News: Soul Food

June Bug's nourishes West End revitalization

Jymi Bolden

George Beatty III opened June Bug's restaurant in the West End in part because he was told the location was too risky.

Location can make or break a restaurant. But can a restaurant help remake a neighborhood? In the West End, the answer appears to be yes.

Linn Street is the main artery thorough the heart of the West End, one of Cincinnati's oldest black communities. Recent changes have separated the neighborhood into two disparate cultural climates divided by class and race. Depending on which end of Linn Street you're on, the landscape is dramatically different.

At the north end of the street is a predominantly black, disenfranchised and impoverished community rife with abandoned buildings, five-and-dime corner stores and the Parktown Café. The Arts Consortium office, on the south side of Linn Street, marks the beginning of revitalization.

The past is represented in the remnants of the yet-to-be demolished Laurel Homes housing projects. The future of the West End lies in City West, a new mixed-income housing community.

George Beatty III, aka June Bug, is witnessing the change firsthand. His wife's family, which has conducted business on Linn Street for more than 30 years, owns Parktown, where Beatty used to be the manager.

Three years ago he decided to bank on his love of cooking and opened June Bug's Bar-B-Que & Steakhouse on Eastern Avenue.

"Ninety percent of a successful restaurant's business is location," Beatty says.

But at that location, business was slow. Last year June Bug's moved to 1800 Linn St. When the restaurant reopened two months ago, it met skepticism from friends and family.

"A lot of people were concerned about the image of this particular block being heavy with drug trafficking and killing," Beatty says. "I love a challenge. Everybody said I was crazy for doing it, which is why I did it."

Beatty hired a private security firm to prevent loitering and crime, and several Cincinnati Police officers are regular customers.

"Since opening, there has been no problems, which is unusual for the area," Beatty says.

The naysayers who challenged him rallied together to bring the eatery to fruition. Beatty's cousin, Norma Davis, quit her job in San Diego and moved here to become a partner. Attorney Kenneth Lawson, Beatty's best friend, is also a partner. Relatives and neighborhood residents comprise the staff.

Beatty had provided both the brains and the muscle behind the operation at June Bug's first location. The stress took its toll.

"It's a psychological relief to not have to do everything now," he says.

Rather than standing over a hot stove, he now spends time shopping for food and running errands. His brother, Walter Beatty, is the cook.

June Bug's is the second restaurant to open at 1800 Linn St. But the transition from the old restaurant to the new one wasn't easy. It took almost a year to bring the building to operating standards.

Kenneth Burns of K&W Home Improvement managed the renovation.

"We had to wear protective suits," he says. "It was so filthy I couldn't believe the previous owners sold food out of here."

Instead of another blighted building, Burns says the restaurant is now a plus for the community.

"It brings life and stability to the corner," he says.

Many African-American BBQ joints mimic one another down to the hot sauce on the table. June Bug's steps outside conformity to add its own personal touches.

But some familiar elements remain. The stereo plays R&B. The wall-mounted TV, complete with cable, is a remote control click away from a daily dose of Black Entertainment Television.

June Bug's interior is a relief from the downcast landscape outside. The interior is immaculate. The stark white walls are reflected in the spotless floors.

The focal point of the dining room is an immense black-and-white mural, a sort of ghetto wall of fame painted by Beatty's cousin, Donny Beatty. It depicts local black heroes such as Angela Leisure, Aaron Pryor and Dr. Walter Broadnax.

A painting of Lawson flanked by two pit bulls looms over the restaurant's exterior; he is also the centerpiece of the mural inside. Lincoln Ware, radio host and mouth of the city on WDBZ (1230 AM), is also in the mural. Ware broadcasts live from June Bug's the first Friday of each month.

Benihana is George Beatty's favorite restaurant, so he replicated its concept of full-view food cooked to order. Though the menu has traditional soul food selections, there are extras. Beatty describes it as "not a typical BBQ place. We have steaks and all kinds of fish."

The $20 "Docstopper" sandwich, named for Broadnax, is for the carnivore at heart. The decadent burger consists of 24 ounces of hamburger and 12 ounces of filet mignon, soaked in red wine and topped with sautéed mushrooms and onions and shredded cheese on a ciabatta bun.

Now Beatty is taking his show on the road, opening a restaurant in Detroit. Expansion to Dayton and Columbus are also under consideration.

"I think I can duplicate it in other cities, but it's about location," he says. ©