What is soul food? Ask Margaret Gardner, the burgeoning entrepreneur behind Margaret’s Soul Food Café, and she’ll say it’s Southern-style cooking.
“Southern cooking, it’s ribs, chittlins, collard greens, fried chicken. Fried chicken is a must,” she said behind the counter at her kitchen on South Shirlington Road, a room she shares with the Green Valley Pharmacy.
The soul of Gardner’s cuisine is more than the sum of its ingredients. Since she opened her business one year ago, it has become a center of community life in the Green Valley neighborhood. Although Gardner uses the kitchen as a base for her catering business — a kitchen that has the counter and seats of a diner that must have once occupied it — she sees a steady stream of customers from the surrounding homes. From across the counter, Gardner chats with almost everyone about the latest goings-on in local life.
“I COME HERE just about every day, sometimes,” said Connie Green. “On Sundays I used to cook at home, but not since Margaret started cooking. She cooks what I would cook.”
The place has already developed its regulars, and Gardner has developed a reputation as an asset to the community. She donated food to the nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center until it shut down and gives meals to many in need. She also arranges meals for some seniors.
“We need more people like her in this community,” said John Robinson, who operated the community center. “She helps seniors every day. More people should support her.”
In a neighborhood that has seen hard times in the recent past, Gardner said she does what she can for the people around her.
“I like being able to do something for people even if it’s just something small,” she said. “When I first moved the business into this area, I didn’t know much about it and I was even kind of nervous here at night, but this a good place. It’s not how you sometimes hear of it. It’s not how it’s portrayed.”
Gardner chose to strike out on her own in the food business after cooking under other caterers. Outside of the catering business, Gardener serves as a bus monitor for Arlington County. The decision to go solo was a risk — her paycheck supports four children — but business has taken off. Her list of catering clients has grown but she is taking in more from setting up vending stands at events like the Arlington County Fair and Alexandria's recent anniversary celebration. And on Friday and Saturday, she fires up the grill to barbecue.
FOR THE MOST PART, Soul Food Cafe is a one-woman show, testifying to the spirit of the small business owner. Gardner does the cooking and arranges the jobs. She selects the meats and vegetables. She drives the van. Yet her desire to help others led her to take on some help — local students in need of job training. Her efforts to build better opportunities for young people won her recognition from Arlington Public Schools in June. U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8) also honored her this year with the award of “most aspiring business” in Arlington.
“This is a rough industry,” said Gardner. “But I’m selling and I want to be here for a long time.”
Green Valley, like most of Arlington, is seeing rapid change. New development, Gardner said, brings news offices. New offices mean new people, hungry people, and more business. But as the neighborhood transforms, she said, her food will keep its own flavor, its soul.
To contact Margaret's Soul Food Cafe, call 703-608-9226.