Every week, Pastor Chris Freeman of City Church in Fort Wayne drives past Big Momma’s Kitchen on Oxford Street as he takes his daughter to and from school at Irwin Elementary.
But this week, after a moving week of protests against the murder of George Floyd and boarder racial injustice in Fort Wayne, Freeman and three of his church staff decided to stop for lunch at the street-side walkup window and get their first taste of Big Momma’s BBQ rib tips.
“Our church is on the south side of Fort Wayne, and in yesterday’s service was about the need to do more than just talk about changes that need to take place in the city,” Freeman says. “When we saw the list of Black-owned restaurants that Visit Fort Wayne published, we thought one thing we can do is promote that list, support local businesses, and start to build relationships with these organizations in our neighborhood.”
A line forms outside Big Momma's Kitchen at lunchtime on Monday, June 8, 2020.
Sarah Hooley with City Church orders rib tips at Big Momma's Kitchen.
On this sunny Monday afternoon, Freeman's team is not alone in line.
Behind them, three regulars at Big Momma’s bump fists with Grill Master Gregg Jewels as he delivers rib tips from the smoking grill into the small window on the side of the restaurant. They’re young missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints—Elders Flacus, Riddle, and Funk—and they say they only come to the restaurant about once or twice a week now. They used to come every single day when they first discovered the spot early into their placement about 12 weeks ago. But they’ve had to cut back to spare their diets.
“Big Momma’s is not the best for your diet,” Flacus says. “Everything on the menu is good.”
Three young missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints, Elders Flacus, Riddle, and Funk, say they come to Big Momma's Kitchen about once or twice a week.
As they wait in line, they rave about Big Momma's turkey tips and its signature “gold sauce.”
“Nobody knows what’s in it,” Funk says.
While Big Momma’s usually has a full menu of items, specializing in its highly coveted beef brisket nachos and tacos, its menu has been reduced to rib tips today during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That’s what’s fresh,” Jewels says, opening the grill on the patio nearby to reveal rows of sizzling ribs.
Ribs sizzle on the grill at Big Momma's Kitchen.
Rib tips in spicy BBQ sauce at Big Momma's Kitchen.
Derek Taylor, the restaurant’s Founder and Co-Owner, says meat prices have gone through the roof during the pandemic.
“Meat I was paying $175 a case for went up to $500 a case,” he explains.
The full menu at Big Momma's Kitchen.
So he’s finding ways to improvise with his Co-Owner, Kyle Squier, and Grill Master Jewels.
Thankfully, as a carry-out only spot, they’ve been able to stay open and nimble despite the changes. Business has been better than usual, too, since many sit-down restaurants have closed, Taylor says. The added interest generated by the protests and the promotion of Black-owned businesses also helps.
Big Momma’s is technically a Black- and white-owned business, since Squier is white, Taylor notes. Even so, it has strong roots in Fort Wayne’s Black community, named after his late-grandmother, who taught him to cook alongside his mom. Taylor, left, and Squier, right, co-own Big Momma's Kitchen.
Taylor sees the protests in Fort Wayne as events that have been a long time coming in the city. His own son died as a result of local violence, so he’s inspired by the way he sees other young, Black residents rising up to take responsibility for their futures and fighting for change.
As a person of faith, he has hope for a better future, too.
“Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe there’s a certain type of people who will stand up for the rights of dogs, but don’t stand up for human rights,” Taylor says. “Jesus Christ didn’t die on the cross for just one type of person. He sacrificed for all of us, and we need to get conscious of that.”
In a way, Big Momma’s Kitchen is a manifestation of changes Taylor has made in his own life. For as long as he can remember, he’s been motivated by the prospect of earning money any way he can, inspiring a series of business ventures and a few wrong turns.
Over the years, he’s owned everything from car washes to landscaping companies to street stands. But he feels that he has finally found his niche in the food business.
“They say when you do something you have a passion for, it’s love, and it’s not work,” Taylor says. “This is what I love to do. I love to help people.”
A group of volunteers at the third Curbside BBQ in Southeast Fort Wayne.
Since Big Momma’s opened only nine months ago, the small restaurant has given back to its neighborhood in multiple ways. Behind the scenes, Taylor has hosted bookbag drives, handing out more than 1,000 bookbags to local students. He’s also partnered with other Southeast organizations to cook food for ongoing events, like a series of free Curbside BBQs in Southeast Fort Wayne during COVID-19, providing residents with food, support, and pandemic supplies.
“We did one Curbside BBQ on Mother’s Day, and we have another one coming up on Father’s Day,” Taylor says.
Grill Master Jewels delivers ribs hot off the grill through the side window.
At the end of the day, it’s all about doing what the community needs, and what he has the capacity to offer. In the future, he’s hoping to keep giving back—and expand his own capabilities at Big Momma’s, too.
While his team does a lot of BBQ right now, that’s only because its all they can do at the moment. Taylor would like to venture into french fries and fried fish, but his 12-by-15-foot space isn’t big enough for a fryer, storage, and additional staff. So he’s seeking to earn and apply for funds to double the size of his indoor space and enclose his outdoor patio for the winter season.
This will allow him to work at his full capacity and hire more talent from the local community.
“This is really something that can be done,” Taylor says.
Squier prepares an order at Big Momma's Kitchen.
Ultimately, it’s about supporting the Southeast side of Fort Wayne and creating a better future there.
“That was my mission from the gate,” Taylor says.