It seems especially appropriate that Rodney and Stephanie Wilson serve soul food at their downtown Anniston restaurant. Just getting to the point of owning their own place took a lot of faith.
Several years ago, shortly after moving from Nashville to Oxford to manage a Hardee’s, Rodney began experiencing kidney failure. He ended up having a transplant and then needed to find another job. He had spent decades in the fast-food industry, but going back to that didn’t seem right. And he had long dreamed of having his own restaurant.
“The kidney disease is bad,” Rodney says. “When you’re going through dialysis, you have a lot of reflection time.” And, yes, he says, he sometimes bargained with God. “Going through that scare built my faith up to be able to step out. I thought, ‘If you got me through this, there’s nothing you won’t do.’ So that gave me the strength to step out and say, ‘I’m going to do this.’ He gave me the strength to do it, and look at us today.”
Both Rodney and Stephanie have corporate food service experience, and Stephanie says, “I definitely think working in a corporate world helped a ton. You understand the flow, how business is, the ups and downs.”
Rodney says the budgeting and management skills he learned from working in the fast-food industry are serving them well.
Of their 12-member staff, three of the people worked for Rodney at Hardee’s, including Ms. Pat, who made biscuits at Hardee’s for more than 40 years. He says he’s humbled that they trusted him enough to come work at his new place. And he’s still getting used to the idea of ownership. “Drawing a paycheck every two weeks was good,” Rodney says, “but when you have your own (restaurant), sometimes it feels kind of surreal because you’re thinking, ‘Man, this money is going in my bank account.’ But you have to be responsible because there are bills and employees who have to be paid. It’s good, though. I love it.”
“It still doesn’t feel real,” Stephanie adds. “We looked at our stockroom, and Rodney said, ‘Look, baby. Look at our stockroom.’” Rodney adds, “It’s small, but it’s ours.”
They serve true soul food at Rodney’s Soul & Grill, which has been open for about two months. The portions are generous. The menu features lots of vegetables: turnips and collards, which are rich and tangy each in their own way; green beans; delicious black-eyed peas; mac and cheese; cabbage; thick mashed potatoes with a bit of potato skin mixed in; sweet potatoes with a secret ingredient that has some people coming in several times a week. Everything is made fresh daily.
“We do everything by hand,” Rodney says. “We cut everything. It’s long and tedious, but when you’re in soul food you have to bring a great product. And my sign says ‘real soul food,’ so I have to step my game up and make sure that it’s real.”
Offerings change from day to day, and the meat to go with your three might include chicken baked with rosemary or meatloaf topped with a traditional tangy tomato sauce. There are chicken wings. Fish is always fried to order, and there’s a fish fry special on Fridays. Most of the recipes come from Rodney’s mother. He grew up picking greens, cutting greens, picking corn, shucking corn. He knows a memorable Sunday meal might take most of the day to cook.
“My mom is a great cook,” he says, “and growing up, everybody always flocked to our house. On the holidays the house would be packed with people because of her cooking.”
When Rodney decided to open a soul food restaurant, he asked his mother for her recipes. “Right before we opened, she came down,” he says. “She lives in Nashville, and she’s 74 years old. She came down and said, ‘I want to make sure you’re doing my recipes correctly.’ She don’t play in the kitchen.”
The most popular dish at Rodney’s Soul & Grill is Jamaican oxtails, and that’s Stephanie’s specialty. They are fall-off-the-bone tender in a thick, rich stew bright with allspice. People come from all over for them, so this dish is available every day. Chitlins also are popular. So is the fried chicken, which is remarkably juicy with a nice, crisp, slightly salty crust. This was some of the best fried chicken we’ve had in a long while.
After decades of burgers and fries, Rodney says he wanted to bring a soul food concept to Anniston because it’s close to his heart and because there simply wasn’t a soul food restaurant here. Also, it’s familiar. “I know it. I know she knows it,” he says of his wife. “It’s been our tradition to eat soul food, so we thought it will be kind of easy for us.”
“We did a lot of research,” Stephanie adds. She has a salon, so she asked her customers there what they wanted. Soul food was the answer over and over. “When we first opened the door – that crowd! – I think I kind of froze for a second,” Stephanie says. “It was so crazy the first day. We didn’t even have time to talk to each other. Thank God (our employees) had restaurant experience. They just did what they know. At the end of the day we were giving hugs and high fiving.”
Rodney and Stephanie are especially proud that their restaurant is family friendly and affordable. “Our food is cooked with love,” Stephanie says. “You know, you can’t find a lot of places with love and quality.”
The restaurant is open every day except Saturday. That’s when the second dining room is home to a one-hour Bible study led by Stephanie’s father. “We do that to give something back,” Rodney says. “God has blessed me tremendously with a kidney transplant, putting me back on my feet, so … I want to do something spiritual so I can give back. We buy Bibles for people, and they can come in and get an experience with the Lord as well.”
The 5 p.m. gathering is open to anyone of any faith and attracts people young and old.
“In the customer service world,” Stephanie says, “you meet a lot of hurting people. … People see the light in us. They may come and ask questions, ‘How do I overcome this? How do I stop doing that?’ … I thank God we can help some of these people. It’s just small. Nothing over the top.”
“None of us would be here without God,” Rodney adds. “None of this would exist without him.”
Rodney’s Soul & Grill
1307 Noble St., Anniston, AL 36201
Hours: Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 7 p.m. (no food service on Saturdays).
Susan Swagler has written about food and restaurants for more than three decades, much of that time as a trusted restaurant critic. She is a founding member of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, wine and hospitality. Swagler also shares food, books, travel and more at www.savor.blog.