DULUTH – The Witherspoon brothers sang and laughed as they battered chicken and threw it in the deep fryer.
Tom Hanson watched with a smile of approval as the siblings navigated his kitchen at OMC Smokehouse, a popular restaurant in Duluth’s burgeoning Lincoln Park craft district.
“His eyes kind of lit up a bit the first time he tried it,” said Stephan Witherspoon, serving the crispy golden pieces alongside a bowl of his homemade cornbread dressing.
“When the man endorses you,” Solomon Witherspoon said, gesturing toward Hanson, “that’s how you know it’s real.”
The brothers are planning to open a soul food joint in Lincoln Park next year.
The venture would add them to the small roster of Black restaurant owners in the northeastern Minnesota city of 86,000.
The restaurant — dubbed Doc Witherspoon’s Soul Food Kitchen in their father’s honor — will serve Southern-style favorites like fried chicken, mac and cheese, cornbread and sweet potato pie.
Hanson, who owns two other Duluth restaurants, is helping advise the brothers as they search for a brick-and-mortar home, form marketing plans and seek business loans. He’s also contributing funds to their startup.
“Why am I helping to set up a competitor across the street? I believe that it will bring more people to Lincoln Park,” Hanson said.
“People get the benefit of trying new foods, and we’re culturally moving our neighborhood forward.”
Sylvester Witherspoon, also known as Doc, operated a restaurant in West Duluth in the 1970s and 1980s. He served as a pastor for years before he died in 1999.
Stephan Witherspoon, who serves as president of the local NAACP, remembers hanging around his father’s kitchen as a young boy, “looking, learning and especially tasting.”
“Now we’re living in these times of division, and we want to bring people together through food and love,” he said.
The Witherspoons will be having a pop-up event Sunday from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Peace United Church. Customers can preorder family-style meals ahead of time online.
Solomon Witherspoon said he hopes to someday be able to pay forward the business advice to other Black entrepreneurs.
“We absolutely want to be trendsetters,” he said.
In the meantime, the brothers are working to carry on their father’s legacy.
They make the work fun, dancing and teasing each other as they whip up the time-tested recipes they’ve carefully honed with years of minor tweaks.
“Personally, I’ve always thought my father did a lot for Duluth but didn’t get a lot of love back,” said Stephan Witherspoon, noting that his parents spent years as community activists.
His father was constantly inviting friends and strangers to join family meals or backyard barbecues.
“We’re feeling the love now,” he added.