Erica Barrett is building a Southern culinary empire – al.com

Erica Barrett, the owner of SOCU Southern Kitchen and Oyster Bar in downtown Mobile, is a few minutes late for our appointment. As I wait for her at the bar, I take in the gleaming open kitchen that overlooks the comfortable, cozy dining room, comprising a mix of tables and a banquette along one wall. The plush chairs are covered in soft velvet. Each table is topped with a vase of pastel-colored roses. Black and white wallpaper hung over the kitchen defines “Southern” and “culture” – the name SOCU pays homage to those words – and features Southern phrases like “Gimme some sugar” and “Hold your horses.”

I’m holding my horses when Erica comes in and greets me. “You hungry?” she asks, and though I am not, she convinces me to try some red beans and rice. “It’s my favorite dish,” she says. “I’m about to eat some, too.”

Several minutes later, a bowl arrives with slices of Conecuh sausage artfully arranged around a mound of white rice, sprinkled with parsley and adorned with two mini corn muffins. I thought I’d get a little sample, but she’s prepared a whole dish for me.

For herself, she’s got one of those tiny cast-iron skillets of red beans, with no rice. It’s no more than three or four spoonsful.

In just a little over a year since she opened her first restaurant in downtown Mobile, Erica has lost about 40 pounds. Though there’s less of her physically, there’s a good chance you’ll be seeing more of her soon as she continues to expand the brand she created about eight years ago when, she says, she stopped working.

“They say if you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life,” she says. “If that’s true, I stopped working about eight years ago.”

The truth is, she’s probably working more than ever. But she truly loves what she does. “I have so much to do,” she says, “I can’t keep up with myself.”

She also loves food, even if she’s not eating quite as much of it as she used to. Growing up in west Mobile, Erica never dreamed that one day she’d make a living out of her love for cooking.

Erica Barrett’s favorite red beans and rice with Conecuh sausage are on the lunch menu at SOCU in downtown Mobile. (Photo by Michelle Matthews/mmatthews@al.com)

Her mother used to take her and her sister along to work at the hair salon where she worked as a stylist. Eventually, Erica convinced her mom that if she could stay at home, she would make dinner for herself and her younger sister. Around that time, she discovered Food Network

Her grandmother, a cafeteria worker and caterer, “didn’t have cable,” Erica says with a laugh. At her grandmother’s house, Erica would pore through her grandmother’s copies of Southern Living magazine and her assortment of cookbooks, looking for recipes to try.

“I guess I just kind of became obsessed,” she says. “I was finding my place in food.”

By 13, she was cooking whole dinners by herself. And then her mother married “a country guy” from Pine Hill in Wilcox County. “That man could cook,” she says. He used to wake her and her sister up to eat dishes like smothered chicken and rice. She credits him with teaching her the importance of developing flavors in her cooking.

Three weeks after graduating from LeFlore High School in Mobile, Erica headed to Atlanta, where she majored in business finance at Clark-Atlanta University. In high school, she had worked at Chick-fil-A and Target; after she earned her degree, she was recruited by Target as an executive team leader.

As she moved into human resources positions with other companies, Erica started dreaming up cooking contests for her co-workers. She always won them. Her husband suggested she enter Food Network’s “Shine at Dinnertime” contest. It was sponsored by Lea & Perrins, so she had to prepare a dish with Worcestershire sauce. She ended up winning with her crunchy Asian pork tacos and received a trip to New York City, a tour of the Food Network studios and a $10,000 prize.

That’s when she decided she needed to take herself more seriously as a cook, she says.

SOCU is “an extension of myself,” says owner Erica Barrett. “You can’t fool a Southerner’s palate.” (Photo by Michelle Matthews/mmatthews@al.com)

She asked her friends, theoretically, if they would hire her as a caterer if she went into business, and they all urged her to do it. That’s how Fab Food Atlanta got its start. “I was rockin’ and rollin’,” she says. “It was an instant success.”

As her catering company grew, she started Southern Culture Artisan Foods, a “breakfast lifestyle brand” born out of creating solutions to problems Erica had as a home cook. When she spent $30 on the ingredients she needed to make homemade pancakes, she realized there was a need for a high-quality pancake and waffle mix. She started experimenting, studying labels and packaging, and hired a graphic designer to create a logo. Within six months, she had a prototype for the mix that would come in an ice cream carton.

