Belly on up to Mama Sheila’s table

Soul food plus vegan, Mexican, Somali dishes all from scratch

Mama Sheila (MSR News)


There’s a new chef in town and her name is Mama Sheila Brathwaite, owner of Mama Sheila’s Soul Food Kitchen. Say goodbye to bland.

No longer need you bring your meal back to the office or home with spice and sauce packets to help it actually taste like something. Mama Sheila’s steam table features, among three dozen selections, barbecue chicken, pork chops, cat fish and meatloaf along with black eyed peas, mac-and-cheese, baked beans, plus the timeless staples collard greens and corn bread.

On the cold table are potatoes, pasta salads and crushed eggs. She offers tasty, not-so-easy-to-come-by treats like peach cobbler and banana pudding. Needless to say, we aren’t talking out of a box, ready-made this or instant that. These are start from scratch and, as the saying goes, put your foot in it dishes.

Sharita Benson and KMOJ Underwriter Donna Ester at the grand opening of the restaurant
(Paige Elliott/MSR News)

Sharita Benson, daughter and spokesperson for Mama Sheila’s, relates, “My mother’s been cooking ever since I can remember. Even before that. She’s the third oldest and when she was young [she] had the responsibility to cook for her little brothers.”

Indeed, according to Benson it runs in the family: “My aunties, grandmother’s recipes have been handed down.” With roots in states like Arkansas and Louisiana, it’s a safe bet those recipes rest easy on your taste buds.

How did a family activity become a business venture? It certainly didn’t start as anything of the kind. Mama is at heart a people person with a giving spirit that moved her to cook for churches and community gatherings, places and events where fellowship connects friends and neighbors, and, naturally, around the house.

“People come over,” Benson says. “She’s always been like that.” And folk have always been glad to get a knife, fork, and belly up to the table she sets. As long as you’re going to do it anyway, and people are constantly paying you compliments, it only makes sense to put such skill to profitable use.

“I said to her, ‘Mom why don’t you just get a little restaurant or something since you’re cooking all the time?’” Heeding her daughter’s prodding encouragement, the “or something” materialized as a niche at Portland Market in South Minneapolis, launched with a well-received kick-off this past spring and followed by the grand opening in summer.

You might call the approach to this undertaking the best of both generations, a basic old-world fundamental aided by new age savvy. Leaving the product — downhome culinary expertise — in Mama’s quite capable hands, Benson notes, “My parents are not up on technology. That is the new way of doing things. You have to bridge the gap. So, I do that job to get the word out [and] help with that aspect.”

She plans to get the advertising ball rolling beyond word of mouth through social media and to utilize website directories that specialize in apprising viewers of places to grab a bite to eat, exploring and availing the company of the vast ways in which the Internet marketplace engages the public.

Customers at Mama Sheila’s grand opening

“In that way I’m very hands-on and kind of the backbone of the organization,” says Benson.

Part of the research was simply taking a good look around. “You see so many fast food places in our neighborhoods,” Benson says. “This is an alternative. It includes dishes for vegans and people who like Mexican or Somali food.

“But you can still get your burgers and fries,” she adds, “the difference being you get them from someone who knows how to cook, not from someone just opening a package of frozen patties, thawing them out, and then tossing them on the fire.”

Benson sums up, “It’s soul food, but that’s not all it is.” And the prices are right. Your average working Joe or Jane can enjoy lunch without putting a dent in the dinner budget.

Still another pleasant plus: The staff taking and filling your orders understand a bit more about customer service, that it’s more than glumly standing around waiting for you to finish so they can get to the next person in line. They’re courteously professional and actually polite.

Come on by, get a knife, fork, belly up to the table Mama sets and see for yourself.


Mama Sheila’s Soul Food Kitchen is located in the Portland Market at 3751 Portland Ave. in South Minneapolis. Serving hours are from 11 am until 9 pm. Call 612-825-4316 or visit the Facebook page at Mama Sheila’s Soul Food.

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.

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