According to the 2021 National Restaurant Association report, nearly half of restaurants are owned or co-owned by women, and about 45 percent of managers are women—higher than most other industries. Gloria Martin said she never imagined she would one day be a business owner, let alone a restaurant owner. Martin has run Tacoma’s much-loved and successful Southern Kitchen since 1995.
“When I was growing up, the goal was to get a job after high school, or go to college. There were really limited careers for women,” Martin said. “When I went to college, I just knew I wanted to do something good in the world. I never thought about going into business in my early years. I just stumbled across it.”
Before Southern Kitchen, Martin lived across the country. She grew up in suburban Boston and attended Hampton University in Virginia. She has lived and worked in Washington, DC; Baltimore; Chicago; and Tacoma.
In 1995, Martin owned A multicultural bookstore called Tag, right next door to Lessie’s Southern Kitchen. The restaurant owner, who was about to retire, approached Martin and asked her if she would buy the restaurant. Martin, who knew a thing or two about comfort food and the business, decided to take the offer — a risk that, Martin says, paid off enormously.
“I was very, very, very nervous. Very scared,” Martin said. “When I first started, (Lessie Smith) told me that I could work with her for a month or so and then she would retire…() For about three weeks, I was working there every day to Familiar with the operational work, then I took over.”
Growing up, Martin’s father was an Army cook. He taught many aspects of food preparation, such as how to properly cut a whole chicken, make dressings, and dispose of food waste. Looking back, Martin said she was amazed at what her father taught her and how she was able to keep those lessons.
Martin has created his own menu over the years, but the classic comfort food remains. Much of the menu is made in-house, with ingredients sourced from local farmers. Hungry diners will find fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, kale, catfish and the famous cornbread stuffing and gravy. Martin also raved about her mango lemonade, which is handcrafted with mango chunks and a dollop of whipped cream. “I was lucky that the restaurant was already there. … I ran with it,” she said.
Martin’s success did not However, there is no challenge. As a woman of color in business, Martin said she experienced discrimination. When she tried to expand her bookstore in the early ’90s, a loan officer turned her down on funding. Determined to grow her business, Martin went to another bank and a black loan officer approved the financing.
“I felt like (First Bank) rejected me just because of the color of my skin and the fact that I was a woman,” Martin said. “But (the second loan officer) had confidence in me. …I was lucky to have him as a loan officer. But I never gave up. Now, people are being recognized; it’s women, people of color, diversity . it’s time.”
Southern Kitchen is already Before Food Network put the restaurant on everyone’s radar, this was an established restaurant with top-notch customer service.
In 2010, Food Network, Diners, driving and diving Featuring the restaurant’s famous cornbread filling.
“The next week, foodies are here,” Martin said of his reaction to the episode. “I had a couple fly in from Texas for dinner. …I said, ‘Well, what brought you to Tacoma? They said, ‘Come here for dinner. …and they showed me got their tickets. They arrived at Sea-Tac at 10 a.m. and were leaving at 7 p.m. that same day.” Eight years later, Southern Kitchen appeared on Kevin Hart’s Comedy Central show city of hart. This episode highlights up-and-coming comedians from the Puget Sound area dining at restaurants.
Between her bookstore and restaurant, Martin creates a welcoming space for people.
“One of the things I’ve always wanted to do is create a workplace for people of color to know they don’t feel discriminated against,” she said. “From what my parents had to go through, even me, I just wanted a place where[others]felt comfortable. I hope this makes not only my employees proud, but the community as a whole.”
Martin and her team are considering expanding the restaurant with a food truck and possibly opening a second location in Bremerton. She wants to give back to the community in some form – whether it’s sharing herbs and microgreens or simply learning more about food and life.
“I still want to know. I still want to learn. I still want to change the world. …I don’t have all the answers. I just know I have to do my best,” she said.
This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of our sister publication Nanyin Commercial.