Cooking is in Benjamin Smith’s blood. Following in the footsteps of his father, he spent many years working in restaurants and hotels, but it was the opportunity to help rebuild the community he loves that helped him find his life’s passion.
“We had prostitution, drug activity, a lot of gangs,” Benjamin says of the Milwaukee neighborhood where he opened his first restaurant in 2014. “People were asking me, ‘Why do you want to come into this neighborhood?’ People don’t want to do something new or challenging. But I wanted to bring my type of food and our brand into that area, regardless of what was going on. Before we knew it, we started getting students, police officers, business people coming in. Once they saw our brand, they forgot where they were at. That started building the area.”
He opened Daddy’s Soul Food & Grille at the corner of 27th Street and Wells Avenue in Milwaukee, which at the time was a blighted neighborhood not far from Marquette University. He and his wife, Angela, decided to bring some old-fashioned hospitality – and classic soul food – to the community, while continuing to run their growing catering business out of the kitchen.
Locals advised them to install plexiglass partitions because of the high crime rate in the neighborhood, but Benjamin wasn’t having any of that talk.
“I said ‘No way,’” he recalls. “I’m changing the mindset. I don’t want to meet my patrons through plexiglass. I want to meet you face to face. I wasn’t caring about what was around us.”
Inspired by his dad, a longtime chef at upscale country clubs in Illinois, he and Angela created a restaurant driven by great food and great service. The menu is filled with classic soul food dishes like fried catfish, fried chicken, smothered pork chops, BBQ ribs, greens, peach cobbler and homemade iced tea.
While part of the allure is the authentic home cooking, it’s the service that is key, Benjamin says. They know their regular customers’ names and quickly learn the names of new ones. Everyone is treated with dignity and respect and made to feel at home. It didn’t take long before there were lines out the door.
“I wanted to bring families together to eat in a setting where they can have dialogue,” he says. “And everything starts with food.”
Named in honor of Benjamin’s dad, they’ve since added an event space and a second location, on Bluemound Road in Wauwatosa, a small city just west of downtown Milwaukee. In 2017, Benjamin participated in the Milwaukee cohort of ICIC’s Inner City Capital Connections (ICCC) program which helps business owners build capacity for sustainable growth and create local jobs.
Chef Benjamin and his wife Angela, focus on hiring local workers and now have 22 employees. Their success earned them the Near West Side Community Impact Award in Milwaukee in 2017, the 2020 Milwaukee Urban League Employment/Workforce Award, and in 2021 Daddy’s Soul Food & Grille earned the #69 ranking on ICIC’s Inner City 100 (IC100) which identifies and celebrates the 100 fastest-growing businesses in under-resourced communities across the nation.
While COVID lockdowns impacted their bottom line, like all restaurants, they built a robust takeout and curbside delivery service through their website that helped carry them through. They also won a city contract to deliver meals to seniors twice a week that provided steady revenue through the worst days of the pandemic. It’s now become a staple for Daddy’s that has become an essential service for seniors in the area who want quality meals delivered.
As we move toward rebuilding from the pandemic, Benjamin says he’s most proud of his role in lifting up the local community.
“The neighborhood is doing great. Sales are awesome,” he says. “It’s amazing.”
Since 1999, ICIC has identified and celebrated the 100 fastest-growing businesses in under-resourced communities through the Inner City 100 (IC100). To learn more about the award program and IC100’s class of 2021, visit: https://icic.org/urban-business-initiatives/inner-city-100/
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