Editor’s note: Leading up to National Daughters’ Day on September 25, we’re highlighting a series of local mother-daughter duos who are collaborating to inspire the community and excel in business. Enjoy!
Yo’ Mama’s has been a staple lunch spot in Downtown Birmingham for nearly nine years. It attracts families, young professionals, and even homegrown celebrities like comedian Roy Wood Jr., who recently tweeted that Yo’ Mama’s has the best soul food in town. But Denise and Crystal Peterson — the mother-daughter team behind the brand — are just getting started. Yo’ Mama’s will soon move into a new space on Fourth Avenue North that’s being renovated, thanks to a $1.3 million investment from the City of Birmingham. We chatted with Denise and Crystal to learn the secret to their success and find out what’s next for the dynamic duo.
What inspired you to start Yo’ Mama’s?
Denise: I’ve always enjoyed cooking. And usually, whatever makes you happy — that thing you would do for free — that’s probably what you need to be doing. We wanted to make a difference with a place where an Average Joe can have a really nice meal.
Once you got the idea to start Yo’ Mama’s, what did you do next?
Denise: We planned for a while. We asked questions to different businesses. A lot of restaurant owners were happy to talk to us; they told us some things they did that weren’t wise. So, we learned a lot from other people’s mistakes. One of the things they said was the bigger your menu, the more you have to have, and most of the time, the more food you throw away. So, we didn’t make a big menu. When people ask us why we have such a small menu, Crystal always says, “When you go into restaurants with big menus, they have an asterisk by the best dishes. We’ve just got the asterisks.”
As a family, how did you prepare to open the restaurant?
Denise: We were a vendor at a jazz concert in Florida, and we learned from that. We were Jazzy Fish & Chicken. We only did chicken, fish, and French fries, and we only did one a year. But after each one, we would meet and decide what we could do better. That helped us, and we did that for about five years.
Crystal: I graduated from UAB with a degree in marketing. After I graduated, we started working on the marketing plan. My sister does everything UX/ UI [user experience/ user interface]. She did our logo. She does our website. She does our storefront design. She does our menu boards. We really are a family-owned business. We just all brought what we were good at to the table.
What dishes would you recommend to someone new to Yo’ Mama’s?
Crystal: The most sold [dish] is usually the chicken and waffles and the shrimp and grits. The one thing that usually catches people’s attention is our Meal of the Day. The Meal of the Day can be anything my mom used to cook when we were growing up — anything from the fried pork chop, greens, and macaroni and cheese to the Tuscan salmon pasta.
Denise: Having a family environment was another one of the things we thought was important. Our Meal of the Day is usually for an older person. We have burgers for kids and tacos for teenagers. And chicken and waffles for everybody. Everything on the menu is available gluten-free. We don’t advertise it as much just because the people who do eat gluten might think it won’t taste good.
Crystal: When people see GF on the menu and ask what that means, I just say it stands for “good food.”
Other than the good food, what do you think makes Yo’ Mama’s so popular?
Crystal: The customer service. I try to learn my regulars’ names. When they come in, I give them a Cheers without beers kind of feel. They feel like they’re at home without being at home. We try to give people a midday getaway. [It’s also about] word of mouth. Half of our customers are travelers, so they stop here again the next time they come through on their way to the beach.
Denise: And she remembers their names and where they were going! They are so impressed with that. Even when we were in Florida, she remembered customers year to year. She’s really good at that. I think her attitude with the customers really helped us through the pandemic.
Crystal: We kept giving to the community during that time, and the community embraced us back.
What changes do you plan to make with the business once you move into the new location?
Denise: We plan to do more catering. We’ll be open every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and we’re considering doing a First Thursdays event from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. with live entertainment.
Crystal: And we’ll have a meeting space where 30 people can have lunch, and we’ll have all the technology you need for a business meeting.
Is your long-term goal to franchise Yo’ Mama’s?
Crystal: Yes, but there would only be a location every 55 miles between each other. So, you can put one here in Birmingham, one in Huntsville, and one in Tuscaloosa. But I don’t want to over-saturate the market.
When you’re not at Yo’ Mama’s, where do you like to go out to eat?
What are some of your other favorite places in the Birmingham area?
Denise: My husband and I go to Perfect Note in Hoover because we like jazz music.
What’s the last book you read?
Denise: Stop Selling Her a Dream by William Y. Hicks III, one of our customers.
Crystal: Profits Aren’t Everything, They’re the Only Thing by George Cloutier and Samantha Marshall.
What’s the best trip you’ve taken?
Denise: Hawaii. We eventually ended up at most of the islands, including Maui and Honolulu. We ate at a place called Mama’s Fish House. The food was so good! And we went to a place called the Garden of Eden with the most beautiful flowers. If I wanted to know what heaven looks like, that’s it.
Crystal: Vegas. We just went and did nothing but eat and sleep for five days.
What’s the best advice you have to offer?
Denise: Whatever your passion, that is generally what God has given you to do. A lot of times, we try to look for more money and aren’t happy with what we’re doing. I don’t have to be here all the time, but I come in because I enjoy being here. Initially, I thought that my missionary work was in the church, and then I realized I have more opportunities here to talk to different people and give them motherly advice than in my church setting. This is where my heart is. God has taught me this business is my mission.
Crystal: Know who your customer is. Know who your target audience is. You can have a good product, but if you can’t reach the people, you don’t have a good business. People ask us why we don’t have the famous people that come in [displayed on the wall]. We’ve had Hillary Clinton and Stacey Abrams, and we’ve had Pete Buttigieg twice. We’ve had Charles Barkley, Dominique Wilkins, and Kyle Petty. But the people who come in every day — they keep my business afloat. It’s the community that matters to me. Support the five miles around your house. If you don’t support within the five-mile radius of your house, you have done nothing as a citizen.
Other than faith, family, and friends, name three things you can’t live without.
Denise: Sandals, coffee, and quiet time.
Crystal: My Beats headphones, a bottle of water, and a good piece of chicken.
All photography by Javacia Harris Bowser unless otherwise noted.
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