It's been a long ride, but a popular soul food restaurant that had to relocate due to the coming FC Cincinnati soccer stadium in the West End looks to have found a new home.
Just Cookin' founder and operator Monica Williams says she has purchased a building in Bond Hill at 1142 California St. near the intersection with Paddock Road formerly occupied by longstanding soul food caterer Roper's.
The Roper family operated restaurant, catering or pick-up food service from that location for almost two decades, Bond Hill Community Council President Vickie Jackson says.
Williams says she's looking forward to building a new customer base — and community — in the neighborhood. She says she's aiming for a Jan. 1 opening date. Unlike her previous location, which was carryout only, there is a small space for seating in the Bond Hill spot.
"I'm going to make a lot of family around here," Williams says of Bond Hill. "I think I'm going to do good here. I hope so. I'm ready to get back into the kitchen. I felt like I was shut out for a minute. But now I'm back, and I love it."
Until last year, Just Cookin' was serving more than 100 customers a day from her location on the south side of the State Theater on West 15th St. in the West End. But that building stood in the footprint of the coming 26,000-seat Major League Soccer stadium and was demolished early this year.
Williams grew up in the neighborhood’s Lincoln Court, a Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority project, but moved to Westwood after a program called Hope VI was launched in 1999 and resulted in the apartment complex’s removal. Years later, she returned to live in a townhouse in City West, the mixed-income development built as part of the Hope VI project.
Fueled by her love for the neighborhood, Williams started Just Cookin’ seven years ago. At first, she did her favorites — lasagna, hot wings, salads. Those didn’t take off as she wanted them to, but the neighborhood spoke and, as she says, designed the menu for her.
Just Cookin' was a family affair: Williams' grandmother, Ossie Mae Stewart, worked at the West End location, as did Williams' mother, father, niece and nephew. Some of the crew will return to the location in Bond Hill — though others have found cooking jobs in some popular Over-the-Rhine eateries.
Williams credits Stewart with teaching her how to cook, especially when it comes to the southern favorites like yams and greens. It's that down-home spirit that she says she'd like to bring back in Bond Hill.
Stewart came to Cincinnati in her early twenties from Troy, Alabama. Her mother died young, and the tasks of supporting her brothers and sisters fell to her — including the cooking. She got a job at Lazarus downtown, where she sharpened her skills in the department store's cafeteria kitchen.
“That’s where all this food originated from — Troy, Alabama," Williams said last year. "My food doesn’t compare to her cooking. I’ve got it a little bit, but I can’t touch her.”
Williams, the team, the City of Cincinnati and the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority went back and forth on the best solution for Just Cookin'. At first, that seemed like a relocation to another spot in the West End. But prices were prohibitive there, Williams says, and she yearned to get back in the kitchen.
Williams says the move from the West End is "bittersweet."
"They need representation like me in the West End," she says. "I'm going to honest. I'm a West End native. People there need something different — they need to see people making money in a positive way."
Initially, FC Cincinnati offered Williams $20,000 for the relocation of her business. Now, she's getting $250,000 in help altogether from the city, the Port and the team.
She'll also get use of a food truck until her new location opens up thanks to a proposal by Cincinnati City Councilman Greg Landsman and help from the Port. That food truck will be stationary and likely located at Wade Street and Central Avenue in the West End. Williams would like to be able to use that truck for two years, but that's still under negotiation.
She used the money to buy the Bond Hill property, with enough left over for renovation costs. That's security, she says — before, she rented her space in the West End.
"She could have never re-established her business for $20,000," supporter Brian Garry says.
Williams took a third-shift job at Kroger to support herself and her family after Just Cookin' closed. She also took some time off as she tended to a family emergency.
"For a minute I kind of backed away from everything," she says. "But at some point you have to do what's best for you. I went out and found my spot with a realtor, but I kept it lowkey because some of the spots I found in the West End, people snapped them up. I said this time, that won't happen."
Her realtor introduced her to the Ropers, who were ready to retire.
"Me and the Ropers… we sat there for more than an hour talking about soul food," she says. "And I felt that feeling."
But it wasn't just about the feeling — the building is more or less turnkey, Williams says, minus a complete aesthetic makeover she is excited to get started on next week. The Ropers left two deep fryers, two convection ovens, catering gear and a lot of other equipment. Williams will augment that with some equipment from her old location.
"This place was ready to go," she says. "It's such an amazing opportunity."