Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Clarksdale Serves Up the Blues

Morgan Freeman and Bill Luckett knew that if they built it people would come.

Back when cotton was King, business was brisk. The Alcazar Hotel was one of the biggest in the Delta and movie fans packed a nearby theater. Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals cruised down
Delta and Yazoo Avenues in search of a parking spot. But mechanized farming and the wane of King
Cotton dealt a heavy blow to Clarksdale. After decades of decay and white flight, downtown streets were lined with vacant buildings.
But everything changed in 2001. Local attorney Bill Luckett teamed up with his good friend Morgan Freeman and made what some folks here thought was one of the stupidest business decisions they had ever heard of.
They opened Madidi, a fine dining restaurant on a street that looked deserted. They threw hundreds of thousands of dollars into it, creating an upscale decor and an ambitious gourmet menu that included rack of lamb and sweet corn succotash.
It was an instant hit. And it lost money. But they kept at it because, as Luckett put it, “Morgan and I kind of wanted to jump-start downtown.”
The two could have stopped there. They had done their job. Instead, they opened Ground Zero Blues Club on the opposite end of Delta Avenue, creating an instant attraction for international blues fans.
Ground Zero offers traditional blues food, from hot tamales to plate lunches to the “best burgers in town.” They even offer fried grits, or as Luckett likes to say, “the most southern food on earth.”

“We went from no restaurants to our opening two restaurants, and now there are like eight or ten open,” Luckett said.
After 10 years of trying, Madidi finally shut its doors in February of 2012. The restaurant didn’t make a dime in the ten years and three months it was open. People told Luckett he was crazy, that running a business and not ever making money was plain ignorant.
Luckett knew it made no business sense, but his eyes were set on the future. Madidi had planted the seeds.
The Transplants
Roger Stolle, a native of St. Louis, was one of the first. “Transplants,” as the locals called them. Stolle opened Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art Inc. in the spring of 2002.
“When I first moved here, the first two years people were still bailing from downtown. It was like a mass exodus,” Stolle said. “If you weren’t out of here by 5:30, you were the last man standing. Your car would be the only one for three blocks.”

Oxbox Market was created by locals who returned home. Photo by Jared Burleson.
Oxbox Market was created by locals who returned home. Photo by Jared Burleson.

Then others started arriving. People like Theo Dashbash of the Rock & Blues Museum. Stan and Dixie Street of the Hambone Art Gallery. Shonda Warner opened Miss Del’s General Store, dispensing organic fertilizers, homegrown vegetables and gardening supplies.
For about five years, the transplants came, drawn by the town’s rich blues history. As legend has it, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61 in order to master the guitar. Bessie Smith breathed her last at what is now the Riverside Hotel on Sunflower Avenue. Muddy Waters’ humble cabin now resides in the Delta Blues Museum two blocks from Ground Zero.
“Things like cultural tourism are important to a place like this. This is where it comes from. People will want to come to the land where blues began,” Stolle said.
But there was still something missing. Blues tourism helped prop up a town (pop. 17,692) that lost 13 percent of its population from 2000 to 2010. But people needed a place to eat. Other than Madidi and Ground Zero, there were few food options from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Downtown needed restaurants to survive.
“Food brings people together, whether it’s generations or races or national, local, or international. What’s one of the common things? Everybody eats,” Stolle said.

The Locals
A switch flipped. The restaurateurs arrived. Some locals, but mostly natives of Clarksdale who moved back home. All were determined to do something creative to help their hometown.

Oxbow, Yazoo Pass, Stone
Pony Pizza and the Dutch Oven opened their doors, providing a strong downtown roster to complement longtime anchors Abe’s Bar-B-Q, Rest Haven, Ramon’s, the Ranchero and Hicks’ World Famous Hot Tamales in other parts of town. The seeds had now sprouted.
“I find it interesting that restaurants are what people have done, since statistically it’s such a horrible business to get in to. But they have, and they’ve been successful,” Stolle said.
Oxbow Market
Owned and operated by Hayden and Erica Hall, locals who moved away and came back, Oxbow Market originally opened as a restaurant.
Hayden Hall’s first job in the restaurant business was washing dishes at Madidi. After marrying his “junior high sweetheart” Erica in 2006, they moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked under renowned Austrian chef Wolfgang Puck. After a brief stint as executive chef at the Clarksdale Country Club, the couple moved to New Orleans, where Hayden worked under upscale restaurateur Susan Spicer.
But once again, they came back.

