Georgia's Restaurant Serves Heart and Soul Food in Anaheim - Meet the Owners
"It's always been a passion of mine to cook.."
Gretchen Shoemaker tells me with a happy gleam in her eye. The lively woman sits across from Duc and me outside of the Anaheim Packing House as she begins the story of how Georgia's Restaurant came to be. Joined by her daughter Nika Shoemaker-Machado, Gretchen dives into the history of the restaurant, and as the two talk, we realize once again why these small business stories are so important. They are the hopes and dreams of people brought to life. When news spread that the new Anaheim Packing House would soon be home to a soul food restaurant, the community seemed eager to taste its menu but what they might not have expected was to also fall in love with the people there. We were one of those who got a lick of their food and became curious about the backstory. After all, who doesn't love a good story? Fueled by the passion of Gretchen and her daughter Nika (with her husband Marlon Machado), Georgia's Restaurant opened as the family's first brick-and-mortar business and was met with success. With barely a year's span under their belts, the owners have proven that Orange County needs some good ol' soul food cooked up with love. We met with the trio one afternoon and found ourselves also craving the glow they exuded for their restaurant and their community.
With every success, there is a start and Gretchen's culinary prowess is in her blood. Growing up and cooking with her grandmother and mother, using old-fashioned wood-burning stoves and passed-down recipes, she became the go-to for meals once she could host large family gatherings. Originally from Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia, the Shoemakers made their way to Orange County in 1963 to pursue education. At the time, California offered free education so Gretchen's husband enrolled at LA Trade Tech while she worked as a waitress for two years until they purchased their first house in Santa Ana. Once she started working full-time though, the cooking spirit never left and a side business as a caterer cropped up. Her husband would help, getting up at 3AM to chop vegetables, make coffee, or just keep her company with occasional impromptu kitchen dances. Though the catering was craved by all in her community, Gretchen did not commit to starting up a brick-and-mortar for years. So what was the catalyst?
"I always wanted to have something. I retired at 60 and just had had another grandbaby. When I turned 70, I decided I was going to move up to Glen Ivy permanently and give one of my houses to the kids. I was there for a year and it was boring! I understand why people become alcoholics when they get old - you have nothing to do just sitting there! Just another sunny day in southern California. I remember there was a hawk that was the big thing of my day, watching a hawk. I decided when I brought my girls and son-in-law together - let's see if we can go into business. They ran with the ball. My daughter Nika and her husband Marlon put it together. The American dream happened for me. I pitched it at 74, opened at 75, and now am 76."Though the initial idea was to open a fast food soul food joint, the transition to fast casual was for the better. Nika and Marlon put together the design, business plan, and arrangements to get Georgia's off the ground. As for the name, Gretchen joked with us that having a place by the name of "Gretchen's" might make people think of a little German girl so Georgia's was chosen with references to her children Shawn, Nika, and Kyra. When they were ready to open, she assumed that she would be cooking everything but plans were for otherwise; the long hours of a restaurant would not touch her schedule. Instead, Gretchen has found a place as the face of the restaurant and interacts with all the customers daily by telling stories and meeting everyone.
It is hard not to laugh along with Gretchen as she regales you with tales of her life and food. Over crunchy bowls of the regular and Cajun coleslaws, you will taste the time-tested flavors of good cooking. We especially loved her enlightening words about food overall.
"Everyone thinks soul food is Southern food but it's just food you cook from the heart. If you cook it with the heart, that's soul food. Chinese food, Thai food, Italian food - doesn't matter. The mommies that cook with their heart, that's soul food. Being African-American, that food is 'traditional' southern food. Collard greens, mac-n-cheese, potato salad, chicken, of course. Nothing is better than the US - we have so much diversity here with people from all over the world and all the spices. We can really cook."But does a love for cooking and food make it easy to start a business? Not necessarily. Nika shared with us the hardships of this first venture once the idea was pitched. Using resources like the Small Business Development Center proved to be less fruitful than expected so there was a lot of stumbling in the beginning. The romance of putting together her mother's dream turned all-consuming but the reward was great. Originally anticipating that the restaurant would be lost in a low-traffic strip mall in Lake Forest, the family received rejection that turned into a saving moment. Denied the Lake Forest space, they sought out other avenues including a food truck idea (short-lived as Gretchen wanted none of that) and eventually the Anaheim Packing House.
"We just fell in love with the place. This just felt like home when we got here. We wanted to be here. We worked hard on being here. They accepted us and it was incredible. Our journey started to get more and more precise after we decided on this location. I always knew my mom's recipes were good. My mom and I have worked really hard to convert them to being made in large quantities."Next in the journey was deciding which recipes could stay and which should go. To start, they decided upon having chicken, beef, pork, and fish for certain. Gretchen's potato salad and coleslaw were a must as they were beloved items during her catering career. Nika's baked beans got the go-ahead as did Marlon's garlic rice. Mac-n-cheese was a given to make sure children would have a hit as well. Trial and error throughout the opening months helped determine the rest. Though the kitchen is a small 675ft² and is occupied by 11-13 people in busy times, Georgia's now features a full-fledged restaurant menu in a fast casual setting.
