Diane Mastrull: Tasty fare, tough digs for soul-food restaurateur

Owner-chef Therice Denby prepares sweet potato pastries in the kitchen. Though Frankford Avenue is centrally located for her far-flung customers, she said, "You see so many things that look bad and feel bad."
Owner-chef Therice Denby prepares sweet potato pastries in the kitchen. Though Frankford Avenue is centrally located for her far-flung customers, she said, "You see so many things that look bad and feel bad."
Posted: August 14, 2012

Second of two parts.

Therice Denby's career track crystallized in the late 1980s while she was enrolled at Cheyney University - but not in the classroom. Her entrepreneurial calling came in her dorm room, where she toiled over a double-burner hot plate and an electric frying pan.

"I was selling food out of my room," Denby explained.

Her menu included pork chop and chicken sandwiches. On weekends, she met breakfast demands with eggs, grits and potatoes.

It was all forbidden by university rules so "we would buy incense to try to cover up the smell," Denby confessed recently.

Today, hiding her cooking is the last thing she wants to do. Yet, arguably, that's almost what she did by opening Denby's soul food restaurant one year ago on Frankford Avenue in Philadelphia's beleaguered Frankford section. The bakery side of the business is known as Denby's Sweet Sensations.

"The Avenue," as locals call it, is a commercial corridor of inadequate foot traffic and a proliferation of empty storefronts. They are dual challenges torturing so many of America's Main Street business districts, resulting from the birth of the suburbs and the allure of their under-one-roof, plentiful-parking shopping malls. Added to Frankford's turnoffs are its crime problems and impoverished, transient neighborhoods.

But to Denby, Frankford was an irresistible calling. She said it had no soul food restaurants, and its proximity to her existing customer base in Philadelphia and South Jersey was ideal.

That following started eight years ago when Denby was selling homemade cakes out of the back of her car. While her dorm-room cooking had appealed to a lot of taste buds, Denby's first love was confectionery. Especially cakes.

Denby taught herself how to decorate cakes 15 years ago. "From there, I just went berserk," she said.

Eight years ago, she was confident enough to take her creations - strawberry shortcake, peach cobbler, German chocolate cake, Kahlua-and-cream pound cake - on the road, selling to barbershops and hair salons, and to insurance and medical-billing companies throughout Philadelphia.

After two years at Cheyney had convinced her that college "wasn't for me," Denby went to work in insurance and billing.

Food had always played a prominent role in her life, starting from her childhood in Chester, where Denby's mother taught her how to garden, can and cook. "She was always in the kitchen with me," Denby's mother, Sadie McNeil, recalled recently.

Yet it would take a historic political event to spur the 44-year-old resident of Northeast Philadelphia and mother of two teenage sons to convert a culinary hobby into a restaurant business.

"The defining line for me . . . is when we elected our president into office," said Denby, who is African American and an Obama supporter. "We were like, 'He made it.' " And so could she, as a restaurant owner, she thought.

With support from husband Steven, she opened Denby's in Berlin, Camden County, in 2010, serving soul food and desserts. She was there long enough to build up a clientele - and to become fed up with roofing and air-conditioning issues. So she moved to Frankford, thinking that its proximity to the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge would make the restaurant easily accessible to her South Jersey devotees and to the customers in Philadelphia she had wowed from the trunk of her car.

One year later, Denby's is still not profitable - not unusual for a small business, especially one in the tough food-service sector. She acknowledged the challenges are magnified by Frankford itself.

"One of my worries is the lack of businesses around here," Denby said during an interview inside her restaurant in the 4400 block of Frankford Avenue, near the Market-Frankford El's Church Street stop. It was a day off for Denby, the restaurant's only employee (not counting volunteer help from friends and family). A solid gate over the front blocked any view inside - or outside.

What's out there is not ideal for any business, Denby noted.

"When you're around here, unfortunately, you see the trash in the street, the people that are homeless," she said. "You see so many things that look bad and feel bad."

For that reason, her night hours - tentatively until 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, a rarity in Frankford - are flexible. Closing time is influenced by an intangible vibe Denby gets when the daytime "hustle and bustle" of working people on the sidewalks out front is replaced by a different element.

"It's just that tap on the shoulder that says, 'You might want to close,' " she said.

Other business owners along Frankford Avenue complain about the lack of sit-down restaurants. Their theory is that more of them would entice more shoppers to the business corridor, or give those already there a reason to stay longer. Count Denby in that group.

In the meantime, she is doing her own recruiting with homemade commercials she posts on Facebook and YouTube, and even with voter-registration drives she hosts in her restaurant.

"She and her product are bringing people onto the commercial corridor who would not otherwise visit," said Michelle Feldman, commercial corridor manager for Frankford Community Development Corp. - and a fanatic about Denby's avocado cookies with lime cream cheese icing.

"And her personality and drive are helping to enliven a block of the Avenue that has incredible potential."

Michael Morrison is another of Denby's faithful, though he has never actually met her. He is, however, well-acquainted with her fried catfish, meatloaf and lemon cake. Except for treatment trips to a dialysis center three days a week, the 67-year-old Frankford resident is largely confined to his home.

A native of North Carolina, Morrison said he decided he had to try Denby's when he heard she also had Southern roots. He sent a nephew to get him some takeout. That was months ago. He has been getting meals from Denby's at least three days a week ever since.

Morrison predicted Denby will be a success in Frankford.

"If you last this long in this neighborhood, you have a pretty good chance," he said.

Diane Mastrull:

Therice Denby talks about opening her soul food eatery Denby's Sweet Sensations, on Frankford Avenue. Watch a video at philly.com/business and read Sunday's story about the Frankford Avenue business district.

Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, or dmastrull@phillynews.com, or @mastrud on Twitter.

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