Food for the Soul
By June Naylor
Photos by Meda Kessler
Drew’s Place has been a comfort food go-to for decades. During these turbulent times, Krystal Thomas has joined parents Drew and Stephanie to keep the family business running. They all feel the need to feed — and nurture — people.
“It’s time we have these conversations. It’s past time, but better now than never. I wish we could have opened the dining room because we could have better conversations sitting around the table. The best and most important talks happen over food, around the dinner table.” Stephanie Thomas
Krystal Thomas’ wide smile greets the lunch queue from the service window of the food truck parked temporarily in front of Drew’s Place.
The soul food restaurant named for her father sits on a corner lot in Fort Worth’s Como neighborhood, surrounded by small wood-frame homes. Krystal is facilitating curb service at her parents’ restaurant during a COVID-19-enforced break from her studies at Prairie View A&M University. It’s a hot day, but she cheerfully takes orders and hands over to-go boxes filled with Drew’s crispy fried catfish, juicy baked chicken and what many consider the city’s best fried chicken — the food Krystal, 22, grew up on. The family business, nearly a decade older than she is, is in her DNA.
“Going off to school, I really missed the food here,” Krystal says. “The older I’ve gotten, the more I like being a part of the restaurant.”
She is excited about putting her touches on desserts, modernizing her mother’s famous cheesecake by making it in little jars with different toppings. Stephanie Thomas praises her daughter’s banana pudding and peach cobbler, too.
Krystal sees the difficulties in running a restaurant, but her love for family rivets her to the place. Her upcoming kinesiology degree — she’s currently a trainer for the Prairie View football team — could net her a better paycheck, but she’s finding that feeding people sustains her in the same ways that it has her dad.
She watched her parents grow the eatery at the crossroads of a historic black neighborhood and a predominantly white one that includes one of the city’s wealthiest quadrants. Years ago, Como’s Horne Street was home to a couple of other soul food restaurants, along with a popular barbecue spot. Today, only Drew’s remains. Krystal observed the building of a diverse, fiercely loyal clientele that has kept it going over the years and is now witnessing the rebound from a period that has devastated restaurants across the city.
“It’s a hard job, but I can’t guess what else I would have done all these years,” says Drew, who first opened in Forest Hill, a small suburb of Fort Worth, in 1987. In 1993, he moved his eatery to Como, where he had grown up. “Feeding people is gratifying.”
A standout on the Arlington Heights High School football team, Drew played linebacker and defensive end at Texas Tech in the 1970s. He took home a degree in telecommunications and worked at Sammons Communications and on the A-12 program at then-General Dynamics (now Lockheed) but made extra money working nights at a Fort Worth steakhouse, where he got hooked on restaurant life.
He soon moved up from dishwasher to cooking on the line, something that came naturally. He had watched his mom, Willie Mae Thomas, feed her family the kind of dishes he specializes in. He breaks into his big, ready smile when asked what he loved best: “Oh, her German chocolate cake. It was always for special occasions, like birthdays and holidays.”
Stephanie, an East Texas native, graduated from the University of North Texas with a business management degree and worked in the corporate world as a buyer and product manager before joining her husband at his restaurant. “All that business experience gave me everything that was needed for Drew’s Place,” she says.
The restaurant serves Stephanie’s very popular broccoli-cheese-rice casserole — among sides such as black-eyed peas and collard greens — but while she likes to cook, she doesn’t love it the way Drew does. What keeps her at the restaurant? “My love for Drew,” she says, laughing. “It’s his passion. I wouldn’t do it if he didn’t love it.”
The hold the restaurant has on customers isn’t lost on the family. One guest comes from the Austin area just to eat at Drew’s, and a businessman from California stops in for catfish whenever he’s in town. Stephanie notes that the term “soul food” pertains to a feeling rather than a genre description.
“It means cooking from the soul and how it makes your soul feel to eat it. I’ve known people to come to tears when they talk about eating something here that reminds them of cooking like their grandmother’s.”
Their decision to only offer takeout at this time is not just a financial one. Because both Drew and Stephanie care for elderly parents, they are being especially cautious about the virus. The country’s upheaval over race relations, coinciding with Drew’s opening for curbside service, is troubling in a different way.
“It’s time we have these conversations. It’s past time, but better now than never,” Stephanie says. “I wish we could have opened the dining room, because we could have better conversations sitting around the table. The best and most important talks happen over food, around the dinner table.”
Stephanie believes Fort Worth has a great chance to show the country how things can improve. She points to the moment during recent protests downtown when police and protestors kneeled together in front of the courthouse.
“I hope we don’t squander this opportunity because we are blinded by political lines. Because when two sides kneeled together, it felt like both sides understood what the kneeling is really about. We could show everyone else how it can be done. Sometimes in solving problems you have to look at the way other people see things. You have to have an open mind to look and try to understand what it feels like to be on the other side of the issue. When we say, ‘black lives matter,’ it’s about being inclusive.”
She hopes city leaders will reach out to communities of all colors and backgrounds to make changes. In the meantime, she and Drew think about their daughter’s future. Stephanie understands Krystal’s attraction to the family business.
“We’ve always pushed education. We tell her, ‘You’re not obligated to pick up Daddy’s dream. Just do whatever you want to the best of your ability.’ But it makes us proud that she wants to do what we’ve been doing all these years.”
Stephanie believes Krystal also now feels a need to nurture people — the call that Drew says has fed him spiritually for half his life.
“That’s what’s so hard now, not being able to sit down and talk to customers,” Drew says. “You make friends and develop relationships with people. That’s really the best part.”