Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Northside series.
When Christen McKinney opened Cookie’s Five Star Grill on Douglas Avenue in 2015, she wanted to serve food that the Northside community loved to eat.
“I felt like this was the perfect location for me to cook the type of food I was cooking--Southern, Italian, Louisiana. Home cooking,” McKinney says. “The Northside is predominantly black, and I cook for the neighborhood.”
And the neighborhood welcomed the restaurant with open arms, McKinney says, remembering the overwhelming crowds at the restaurant’s grand opening. “They gave me the feeling that they loved me in this neighborhood,” McKinney says. “They got me.”
But if you want to visit Cookie’s and you don’t know what you’re looking for, you might miss the inconspicuous sign located on a small, white building near the corner of North and next to Studio 702.
While the outside of Cookie’s Five Star Grill may be low key, the inside, with its bright red walls and colorful décor, is cheerful and welcoming. It’s a place where if you live on the Northside, the staff is likely to know your name, and if you’re just visiting, you will be treated with the same kindness and respect as if you lived there.
McKinney, who comes from a long line of devoted cooks, always loved to cook herself, “but not to the level I’m cooking now. I grew up in a house that did a lot of cooking,” she says. “My grandmother is a big cook. My mother is a big cook. She’s an all-around type chef. I’m inspired from my mother’s cooking and Cookie’s is based on all of her recipes.”
The entire family supports the restaurant: Co-owners, Christen and Lastasha McKinney, daughter Tasheanna, 18, a freshmen at Western Michigan University, and daughter Christen, 4.
Five Star Grill was added for the humor, McKinney says.
“Even if you’re in a funny spot, you can still serve food that looks great,” she says, justifiably proud of her plating skills. For the Maple Pecan Waffle and Chicken, for instance, McKinney drizzles the homemade caramel (her special recipe made with Maple syrup) appetizingly across the waffle.
Based on her own specialties and what she thought the neighborhood would like, McKinney developed Cookie’s menu, a mixture of comfort foods that’s proven popular: a little Louisiana in the dirty rice, mixed with some Southern in the waffle and fried chicken wings, and all from scratch, down to the hand-patted burgers (a restaurant rarity) and macaroni (never from the box) for Cookie’s famous baked Mac & Cheese.
But McKinney also wanted to introduce her customers to something new.
“I threw burgers in there because it was something different,” she says. “And I introduced people to the waffles and chicken, though that’s been around forever in the South.”
Yelp reviewers rave about the waffle and chicken wings and the perfectly seasoned hand-patted burgers (versus pre-made patties). It’s worth noting, Cookie’s Central Burger (named after Kalamazoo Central High School), a four-cheese stuffed burger topped with ketchup, pickles, onions, and bacon, is the star of the restaurant, McKinney says. It's also the first item listed on the menu.
And she chose her menu well, as Cookie’s has proven to be a popular neighborhood destination and drawn customers from around the area, too.
Peaches and Cream Waffles at Cookie's Five Star Grill features is made from scratch, down to the whipped cream.
While McKinney is in the kitchen baking batches of beans and cooking pots of rice, her staff, including best friend and business manager Shannon Allen, serve the many customers for the mostly take-out establishment, though the diner sits around 15.
In the future, McKinney says she’d like to expand the restaurant’s seating area. And she is also looking to open another Cookie’s, possibly in Portage, because she says many of her customers travel from there.
“My favorite part of Cookie’s is putting the food out,” McKinney says. “Cooking makes me happy. I love catering to people and pleasing them with food.”
Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Northside” series amplifies the voices of Northside Neighborhood residents. Over four months, Second Wave journalists will be in the Northside Neighborhood to explore topics of importance to residents, business owners, and other members of the community. To reach the editor of this series, Theresa Coty-O’Neil, please email her here or contact Second Wave managing editor Kathy Jennings here.