“It’s all about quality,” she says. “The mix costs 8 bucks, but it’s full of good stuff.”

Her entrepreneurial spirit was energized when she started selling her products – including stone-ground grits, fried chicken mix, cornbread mix, bacon rub and more – at outdoor festivals, then trade shows. Retailers started picking her up and “it became effortless,” she says.

From there, she was invited to appear on “Shark Tank” in 2014. In 2016, Oprah Winfrey included her grits on her list of Oprah’s Favorite Things. The next year, Erica earned a degree in culinary entrepreneurship from the International Culinary Center of New York. In 2018, she was on another national show, CNBC’s “The Profit,” which gave her the tools to get out of debt and restructure her company.

SOCU’s balcony overlooks Dauphin Street in downtown Mobile. (Photo by Michelle Matthews/mmatthews@al.com)

She attributes her success to “being uniquely myself,” she says. “People took a liking to me being different.” Even the way she started her first restaurant in her hometown of Mobile was unorthodox.

Erica and her husband were flipping houses in the Atlanta area when he surprised her by buying one, sight-unseen, for $16,000 in Mobile. When she visited Mobile to take a look at it, she noticed a beautiful restaurant building for sale at 455 Dauphin St. A high school friend encouraged her to do a “pop-up” event there, and after negotiating with the previous tenant, Chakli Diggs, a longtime Mobile chef and owner of NoJa, she prepared two dishes for a huge crowd on Nov. 1, 2018.

“Four hundred people showed up,” she says. “It was all a blessing.”

Chakli became her mentor and, eight months later, “He gifted me this gorgeous restaurant” – complete with everything she needed, down to the utensils. “I’ve been stuck in Mobile ever since,” she says, flashing her megawatt smile.

The menu at SOCU Southern Kitchen and Oyster Bar is a mix of Southern comfort food, like chicken and waffles and braised oxtails; seafood specialties including fresh fish and oysters served in unexpected ways; and attention-getting small plates such as her signature fried lobster deviled eggs.

She still sells her pancake/waffle mix, which comes in several flavors – banana pudding is her favorite – at SOCU. Directly across Dauphin Street from her restaurant, in another storefront she has leased, her mother fulfills online orders. Soon, Erica plans to open an as-yet-unnamed kitchen store, where she’ll sell her own products as well as other items she’s developing, including a brand-new line of coffees she just introduced.

All her efforts are now encompassed in SOCU Hospitality, with plans to develop more products, additional restaurants and even hotels one day. “I have this notebook, a blueprint of things I do,” she says. She believes in the power of manifesting what she wants in order to make it happen. Once she puts an idea out into the universe, she says, she will eventually meet the people who can help her accomplish her dreams.

SOCU is housed in a historic building on Dauphin Street in downtown Mobile. (Photo by Michelle Matthews/mmatthews@al.com)

Because it’s where she grew up, Mobile was a natural choice for her first restaurant. Her next one is planned for her second home, Atlanta – specifically downtown, in the Auburn Avenue area – and will open sometime in the spring of 2021. After that, her sights are set on New York City, which she calls her “future home,” for a third location. She plans to bring fresh Gulf seafood to the Atlanta location, even if it means she has to buy her own refrigerated truck to do so.

She travels back and forth between Mobile and Atlanta, sometimes alternating weeks and sometimes spending half a week in one city and half in the other. She has fallen in love with her hometown again, she says – especially with “the good seafood, the water, the beach, Fairhope.” As the owner of several Airbnb properties, she says she frequently hosts guests visiting from places like Germany and France.

Mobile is “a land of opportunity,” Erica says. “I want to see more entrepreneurs do what we’re doing.” With that goal in mind, she is currently working on a partnership in culinary education with Bishop State Community College, starting in January of 2021, “to create more jobs for people who are dreamers like me,” she says. “To do that in the place where you’re from is the greatest feeling in the world.”

SOCU Southern Kitchen and Oyster Bar is located at 455 Dauphin St. in Mobile. The restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.; on Sundays for brunch from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., then from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.; and closed on Mondays. The website is socumobile.com, and the phone number is (251) 287-6766.