Now, we've had the baked beans on two separate occasions and there is a solid reason why they are on the menu. The family sure knows its food. Years of serving hearty entrees to large families ensured the recipes were solid. Not only do they take pride in their food though but they also strongly support local and small businesses, another point that increased our respect for the Shoemakers. Their bread derived from a chance encounter down the street - meeting Bake Shack at the Center Street farmers' market led to a business relationship that followed their goal to perpetuate small businesses. They carry Anaheim Brewery beer. They source other ingredients as close to local as possible. As Gretchen put it, "We wouldn't be where we are if somebody didn't give us a little help sometimes."
What else makes their food special? Though they originally wanted to cook everything in slow cookers to enhance flavor, it was not feasible for a restaurant but the low and slow method still carried through. The pork is dry rubbed overnight and slow roasted for nine hours before being worked with. The ribs are treated in a similar manner with a slow roast for nearly five hours after overnight dry rubbing. Their fried chicken is unique in its technique, borrowing herb-brining methods from Brazilian cuisine before applying the traditional cornmeal batter and frying. It is a best seller, and after we dug our teeth into the succulent pieces ourselves, we knew why. Another popular shining star is their housemade BBQ sauce which may be bottled soon - this glazes the ribs with a sweet, tangy kick and has received positive commendations from BBQ competitors from all over the country (Texas, Tennessee, etc).
Gretchen, what is your favorite thing to cook?
"The potato salad - they were my grandmother's. I used to put my hands in it, and it felt like home when I was a kid. I like cooking the ribs too because that's something I learned when I came to California. We didn't cook ribs back east, weren't a BBQ state. When I first came here, someone said to boil them but all the flavor went out so I played around. Then I started putting them in the oven and with the rub."Nika, what is your favorite dish by your mom?
"I used to love when she would fry chicken. It was always a major ordeal with a cast iron skillet and lots of oil; the house would smell like oil for several days. It wasn't common because it would be so much work. I love her potato salad too and her cakes. My mom makes a lemon cake that is really good. "
What have been your favorite moments since opening?
G: "My life has completely changed. I got to know the mayor and he's such a wonderful man. It is definitely a 'City of Kindness.' When I had my Grand Opening, the mayor came and cut the ribbon. It's just a new lifestyle and I'm just so happy.
Also, not too long ago. We had a family come in that came from Disneyland. The father told me he was on an airplane flying home, and someone next to him said he had to go to Georgia's when he took my family to Disneyland. I thought, 'Oh my god, they're talking about me on an airplane!' I also remember someone came in and said he could outcook me. I told him I'd come back and check on him later; when I did, he said he didn't want me to come over because he had to say I outcooked him!"
N: "One of my favorite moments was when we had just started serving breakfast. I came walking in through the side door and could hear the clattering of dishes. It was a surreal moment. It was the sound of our restaurant and the people sitting in our dining room, eating, laughing, and joking. It was a surreal moment that said we have a restaurant - we own it and people love it.
Another thing is that this is my mom. She's so happy and has such an enriching life. I'm very proud of my mom."
By this point, we had already spent more than an hour getting to know Nika and Gretchen but it felt like no time had passed at all. Here was a duo that could you make you feel so welcomed and part of the arms-open family. All of the savory dishes that passed through our plates had been stellar but next came a prideful point in their repertoire. Their friends and family had raved about the desserts so we were curious as to what could make them special. The answer? Balance.
We started with their signature pound cake which was fluffy, rich, and satisfying. The slight vanillin flavor stood out, giving a subtle sweetness that felt as comfortable as home. Their rustic peach cobbler had double of what I love in such desserts - crust. With the perfect texture and amount of cinnamon, this was by far my favorite of them all. It did not fall into the trap that many cobblers face of being too saccharin-sweet; no, this was practically perfect. As for Duc, he fell in love with the sweet potato pie. Smooth and savory, this was a slice with a personality unlike pumpkin but invoking similar memories. However, it was milder, less artificially sweet, and certainly tasty. If you get tired of the same ol' pumpkin pies you see everywhere, give their sweet potato pie a try.
Full of knowledge and good food by now, we were so glad to have met the Shoemakers. Hard-working, genuine people, they seemed to have achieved what Gretchen stated before - the American dream. Even at her older age, she continued pursuing a passion and dream until it was realized. It just took some elbow grease to get going but we were glad to see that Anaheim has become home to their soul food.
So what's in store for the Georgia's team? Expansion is the next goal after assuring that Georgia's continues to be successful and the communities in Orange County need soul food. In the immediate future will be wine pairing events and other special occasions that anyone can participate in. What are you waiting for? Go on down to 440 S Anaheim Blvd, Anaheim, CA 92805 to dig into food straight from the heart and soul.
Photography by Duc Duong. More photos available on Facebook here.