By Donna Cornelius
There’s an actual mom in the kitchen at Yo’ Mama’s, where the food is Southern, scratch-made and scrumptious.
The Second Avenue restaurant in downtown Birmingham is no secret to many in the city. It’s so popular that at lunchtime the line often stretches out the door and down the sidewalk.
Denise Peterson opened her happy, hip eatery in 2014. Her daughter, Crystal Peterson, manages the restaurant and loves being its goodwill ambassador. On the menu are freshly made dishes such as shrimp and grits, hot wings, and chicken and waffle, which has become something of a culinary legend among the restaurant’s regulars.
The well-worth-it wait at Yo Mama’s likely won’t get any shorter after May 16. That’s the day the Cooking Channel will air an episode of “Cheap Eats” with a segment that stars the Petersons, their customers and especially their food.
Crystal said Ali Khan, the show’s host, and his crew spent three days at the restaurant.
“Our customers couldn’t help but know something was going on because there were all these people walking around like X-Men with equipment on their backs,” she said, laughing.
This wasn’t Denise’s first time appearing on camera. For the past two years, she’s done a cooking segment on Fox 6’s “Good Day Alabama” morning show, usually on the second Wednesday of each month.
Denise, who lives in Hoover, grew up in Birmingham’s Norwood neighborhood.
“My father always had a garden with things like peas, greens and tomatoes,” she said. “I used to have to shell peas; I’m glad you can buy them already shelled now. We ate a lot of fried chicken and a lot of vegetables.”
Like most talented cooks, she would put together dishes by following her instincts rather than written instructions.
“I had a hard time giving people recipes when we opened the restaurant,” she said. “I had to actually figure out the measurements. I was used to, ‘You taste it, and then you add a little more of this and that.’”
Denise had a long career at AT&T before getting into the food business. She liked going to jazz festivals and concerts and said she saw a need for food to be sold at the events.
“We started selling chicken, fish and fries,” she said. “People wanted to know the rest of our menu, and I’d say, ‘That’s it.’”
Crystal said her mom’s food quickly became a hot item at the events.
“Even people who’d bought VIP tickets and paid for their food already would come and buy from us,” Crystal said. “We did that for about six years. We learned a lot, like how to get customers in and out.”
When the Petersons were ready to open their own brick-and-mortar restaurant, they decided to focus on lunch, which they serve Monday-Friday from 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
“We want this to be a midday getaway,” Crystal said. “We also wanted our mother to like what she does. We do private events and catering at night. So if we’re open at night, we’re guaranteed to make money. If we’re not, she can go home and watch Judge Judy.”
Yo’ Mama’s sometimes is open at other times, too. Now through the end of the summer, you can have dinner there from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month. Brunch is served on the second and last Saturday of every month from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. The brunch menu includes made-to-order Belgian waffles with a peach cobbler topping, seafood omelets, pancakes and French toast as well as regular lunch dishes.
“We make our own waffle mix, our own whipped cream and our own syrup,” Denise said.
They also whip up their own POE sauce to “put on everything.”
“We have meals of the day, like bacon-wrapped meatloaf, salmon with red pepper and corn salsa, and chicken salad,” Crystal said. “We have Pork Chop Tuesdays and Catfish Fridays. We have desserts of the day, too.”
While the food has a decidedly Southern spin, Yo’ Mama’s offers an unexpected option.
“Our niche is gluten free,” Crystal said. “My sister’s best friend has celiac disease, and she couldn’t order confidently off most menus when she went out to eat. We’ve found a way to bring flavor to gluten-free foods.”
Menu items are clearly marked as being either gluten-free or as available with a gluten-free option.
“It’s the healthiest fried food you can get,” Crystal said.
Working With Family
Denise and Crystal said they like working together.
“Our relationship has gotten even better,” Crystal said.
Denise said she sometimes wears her “owner’s hat” and at other times her “mama’s hat.”
“I sometimes tell her to take that ‘mama’s hat’ off, because we’re trying to make money here,” Crystal said.
Denise’s husband and her other daughter, Delisha Peterson, also are involved in the business. Crystal said that everyone gets along because each person works in an area that plays to their strengths.
“Some families who work together all try to be good at the same thing,” she said. “I’m good with people, my sister’s good with marketing and social media, and my dad does the finances.”
Crystal said she loves meeting customers and making them feel at home.
“I’m like the bartender who remembers people’s names,” she said. “This place is like ‘Cheers’ without the beers.”
Her mom’s role, of course, is giving people food that’s both comforting and delicious.
“You always have a fear of failure with a restaurant,” Denise said. “But I think this is a place where all ages – families, business people, kids, college students and senior citizens – who want a home-cooked meal can come. It’s turned into much more than I thought it would be.”
Yo’ Mama’s is at 2328 Second Ave. N in Birmingham. You can sign up for an emailed newsletter to find out about daily specials and events through the restaurant’s website, yomamasrestaurant.com. You also can follow the restaurant on social media. ❖