Cherri Gregg Mincey

Reporter, Anchor, Multimedia Journalist

Feature Story

Blue Bananas Cafe, An Oasis on South Street

Historic South Street is the place where Philadelphians of all ages go to be seen. Multitudes flock to the area in search of trendy t-shirts and accessories, good food, and Philadelphia nightlife.  South Street is happening.  It is current.  But, it is crowded.

Throngs of people walk along South Street elbow to elbow.  They wait in long lines outside of well-known hash houses, such as Jim’s and Ishkabibbles’s.  Drivers maneuver their cars down the one-lane byway, repeatedly circling the block and tooting their horns with the hope that the search for parking will be quickened.  Located at 223 South Street, Blue Bananas offers Philadelphians a respite from the congestion.

As one of only a handful of Black-owned businesses with a lower South Street address, upon arrival, Blue Bananas immediately transports patrons to sunny Jamaica.  A small waterfall near the door simulates the soothing sound of the ocean.  The aroma of Caribbean spices float throughout the room, as the cadence of reggae greats, such as Third World, drown the horns of impatient drivers stuck in gridlock.

The color palette is simple: brown, chestnut, and beige.  The tables are small, designed for intimate conversation.  A variety of paintings line pale blue and beige walls, including a portrait of Muhammad Ali, a kaleidoscope of exotic butterflies and a watercolor depicting Black women with large braided headpieces.

“Welcome to Blue Bananas,” says Amy Sellers, the hostess and server.  She is dressed in a long flowing skirt; dreadlocks piled high on her head. Smiling, she escorts customers to their seats.

Moments later, Sellers brings water and complimentary mango salsa and plantain chips.  The sweet, tart, juicy fruit-flavored concoction fuses well with the crunchy saltiness of the plantain.  The unexpected relish whets appetites and piques curiosity as to what will come next.

Blue Bananas' jerk chicken wings- a favorite of many patrons of the Cafe.

The menu lists several traditional West Indian dishes: curried goat, curried shrimp, jerk chicken, stewed chicken, cabbage, and peas and rice.  American entrees, such as fried chicken, barbeque chicken and ribs, also appear on the bill of fare.

“Blue Bananas is not your typical Caribbean restaurant,” says Rod Millwood, the owner of Blue Bananas.

Millwood, a Jamaican immigrant, is an architect by trade, but is self-taught in several other areas, including cooking.

“I have never taken a cooking class,” he says.  “Everything I know about cooking, I learned from my grandmother and my mother.”

Millwood’s mother taught him that preparation is the most important part of good cooking.

“The secret is– it’s all about seasoning.  All of our foods are pre-seasoned the day before.  We want to make sure that our customers taste every flavor in the food,” says Millwood.

Although people enjoy the food at Blue Bananas, it is not uncommon for the restaurant to run out of items on the menu.

“Blue Bananas is one of my favorite restaurants,” says Kevin Mincey, who frequently orders the Blue Bananas jerk chicken wings.  “But it’s slightly annoying when the waitress tells you they are all out of your favorite dish.”

Millwood says he is working on it, but it is hard to predict the amount of food that will be necessary to feed customers.

“We had a booth at the Taste of Philadelphia last summer,” says Millwood.  “I cooked 80 pounds of oxtail, 40 pounds of jerk wings and 40 pounds of curried goat.  Imagine cooking all of that.  Within an hour it was all gone.  When they told me, I said, ‘that’s impossible.’  I just couldn’t believe it.”

Despite the popularity of the food at local festivals, Blue Bananas is slow to attract a following.  Most days, only a few customers fill the seats.  Savory food and a high-traffic location therefore may not be enough to keep the one-year-old restaurant afloat.

A Census Bureau Survey of Business Owners indicates that less than 5% of the roughly 24,000 Black-owned businesses in Pennsylvania are eating and drinking establishments.

Alphonso Jackson, Business Development Specialist at the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency said that it is tough to zero in on the reasons why Black businesses, and restaurants in particular, succeed or fail.

“I work with a lot of minority business owners.  There is no telltale sign as to whether a business will succeed,” says Jackson.

Jackson advises business owners to develop a plan that will help them create a strategy for their business and foresee potential roadblocks to success.  Even with a plan, however, many minority-owned businesses do not succeed in the long term.

It is fortunate that Jackson believes that failure has its upside.

“Some of the most successful minority owned businesses are the direct result of failure,” says Jackson.

Jackson has worked with individuals whose businesses failed multiple times before becoming successful.

“I worked with a guy [who lost] hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars,” says Jackson. “But the man was smart.  He hired a consultant and restructured his business to meet the demands of the new millennium.  Now he is on track to make $2.5 billion in revenue.”

Black business owners in Philadelphia have a number of resources available to them, including the Philadelphia Commerce Department, the Philadelphia Development Corporation, and the Temple University Small Business Development Center. These organizations can help minorities obtain financing and structure their small business for success.  Real life experience, however, is the best training for any entrepreneur.

Blue Bananas Cafe owner, Rod Millwood.

Millwood believes Blue Bananas will be successful because of his track record as a business owner.  For nearly ten years, Millwood has owned and operated The Laff House Comedy Club, a popular comedy venue located next door to Blue Bananas.  Prior to The Laff House, Millwood says that he owned Ceslyn, an upscale 1200-seat banquet hall facility.  Before Ceslyn Millwood operated his own an architectural firm.

According to Millwood, years of experience as an entrepreneur taught him to focus his business on what matters most: the customer.  Millwood believes that his customer focused business philosophy is what has helped both Blue Bananas and The Laff House avoid the brunt of a down economy.

“When I opened [Blue Bananas], my goal was to ensure that a man could take his lady out to dinner and a comedy show for $100,” says Millwood.  “We accomplished that goal.  Comedy show tickets are around $25 per person even though I could charge a lot more.  Then, customers can eat at [Blue Bananas] for that same price.”

Blue Bananas offers validated parking as a bonus.

“I run my business thinking about the average Joe,” says Millwood.

In addition to affordable prices, customers get to see local artists perform for free.

Every Wednesday night, Blue Bananas hosts an open mic for local artists.  This is a natural extension of Millwood’s own talents–when he is not creating Caribbean dishes for Blue Bananas or managing The Laff House, he acts as a producer for a number of musical acts including, Gina Thompson and Don Ward.

Millwood is certain that the ingredients he has infused at Blue Bananas– flavorful food, affordable prices, music and a popular location– will be enough to make Blue Bananas a success.

“I hate the words ‘no’ or ‘you can’t,’” says Millwood. “I am determined to show people what [Blue Bananas] is all about.”

For more information on Blue Bananas, visit http://www.bluebananascafe.com.

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