For several decades, Walter Strickland has kept Creole cuisine alive thanks to his two establishments, The Groovey Grill and Café 4212. Despite all the challenges, he has built them into successful enterprises with history and heritage at their heart
Walter Strickland is a law graduate, entrepreneur, real estate developer and restaurant owner. He has built an esteemed reputation in the Creole community thanks to his nourishing of his culture and heritage through The Groovey Grill and Café 4212. He talks about what it took to get these two establishments to where they are now, the challenges they present, and why Creole culture matters so much.
The genesis of the culinary adventure
In 1992, real estate developer and law graduate Walter Strickland bought The Groovey Grill – a historic landmark in Houston that seats around 100 diners per sitting or 150 at a special event. It had first been established in 1947, and was located on the campus at Texas Southern from its launch through to 1967, until it relocated to its residing spot of Houston.
The present building was built back in 1927, in a location that was very well-desired as a residential neighbourhood. It was an expensive area, but had been used to provide refuge for ostracised Jewish immigrants to live during the 1920s. For many people in the locality, the building is rich with memories. It’s still a catch-phrase for those in the area to say, “Meet me at The Groovey”.
For Strickland, buying The Groovey Grill was a project of love. When he bought the business, the original owners – Mr and Mrs Prince – were still living upstairs. The building required renovating and evolved from just being a restaurant to a place for special events too. The first event took place in 1997, in which the Houston Community Artist Collective celebrated their 10th Anniversary Gala. That same year they also hosted their first Mardi Gras as a signature event with over 200 people arriving throughout the night. They’ve even had Beyoncé’s mother have her birthday party at the venue, with a lot of their events being private.
Mr and Mrs Prince were on stand-by throughout the developments to offer advice and knowledge, but sadly were not alive to see the opening of The renovated Groovey Grill. The standing they gave the building in the community, which Strickland has continued, remains important though – especially for the older generation who have many memories of what The Groovey stands for in the local area. As Strickland comments, during the 1950s and ’60s: “The Groovey was like a political spot for various people to congregate and to strategise. In the black community, we’ve had all variety of politicians come through here. Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, Muhammad Ali, William Hayes, Frank Aaron… this was the spot to come and to meet back during that time.”
Focus on Creole Cuisine
At The Groovey, the focus of their food is Creole, which is what continues to bring in hordes of crowds to the doors. Their authenticity and heritage is much-desired by people from across the country. However, they adapt this where needed and continue to be flexible and diverse. As Strickland comments: “We try to create an atmosphere that’s reflective of whatever the occasion is.” When talking about the food, he explains: “I want to keep that Creole slant. We call our food ‘modern Southern’ – with a Creole emphasis.”
His signature dishes are varied and steeped in Creole heritage: – “On Mondays, we do red beans and rice, which is traditional in New Orleans. Étouffée is excellent. Catfish is probably our major seller. You know, we have a bread pudding that’s delicious. I think it’s made of croissant bread, because our chef is a baker. Very light, very airy, very good. His desserts are wonderful.”
Law before Hospitality
However, despite turning The Groovey Grill into a success, it wasn’t always this way. Strickland began his path into the working world through studying law at Fisk University in Houston, and doing an MBA at Syracuse. He also had his own law firm for several years, and worked for a while as an attorney. As he notes though: “In the back of my mind, I think I always wanted to be in the hospitality industry. My dad owned a fast food place when I was in high school, so I used to kind of work there.”
The buzz that hospitality presented was in the constant hurdles it offered up. As Strickland comments: “I guess you never realise all the work that’s involved in hospitality. It’s always full of challenges.”
Realising his love for food and catering, Strickland began working alongside his girlfriend at the time, who was a chef, and they started a catering company called The Serving Company. He remarks: “It kind of gave me an opportunity to view the food industry and what was needed and necessary. It was a very demanding business.”
The purchase of The Groovey Grill
When it came to land The Groovey Grill, this decision was less led by his love of hospitality and more by his entrepreneurial nose for a good investment. As he explains: “The Groovey Grill situation was more of a real estate kind of situation, where you know, I began to invest in real estate and this was on the market.”
He continues: “It sat on the market for several years… It was almost like destiny. I was looking at another piece of property and we drove by here, and the real estate agent told us, ‘Why don’t you put a bid in on The Groovey Grill?’ I said, ‘What can I do with The Groovey Grill?’ to myself. And then I thought about it, and I did it. The lady that had the note had all my financials and so we were able to push through the financial information and we were able to consummate a deal. So, I just felt like it was there for me, you know… I guess it was just destiny.”
Strickland goes on: “I felt like The Groovey sat here waiting for me for two years without anyone even being interested. It looked like an abandoned house for a long time. Everybody had thoughts about it – wondering, why are you doing this? It was a major undertaking back during that time. It took me five years to restore it. And, I mean, it had really fallen into a bad shape… A place this big is very easy to not be able to keep it up and especially for Mr and Mrs Prince who, at the time, were in their 80s.”
A community focus
For Strickland, the size of the project faded in comparison to the impact that reviving this spot had on the community though: “I feel very connected to the community. You know? And I’m from Houston, but you know, it was kind of a union made in heaven. ‘Cause I am a person that believes in history and I am very detail-oriented. So, what I tried to do was to bring it back to the way I thought it used to be. You know. With all the original appointments and to the point of trying to match the floor. And all this flooring had rotted out and we had to replace one whole side and a lot of the windows too. They had changed the windows to be plated glass when those were not plated, but solid glass. So, trying to find someone, a mill person to create original windows became a challenge. So, it was quite an undertaking.”
The Groovey Grill is one of many properties that Strickland has, thanks to a string of purchases throughout the 1980s at a time when real estate was a valuable investment to be making. In addition to The Groovey Grill, he also has a place called ‘Café 4212, which can seat around 80 people at any one time. Open for the last eight years in the same area, the emphasis for this location also remains on Creole food. For Strickland, this is one of the important aspects of his business and enables him to keep his culture alive.
Café 4212 is more than just a restaurant though, with jazz nights, breakfast dances, day events such as ‘Smoke One, Drink One’, and a Creole brunch on every second Sunday of the month.
For Strickland, who has been in business for many decades, covering both hospitality and real estate, the biggest challenge remains his restaurant – Café 4212. As he says, it’s largely because: “There are so many moving parts.” When he first started out, he was given advice by a likeminded business owner, who told him: “The only advice I can give you is to get ready to lose a lot of money.” As Strickland acknowledges: “That was such a true statement. It can take a lot of money to keep an operation going like that. Especially when you’re not down there all the time, which can present a problem. You’ve got to be on the job all the time. With The Groovey Grill, the challenges are less so because a lot of their time is spent catering special events, which are not a day-to-day occurrence.”
If he had three wishes, his choices are varied but heartfelt:. “What would I wish for? One, I’d love for my grandmother to see this place. She never got a chance to see The Groovey Grill. We used to always give her an update, and she was never able to walk through the doors here. So, I’d love to just share that with her.”
“Number two. I’d love to have more time to get more involved in things like photography and you know, relax a little bit more. And I feel like that’ll be my mission real soon.”
“Finally, to travel more again. You know, I used to take the summers off when I taught school, and that’s when I got a chance to do most of my travelling, but you know, with the kind of business I’m in now, that doesn’t allow me to travel as much. And you are able to gain knowledge through travel. At least, I always felt that way.”
For Strickland though, the sacrifices have been worth it in order to share his Creole culture with the hundreds who have passed through the doors of his businesses.
“I feel that there’s been such a significant contribution by Creoles… And their sharing of their cuisine, the music, the history, it’s just boundless. I’m glad that I can be a part of it.”