Jared Brewington is bounding around 805 E. 38th St. with the enthusiastic, slightly unhinged energies of a new dad.
The tiles are repurposed from an old McDonald’s. This old record player was thrifted. The light fixtures are being suspended with airplane wire. Brewington insisted on taking on the general contractor duties of his newly opened restaurant, Funky Grits, a highly anticipated soul food – not soul food – restaurant in South Minneapolis (more on that later).
Brewington says he has “a lot of superstitions,” and he wanted to make sure his heart and soul was in every nail, every floorboard. He’s so superstitious that he refuses to finish the office. The exposed walls and poured concrete floor will remind he and his staff that “we’re never done.”
The place is so anticipated because South Minneapolis is hungry for soul food, a curious conundrum for Brewington, because Funky Grits is not a soul food place. Not exactly. For example, he’ll never serve fried chicken, barbeque, or macaroni and cheese. He has his reasons, and he doesn’t want to be called out for it or debate the integrity of soul food.
Brewington was born and raised in this neighborhood, where he and his brothers bought their penny candies at Cup Food, still dressed in suits from worship at the nearby Kingdom Hall.
He says his dad, Mark Brewington, and famed musician Larry Graham were the two responsible for bringing Prince to Jehovah’s Witness scripture, famously getting the musician baptized into the church. But with all that church, there was also a whole lot of music in the young Brewington’s upbringing, and his great uncle, Sonny Tillman of Sonny Tillman and the Orioles, made sure the boy had plenty of funk and soul in his life.
It’s the music that he thinks of as the umbilical cord between himself and this restaurant.
“This is the food that the people I grew up listening to were eating. The backbone of the food is the same as the basslines,” said Brewington.
By way of example he turns on some funk.
“This is definitely George Clinton food,” he says.
The menu is anchored by grits as its base; also not an accident. He’s a longtime board member of Compatible Technology International (CTI) a nonprofit that equips smallholder farmers in Africa with innovative tools and training to harvest and process food.
“Almost one hundred percent of the globe’s sustenance is grain based,” says Brewington. “Grains are life.”
So at Funky Grits expect plenty of … you know … grits. But things like “perlo,” a southern cooking take on chicken and rice, with pickled peppers and onions, and a dish he expects to become a signature; as well as smoked walleye cakes with Cajun seasoning will also grace the menu. Brewington grew up in a household where food was a crucial part of their lives, and his mom went from cooking Indonesian chicken, to miso tofu, to double decker Dagwood sandwiches. As a result, he doesn’t want to pen himself in. Even so, the number one inquiry he gets about his menu has an affirmative answer.
“I’m up and down these streets all day,” he says, pointing in the direction of Cup Foods. “And people always ask ‘Ya’ll got shrimp and grits?’”
Yes, they do.
But menu questions aside, Brewington’s concern is that Funky Grits will be thought of as a true community hub, where neighborhood kids get employment, the tunes are always funky, and a friendly face is a guarantee.
“I like to smile and I like making people smile,” was Brewington’s ready answer to why he wanted to go into the tricky world of restaurant entrepreneurship. A business consultant by trade, Brewington got “the bug” when he was going through a divorce and needed something to do with his evenings. He got a job at a nearby bar as a bar-back, and never looked back. The camaraderie, the built-in family, the energy, it all just fit.
“I go through life at a bar-back pace,” he says.
His defiance of categorization puts him in position to take a strong place in the “Minnesota soul food” movement, one that has few clear rules or definitions. Minnesota soul doesn’t “have to” be “this” or “that” in order to maintain its authenticity. It just has to be good. In shirking clear definitions, Brewington is calling the cooking “urban southern fusion,” with a big side of “swagadociousness.”
The neighborhood is hungry for the restaurant not just because it’s hungry for grits, but because longtime residents miss the strong Black business district that once occupied the neighborhood.
A line above the offerings on a chalkboard menu at Funky Grits reads, “Everyone is Welcome, All the Time, Forever.” If that isn’t the definition of soul food, then what is?