On its grand opening day, the line outside Monica Williams' soul food spot Just Cookin' in Bond Hill starts an hour before the doors open for carry-out orders.
Bond Hill resident Jimmy Hill and Avondale's Stacy Smith are among the first to show up, parking right out front on California Avenue and waiting.
Hill remembers Williams from her former carry-out on West 15th Street in the West End, a location now under the footprint of FC Cincinnati's coming $250 million Major League Soccer stadium.
His favorite order: Williams' rotisserie chicken with dressing, gravy and greens. Smith loves the salmon croquettes and pinto beans.
"We're supporting black business, we're supporting Monica," Hill says. "She has great food. I went when her location in the West End first opened. The long lines, the small location. She was doing a great thing. It was all family. It was a great feeling."
Williams is trying to replicate that feeling now during a time when many restaurants are shutting their doors, not opening them, due to the unprecedented sweep of the pandemic coronavirus COVID-19. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ordered all bars and restaurants to close to sit-down service last month.
It turns out it is difficult, but not impossible, to serve up soul food in the age of social distancing.
"We are adjusting," she says. "We're a little overwhelmed today. We're out here though, and we've got people who came out. We just have to make sure that we can do everything the right way and stay safe. That's our biggest priority."
Williams says that if she was going to open, it had to be in the middle of all this uncertainty.
"It’s the worst time, but it’s the best time,” she says. “It’s pretty much now or never for us.”
It took 14 months of negotiations, political battles and property searching for Just Cookin' to be ready to open again after its previous location operating out of the side of the State Theater on Central Avenue and West 15th was slated for demolition to make way for the stadium. A barbershop, a convenience store and a church also had to move from that location, as did one person who lived above the barbershop.
Williams ran into all kinds of complications during that year-plus closure, and at one point took a third-shift job at Kroger to make ends meet. It was difficult, she says, finding a new space she could afford, gaining enough assistance to do so and getting the building, which she was eventually able to purchase with the help of the City of Cincinnati, Hamilton County and FC Cincinnati, ready to serve as a restaurant. The last kinks — some permits required by the city for sinks in the building — were just ironed out not long ago.
The grand plan: a place where Williams could run a sit-down restaurant to replace her old carry-out location. The building on California near Paddock Road, previously owned by longtime soul food caterers and restaurateurs the Ropers, seemed like the perfect place.
Now the plans for the sit-down portion are on hold. But Williams is soldiering through and going back to the game she knows so well: rapid-fire carry-out of hearty, home-cooked soul food inspired by her grandparents and their Southern roots.
Today that means meatloaf, baby back ribs, rotisserie and fried chicken, those famous salmon croquettes and fried whiting, with sides of greens, mac and cheese, pinto beans, black eyed peas cabbage and rice.
Other favorites — pork chops, for example — will have to wait. Williams says some items are hard to track down in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.
"The rough thing about opening up during COVID is that your orders are limited to what you can get," she says. "But I'm excited; I'm happy to be back out here and part of the food culture in Cincinnati. I'm crazy about that."
She's not the only one thinking about culture.
"There are a lot of soul food restaurants around Greater Cincinnati that have been closing," Hill says as he waits for his order. "For her to come from West End out here... Bond Hill is a great community and we support each other. It's a great look."
What's more, Williams was able to bring her entire family back to work in the new location. She employed her mother, father, grandmother and nieces and nephews when she was in the West End.
"Everybody came back, plus extras," she says as she takes a breather from working in the kitchen. "We want to, once we get settled, hire someone from here in Bond Hill. We want to make sure we get a Bond Hill resident in here."
Williams' fans are up for all of that.
"I think it's much needed for the neighborhood," Hill says just before he gets his food. "I think it's a blessing in disguise. This is a better location. She'll be able to attract customers from all over town. It's a new opportunity, a new beginning for her, and we're going to be here to support her."