Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Northside series.
There’s just something about Creole food that Chrissy McKinney loves.
“I’ve always been inspired by Creole-style cooking,” says the Kalamazoo-based cook. “I don’t know what drew me to it. And I’m still trying to figure out why I’m so in love, infatuated, with their food.”
The love of that and “down south” cooking – such as gravy-smothered pork chops, smothered fried catfish, seafood Cajun macaroni and cheese, and seafood Creole pasta -- has resulted in long lines of customers during Soul Food Sundays at her restaurant, Cookie’s Five Star Grill at 721 Douglas Ave.
All of that is leading to an expansion by McKinney. She plans to open a new Creole and soul food specialty restaurant by early October in the location of the recently closed Station 702 restaurant
On the menu for the new Creole ‘n’ Soul restaurant will be this dish, Louis V Lobster.
Called Creole ‘n’ Soul, the new eatery will feature down south cooking, including shrimp, lobster, and other seafood as well as gumbo and soul food.
Cookie’s, which is primarily a takeout business with room to seat about 15 diners, has a large menu with popular items. Prior to the COVID-19 slowdown and since the restaurant reopened in April with take-out only service, those items along with the soul food specials have resulted in days when the restaurant has more traffic than it can handle, McKinney says.
“We offer so many different things,” McKinney says. “We offer American (cuisine). We do a little bit of seafood. We do a little deep south. When I say ‘deep south’ I mean dirty rice, the traditional red beans and rice. We do Creole. Sometimes we do Etouffee. It’s from Philly steak sandwiches to stuffed burgers (and) we also offer nachos. So it’s versatile.”
And she says she knew that its Soul Food Sunday and its Creole specials were taking the operation to a different level.
“We knew that first year, that Soul Food Sunday was the deal,” McKinney says of the 4.5-year-old Cookie’s Five Star Grill. Now she says, “It’s just to the point that I had an established menu. So I could not take everything off the menu and turn this into a soul food place. Burgers and fries and the different ways we loaded fries is what got us here. Soul food was just a special every Sunday.”
Working as a take-out only business since April, she says Cookie’s has had lines of people “wrap around the outside -- hot, bothered, mad. I couldn’t handle the crowd anymore. It was getting to the point that we had to shut down early.” She said she and her staff were also overworking themselves and there were too many people in the kitchen.
So they are leasing the 702 Douglas Ave. building to acquire additional kitchen space and to divide the menu. Cookie's will remain a place for hamburgers, French fries, chicken, and other popular American restaurant fare. Creole ‘n’ Soul will serve Creole-inspired dishes and soul food. It will start as a lunch and dinner venue but plans to expand into breakfast. Station 702 was a breakfast and brunch operation that closed on June 20. It had been in business since 2014.
“To be honest, I was surprised at how much interest I had in this,” property owner Jason Newton says of the 702 Douglas location. “I had several people ask about it.”
He says they wanted to pursue other food concepts such as Greek and urban barbecue. But after talking with McKinney and other associates, he says, “It sounded like the right fit. I think these guys have the right thing going on. Everybody that I mention Creole to is really excited.”
Newton, who has an ownership interest in Station 702, says he also wanted the property to be used for something that supports the area. An owner of the property in the area since 2004, he says he bought 702 Douglas Avenue in 2009 after Dip’s restaurant closed there.
McKinney, 36, says she has spent a lot of time studying Creole cuisine and even spent a week visiting different restaurants in New Orleans as part of that.
“The specialties are just amazing,” says Gerry Hoffman, who does repair work for McKinney and has become a supportive business mentor. “People come from Grand Rapids and even Chicago for her specials.”
Hoffman is helping to renovate the 1,300-square-foot 702 Douglas Ave. location. The new business will have space to accommodate about 25 sit-down customers but when it opens initially it will comply with state guidelines for social-distancing.
“We get a lot of Battle Creek,” McKinney says, explaining that customers are fond of telling her and her staff how far they’ve come. “We get a lot of Lansing and Benton Harbor. I’m from Benton Harbor, so they come to support me. My mother was a big cook down there.”
A Benton Harbor native, McKinney, and her wife, Latasha, are the parents of four children, including 5-year-old Christen who has three paintings that will adorn the walls of the new restaurant.
Cookie’s Grill is named for McKinney’s mother who has retired from working as a cook in Benton Harbor. In Kalamazoo, Chrissy McKinney has been called “Cookie” by people assuming she is the namesake of the business. And that does not seem to bother her. She has been cooking for one-third of her life, the last four years in her own restaurant. She invested in a Wing Heaven franchise in Grand Rapids in 2013 but decided to pull out of that venture after only a few months to start an independent enterprise and become her own boss.
Cookie’s Five Star Grill employs six people, including McKinney, her daughter Tasheanna, 20, her son William, 15, and her step-son Cedric, 14. The new restaurant will employ seven, with McKinney sharing time between the two businesses.
Some artwork inside the soon-to-open Creole ‘n’ Soul restaurant Is intended to give a feel of New Orleans.
She said being able to walk right next door will be great. As she considered opening a second location to divide her menu, she says she looked at commercial space in the Washington Square area south of downtown Kalamazoo.
McKinney estimates that about 15 percent of her customer traffic is walk-in business from the surrounding neighborhood. The remainder has been people who drive in from all over. Many find the restaurant on the busier-than-it-looks Douglas Avenue as they come to and from downtown Kalamazoo from Plainwell and places north, Newton says.
On the northeast corner of the intersection of Douglas Avenue and North Street, Cookie’s Grill and soon-to-open Creole ‘N’ Soul are in the Northside Neighborhood, but just barely. That intersection is the borderline of the Stuart Avenue Neighborhood (south of North Street and east of Douglas Avenue), the West Douglas/Fairmont Neighborhood (a linear tract that runs along the west side of Douglas Avenue) and the North Side Neighborhood (north of North Street and east of Douglas).
Newton says Douglas Avenue sees a lot of traffic and borders three neighborhoods “that probably couldn’t be more different” but each has potential customers.
“A lot of your commuters run through here to get to Plainwell,” Newton says. And speaking of families in adjacent areas and students at nearby Kalamazoo College and Western Michigan University, he says, “There are a lot of demographics that have expendable cash.”
McKinney says some people wonder why a person would open one restaurant right next to another. But she says it makes great sense when you realize her established restaurant no longer has adequate storage capacity and cannot successfully continue to serve its regular menu at the same time it offers soul food and Creole specials.
“It was just too much in one building,” McKinney says. “When this popped up, I just thought this was a huge blessing.”