by Diane Thornton | photos by Joan Allison
“The best part is not things on the menu, it’s the people and the energy.”– Octavia Young,
Owner Midtown Crossing Grill
Wistfully she tells me she made goat cheese ice cream with a strawberry balsamic reduction and wasabi peas before the storm hit. Not what you’d expect to hear from Octavia Young, owner of Midtown Crossing Grill, when discussing the spring storm that shut down power to a third of the city for days. She had been looking forward to serving that ice cream as a special to surprise her regulars.
After the storm knocked out power, they lost a lot of food. Coming back from the storm was hard because it takes three days to prep; when the power came back on, they were already behind. During the power outage Young offered to bring in ice for other neighbors when she bought ice for the restaurant (twice a day.) She saw people sharing, the neighborhood she loves, helping each other, sharing ice. “People here are nice. It’s a community.”
Since opening in December 2014, she has been building not only her business but also her community. Born out of ‘frustration with big layoffs that were poor decisions for the area and watching how corporations were draining money from communities, not reinvesting in them,’ Octavia Young decided she wanted to give back to the community.
She was already brewing plans to open her own place when her employer, Harrah’s, shuttered their businesses in Tunica. Suddenly unemployed, she wanted to use her severance to ‘chill’ for a while and think about her options. Her (then) boyfriend was restless, though, and found a restaurant for sale. She says she “bought the neighborhood and then bought the restaurant.”
The space at 394 N. Watkins Street in Memphis, had been no less than six restaurants, and often unoccupied, in 20 some years. A classically trained chef of 16 years and self-described workaholic, she knew opening and sustaining a restaurant as the sole proprietor was daunting, but she had a plan and she was up for the challenge. The menu would feature classic, comfort dishes as well as more adventurous cuisine where she could be free to experiment with things like goat cheese ice cream, but the restaurant she bought and the restaurant she was sold were not the same. She was scammed. Instead of investing in equipment and building her menu over a year, she had mounts of unpaid bills and staff. She had to make it work, and fast.
The menu quickly changed to utilize the existing equipment, mainly a pizza oven. It featured neighborhood names like Sears Pizza, Mikenzie Sandwich (Vegan) and Bianca’s Bahn Mi (Vegan). Bianca Phillips was an early fan not only because of the proximity to her home but also because ‘Octavia asked the neighborhood what they wanted to see on the menu and when I mentioned vegan options, she got to work. She’s very inclusive.’
“I couldn’t do anything if the community weren’t here.” Young says of her adopted neighborhood. The menu wasn’t the only thing that changed. In partnership with Crosstown Arts and Church Health Center, the exterior of the building was redesigned by Magyn Merrick and the community helped paint it.
With an established menu and exterior redesigned, her customer base has grown. Her regulars are her favorite part of the restaurant, because they treat Midtown Crossing Grill as much more than a restaurant. It is a community center.
When Midtown Crossing Grill expanded from a walkable, casual restaurant to a community meeting space can be easily traced to the first Ukulele flash mob. That group expanded from one night to weekly to eventually outgrowing the meeting (and eating) space. Octavia keeps an open dialogue with the community and its needs. Hosting wine tastings, regular events that support local art, comedians, spoken word, real Blues, meetings for many non-profits including TEP, CHOICES, and the Memphis Feminist Collective and even an heirloom seed swap has lead to a packed monthly calendar. (Check out her calendar for each month’s events.)
Octavia enjoys getting to know her customers, meeting their families, celebrating milestone, and hearing about their day-to-day lives. She credits catering for Crosstown Arts for getting her through a tough summer. She’s also grateful for the Crosstown construction workers who found where she was and became another set of regulars.
The inclusive, welcoming atmosphere begins at the door, with friendly servers. Octavia seeks to empower her staff, “Dealing with customers, that’s first, to be authentically happy. I work to keep my staff happy and moving forward. Eventually, the (workers) outgrow us, and that’s good. They have futures beyond here.”
This Buddhist philosophy and her servant leadership heart come from her mother, Saidah Young, who is very much a part of her journey and success. Reinvesting her success in the community, Young’s plans for the future are to change the menu drastically and remodel and expand a bit (she promises she won’t touch the iconic, vertigo-inducing bathroom tile).
The best part of MCG is not what’s on the menu, it’s the people and the energy. We’ll agree, but we know it’s fueled by food from loving hands, and given to sustain and grow a come-unity.
Midtown Crossing Grill
Beer, Patio, & Full Bar