thousands and thousands of dollars that I never had to spend,” she said. “He told me when you get older, it’s just your time to give back and pay it forward. I couldn’t turn that down.”
In that space she built SoCu — short for Southern Comfort, the name of her food business in Atlanta — which won the 2020 Nappie Award for Best New Restaurant – Fine Dining. But this is not fine dining like you’ve ever experienced. Here, the seats are adorned with fluffy throw pillows; lobster tails are stuffed with seafood dressing and served with collards; chunky, stone-ground yellow grits are topped with fried soft-shell crabs; and you can order sweet tea or lemonade with your meal.
“Mobile has never seen a concept like this,” she said. “We don’t have something that we can call our own that’s chef-driven at the same time. So, what I wanted to do was bring familiar food and elevate it. We understand deviled eggs, oysters, redfish, cornbread.”
Born and raised in Mobile, Barrett attended John LeFlore High School, then moved to Atlanta and has been there for the past 25 years. Her plan was never to move back to Mobile for SoCu — she thought she could commute from Atlanta — but she decided to relocate, to “dive into this concept and get it right.”
She re-immersed herself in the culture of the Port City, got personally acquainted with local suppliers such as Royal Lagoon Seafood in Theodore, fell in love with her sister’s lima beans and her grandmother’s gumbo, and was inspired by what’s happening at Wintzell’s and Squid Ink.
“I call this my project of coming back home and kind of finding myself in a sense, so that I could find the food,” she said. “If you’re an Alabama girl, if you’re a true Mobilian, you’ll understand the menu. I feel like it’s a story that needs to be told.”
Now that she’s confident in what she’s built and her management team, she will return to Atlanta in the coming months. And by the end of the year, she hopes to open a second SoCu there, serving the same food she’s made famous in Mobile. Eventually, she wants to open 10 to 15 more SoCus around the country.
“I initially just wanted to have something that we can call our own,” she said. “Something this city can be proud of. I want SoCu to mean Alabama food all around the world.”
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