By Jan McDonald
Special to The Watchman
Efforts to bring new businesses to the downtown area of Demopolis show progress as several new storefronts have opened in the past few months.
But getting considerable interest are the two restaurants now tempting customers with their fare. While the two eateries couldn’t be more different in their fare, they share many similarities.
The Bistro, which opened its doors two weeks ago, is the child of Mike and Susan Grayson. It is located next door and upstairs from their current businesses, Spec-Tacular and Vine and Hoof.
The menu offers many familiar and popular items, but presented with a twist, unique pairings and ingredients not often found in the area.
”What we wanted was something different, but not too different, so that’s what we hope we’ve created,” said Susan
“We had done Foscue House years and years ago and really enjoyed it,” added Mike. “The reason we got out is because I had this crazy idea about running for mayor.”
“Mike had always wanted to get back in it. He loves to cook and create,” said Susan.
In 2001 Veronica Moton Wilson, better known to her customers as Ms. Kitty, started the restaurant that carries her nickname just one month after her husband was killed in an automobile accident. She was left her with four young sons to provide for. She had to close her Camden location four years later when she had surgery but began again in 2008.
Ms. Kitty opened her local restaurant in the Demopolis Inn in July and serves “down home” cooking to the growing number of patrons. “My motto is that I don’t give you anything I wouldn’t eat.”
“I never wanted a restaurant,” she laughed. Instead she first started a small bakery business. It was her uncle, Melvin Moton Sr., who encouraged her to think about preparing lunches.
The first restaurant, she said, was located in the “back side of Camden in a little hut, almost like a barn. It absolutely took off.”
Ms. Kitty put into practice everything she learned from her great-aunt, Carrie Power.
“The other kids would be outside playing,” but she would be enjoying herself in the kitchen.
The Armstead family first approached her about six years ago with the idea of opening a restaurant in Demopolis, but, she said, “I was hesitant, believing in God but just didn’t have that faith.”
Then when Police Chief Tommie Reese introduced her to Archie Bird, “it went from there.”
The Graysons originally thought of opening a restaurant when The Marengo Café relocated to Highway 80. They felt the downtown area need a place to eat. The couple first considered locating it in their store, but the Alabama Beverage Control board regulations wouldn’t allow it.
They decided to use the vacant upstairs apartment. “We decided to renovate it. And it needed renovations,” Susan said. “Getting a 120-year-old building up to code was tough.”
“I’m not sure that if I had known going in what the scope of work would be it very well would have scared me off,” added Mike. “I grossly under calculated the scope of work to bring the building up to code.”
The couple decorated The Bistro in a wine motif to go with Vine and Hoof and used the same colors.
All cooking is done on site, said Susan, including desserts and salad dressings. “We try to do as much as we can in house.”
Both Grayson and Ms. Kitty created their own recipes for their respective restaurants for menus that change daily.
In Ms. Kitty’s case, they are recipes developed over the years that have proved popular with her patrons. She is compiling them into a cookbook she has titled “Straight from the Heart.”
The unique items on The Bistro’s menu came from months of experimentation, said Susan. Much of the produce used in the recipes are grown in their own garden.
The Graysons have six cooks working the lunch and dinner shifts, all with previous experience. Eight servers, most of whom are college-aged, wait the tables. Susan handles the bar.
Ms. Kitty has four other employees at the Demopolis location. Her third son Sheldon is the assistant manager of both restaurants. He switches off with his mother each of them spending three days at a location. That allows them both to get to know and keep in touch with their customers.
She considers her workers a team and her restaurant “a home away from home,” she said. “We have so much fun.” She and her staff “pray together, and I let them know that we are family.”
“I promised God that when people walked into my establishment that I would say hello,” said Ms. Kitty. “Business is great. I love people. I’m getting to meet new people.”
Fun was one of the factors in opening The Bistro.
“We thought it might be fun to work together like we used to,” said Susan. “The whole thing has been a challenge, and I’m sure it will keep on.”
The Graysons had three areas of focus in mind when planning the restaurant, “and all of it leads to folks enjoying themselves,” said Mike. They wanted to create an atmosphere that people would enjoy and they wanted to have food that “has got to be really good, if not great. Good just ain’t good enough anymore,” he continued. Finally, the servers had to have a positive attitude.
One of the challenges to local patrons of The Bistro are the 27 steps to reach the restaurant. Susan said ADA regulations don’t require an elevator if the facility serves under a certain number of patrons. If it ever expands, however, the Graysons will have to install access.
In the meantime, anyone who cannot reach The Bistro can call in an order, and a staff member will deliver the meal to the car.
Ms. Kitty doesn’t think her Demopolis location will be the only expansion for her restaurant. “It feels that God is saying this is the path that I want for you,” she said, like He’s telling her, “Don’t get comfortable because there’s more for you.”
She added, “I love life, and I feel that God has given me so many chances.”
Mike feels the same way. He has “Phase II and Phase III rumbling around” in his head. “I would like to us continue to get better.”
Putting on his mayor’s hat, he is pleased to see more activity for downtown Demopolis. Also opening on Washington Street are Uprooted Junk and Glam, and the Bigbee Thrift Store has relocated to larger facilities. There also is an antique store planned, he said.
“I’m really hoping that people see somebody that is putting some money in downtown Demopolis and they will say, ‘Well, you know, I can do that too’.”