Oxbow's Hayden Hall loves to tell costumers how to whip new dishes.  Photo by Jared Burleson
Oxbow’s Hayden Hall loves to tell costumers how to whip new dishes. Photo by Jared Burleson

“We’ve always felt the need to live here, but in order to really grow this town, we felt like we needed to go away for a while,” Hall said. “But we saw a few people that were opening galleries and shops, and we just felt like we could contribute. It doesn’t take a million dollars to revitalize a community. Let’s take what we have and expand on that,” Hall said.
Oxbow served almost 150 people a day, had 30 seats, and had six items on the menu that fused local and worldly flavors. Simple, but just how they wanted it.
“People said, ‘You can’t do it. It won’t work.’ But I said, ‘We can do it. We just have to do it the right way.’ So we were a restaurant for almost two years, and we did really well. Had a lot of local and regional notoriety, which is great,” Hall said.
With dishes like black-eyed pea hummus, ginger slaw and tuna tacos, they caught the attention of People, the Travel Channel and Travel + Leisure magazine. “Who would have thought fresh tuna tacos would have been successful in Clarksdale? But that was their most popular item,” Stolle said.
“We wanted to take things people were familiar with and add elements to that food that they were unfamiliar with. Like, ‘I know a burger, but I don’t know garlic aioli and balsamic jam and smoked gruyere cheese and baby arugula.’ They’re just like, ‘Whoa, man!’” Hall said.

In mid-December of 2012, the couple transformed the restaurant to a market that often showcases the produce of local farmers. The closing of the restaurant made many customers unhappy.
“The Delta is reluctant to change. But that’s the whole mindset about getting people to do things a little out of their comfort zones. People really can eat local eggs and drink local milk,” Hall said.
Hall loves to grab items off the shelves and tell customers how to use them to whip up new dishes.
The market provides fresh produce as well as local milk and ice cream. “Here we are in the most fertile grounds in the U.S., and (most) of our food comes from somewhere else. That’s the biggest challenge I’m trying to change,” Hall said.
Yazoo Pass
Upon its opening in late 2011, Yazoo Pass filled the void of a communal gathering place. Located in the old F. W. Woolworth’s building on Yazoo Avenue,

Hayden Hall at Oxbox Pantry says Deltans need to eat outside their comfort zones.  Photo by Alex Edwards
Hayden Hall at Oxbox Pantry says Deltans need to eat outside their comfort zones. Photo by Alex Edwards

“The Pass” offers an upscale coffee house/bistro environment, something Clarksdale has never seen. “I’ve always wanted to do this for Clarksdale, but I didn’t feel like they could handle it for a long time.
I just didn’t think it was ready,” said Meri Tenhet, Clarksdale native and daytime chef. “But there came a time about five years ago when I thought, it can support this now. There are enough hip, young people coming back home who were used to that sort of thing.”
Yazoo Pass offers an upscale coffee house /bistro environment. Photo by Jared Burleson
Yazoo Pass offers an upscale coffee house /bistro environment. Photo by Jared Burleson

Yazoo Pass offers anything from pastries and biscuits and great coffee in the morning, to soups, sandwiches, a salad bar, and frozen yogurt during lunch. At night, the lights dim and the restaurant turns into a fancier dinner spot.
There isn’t one fryer in the building. “It is a great change of scenery from the grittiness of the blues scene,” Tenhet said. “We try really hard to offer that same kind of food, but in a healthier way.”
Stone Pony
Stone Pony Pizza offers a fun place for people to enjoy really good pizza as well as a nice bar. “It feeds a couple of different audiences, which is neat because we didn’t have that downtown. There was nothing to fit that niche,” Stolle said.
Dutch Oven
The Dutch Oven was created in an old passenger train depot near the blues museum by members of a Mennonite community who moved to the Delta in the 1960s. The daily specials, written on a blackboard behind the counter, are what make lunch a big draw here.
Fresh-faced young women wearing prayer caps and long print dresses serve up casseroles, poppy seed chicken, white chili soup and more. The towering cakes and large slices of pie are a meal in themselves.
The Anchors
It’s not like there weren’t restaurants here before. Clarksdale is rich in food history.
“We’ve had Abe’s since 1924. That’s a draw. Rest Haven is a draw. Ramon’s. Another draw. But you still need a variety of places,” said Bubba O’Keefe, 57, a longtime advocate for Clarksdale revitalization who has created lofts for rent above the restaurant.
The Present
Residents still shake their heads in wonder at the food options in Clarksdale today. Things have changed dramatically since Luckett’s seemingly impractical decision to open Madidi.
“Now I pull out on a Tuesday or Wednesday. Someone takes my spot as I pull out. Just lined with cars. People would have laughed at you if you said you were going to have that 10 years ago. There was no belief,” Stolle said. “Now it all seems kind of normal. The thinking has just changed. People don’t consider it crazy anymore.”

O’Keefe had watched in horror as downtown shriveled over the decades, growing darker with each newly vacant storefront. But now he sees something entirely different.
“You can’t create interest with a whole downtown that is totally dark. No lights are on. No cars. No activity. You flip the lights on, you bring the people in. Now. Now you got a show.”
— Bobby Thigpen, Meek School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss, The Land of Plenty Magazines
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