Back in August 2018, Jonny Rhodes was talking about bringing more fresh food to people living in his neighborhood.
"Behind the restaurant we're hoping to build a community garden, a sustainable garden, so people who can harvest the food themselves and take what they need," the Indigo chef/owner told Houstonia back then. "We're hoping to attack systemic issues on a smaller scale and influence love and unity in the community."
Nearly two years later, under the most uncertain conditions restaurant owners have faced in decades, Rhodes—whose restaurant Indigo, a tasting-menu spot focused on the history of survival of African and indigenous people, has become a nationally renowned phenomenon—is ready to fulfill his mission. Only the result is a little more than a community garden.
Rhodes and wife Chana, general manager of Indigo, will open Broham Fine Soul Food & Groceries on April 1 at 2019 Bennington St. While some restaurants in town are pivoting to also sell groceries, Broham will be a full-fledged market that'll sell produce grown in Indigo's garden and farm, plus pre-packaged items and various preserves, something for which Indigo is known.
Broham is a major step for the James Beard-nominated chef in what he in 2018 called his attack on systemic issues. At Indigo, Rhodes regularly speaks about the lack of fresh food available to people living in underrepresented communities, many of whom are black. To wit, the very neighborhood where Indigo is located, Trinity Gardens, is a "food desert," which means it lacks a connection to fresh food. The community is peppered not with grocery stores and produce markets, but with convenience stores.
So with Broham, Rhodes is telling people to buy their fresh food, take it home, and cook it.
"We're not urging people to eat out," says Rhodes, who closed Indigo temporarily once Houston restaurants were ordered to change service to take-out, delivery, and drive-thru only (it's currently scheduled to reopen in the fall). "I know a lot of people are looking for the restaurant industry to be bailed out, but we're encouraging people to cook more at home."
In fact, this very moment—as novel coronavirus COVID-19 has caused a global economic crash, at least temporarily altering how everyone lives and works—has in Rhodes's estimation put everyone on more of an equal playing field. Suddenly, Rhodes says, everyone knows how it feels to go without the food they want, something that has partially defined the African and African American experience for centuries. What he's seeing—panic shopping and an over-reliance on take-out—is a harmful consequence of the systems we've put in place as a society.
"Going to places for to-go orders at a time like this is very bad for you," he says. "People think they can get it whenever and however they want, but people should rely on themselves. You should be able to grow your food and cook your food."
About the restaurant industry, in his words: "I think we should let it burn." And this is from a restaurant owner, a guy who operates a 13-chair dining room and charges more than $100 per meal—and that's without alcohol.
"It's not like what I'm saying isn't a contradiction of what I personally own," he says. "It's about the betterment of us overall. We should have restaurants, but we shouldn't need to have restaurants."
In Rhodes's vision of the future, the restaurant industry would be rebuilt with chefs opening independent grocery stores. He'd rather everyone own land to grow their own food, then use grocery stores as ways to supplement. Maybe Broham Fine Soul Food & Groceries is the first piece of Rhodes's envisioned future.
Starting April 1, Broham Fine Soul Food & Groceries will be open 9 a.m.—7 p.m. Monday–Friday.