Meet The Matriarchs Behind Some Of Your Favorite Southern Restaurants

"You may come in as a stranger, but you leave as a member of our family."

mother's day story header with images of women and their mother's

Southern women are leaving a lasting imprint on the restaurant world, passing their recipes—and sometimes their restaurants—on to their daughters and granddaughters, who keep their legacy alive.

Some founders were pioneers in the industry, stepping out when women were still mostly relegated to the housewife role. Some sought a higher purpose, like the owner of Alcenia’s in Memphis who needed a distraction from her son’s death.

Some arose out of a need to preserve family culture and recipes, like El Gallo Mexican Restaurant in Fredericksburg, Texas. The first Mexican restaurant in that area now has been run by the women in the family for over 50 years.

In Houston, the Texas Biergarten serves German dishes like braised red cabbage and German potato salad, cooked exactly the way owner Laura Abraham’s grandmother made it nearly a century ago.

And at Ancient City Brunch Bar in St. Augustine, Florida, a high school project turned two teens into entrepreneurs and their mom into their boss and mentor.

These very different women have created restaurants that are destinations not just for their delicious food, but for the stories behind their recipes. They are proof that moms—and the women who come after them—keep more than food traditions alive. They maintain their cultural identity, unite their family, honor their past, celebrate their heritage, and preserve their ancestors’ culinary wisdom. 

Herrara Family Picture

Courtesy of Herrara Family

Juanita Herrera—El Gallo Mexican Restaurant, Fredericksburg, Texas

Cipriana Pruneda was the first Hispanic business owner and the first person to open a Mexican restaurant in Fredericksburg, Texas. It was 1968, and she was a single mom, supporting her family by cleaning houses and cooking for her customers. 

Her daughter, Juanita Herrera, admires her gumption and tenacity, especially for that time. “My mom only made it through 6th grade, but she was courageous and willing to try. To open El Gallo, she first had to apply for a loan. The president of the bank asked her two questions: How much do you need, and is your food any good? On the spot, she invited him and his family to her home, where she fixed nachos, enchiladas, tamales, and rice and beans—the exact same food that’s on the menu today—and he granted her the loan the very next day.” 

"We offer simple comfort food, all from original recipes. Nothing fancy, no evolution, and no twists."

The local Tex-Mex fare was a runaway hit. On opening day, Pruneda sold out during lunch. She cooked twice as much food the second day and ran out again. On the third day, one disappointed customer said, "Lady, can you not make more food?" From that moment on, no one could get enough of her nachos and enchiladas.

Then, in 1978, Herrera took over. “My mother got a calling to be a missionary in Mexico and planned to close the restaurant. My husband and I decided that we had to keep her legacy alive, so Mom spent the next six months teaching me to cook all her recipes."

Ever since, Herrera and her husband, Jose, have run the restaurant with the help of their now grown children, John Herrera, Anissa Herrera, and Annora Giese. Their secret is staying true to their roots.

“We’re not a fad-food restaurant,” says Juanita. “We stick with our famous enchiladas, our fantastic guacamole. People buy mom’s salsa and hot sauce by the quart. We offer simple comfort food, all from original recipes. Nothing fancy, no evolution, and no twists."

As the restaurant celebrates its 55th anniversary, Herrera says, “We see the same customers every week, kids who grew up in our restaurant and now bring their own kids. And since we serve the same dishes Mom created in the 60s, it’s not uncommon to hear people say, ‘It’s just like I remember it as a kid!’"

Betty Joyce "B.J." Chester-Tamayo and mother painting

Courtesy of Betty Joyce "B.J." Chester-Tamayo

B.J. Chester-Tamayo—Alcenia’s Restaurant, Memphis, Tennessee

The first time I stepped into Alcenia’s, it was the color, the whimsy that caught my eye. But when Betty Joyce "B.J." Chester-Tamayo stepped from the kitchen? Well, she was all that color and whimsy come to life. Her beaming smile, Memphis warmth, and big hugs doled out to every customer are, she believes, what has made her soul food restaurant so popular.

“Anyone can have good food,” she says, “but what matters is how you make people feel. My mom was a hugger, and I just naturally became one—I wasn’t even aware of it until someone wrote about it in an article.”

Chester-Tamayo is in her 25th year as owner and chef at Alcenia’s, named after her mother, who passed down every recipe on the menu. Chester-Tamayo’s original plan was to jar her mom’s preserves, apple butter, and dressings and sell them online, along with Alcenia’s sweet potato pie, bread pudding, pecan pie, pound cake, and tea cake.

She was prepping for that when her 22-year-old son, Will, who she called GoGo, was killed in a motorcycle accident. "I sunk into deep grief, and I needed a distraction, something to keep me busy,” she says. “I opened Alcenia’s to honor both GoGo and my mom."

Since Alcenia had no written recipes and used no measurements, she coached Chester-Tamayo by describing each dish’s color and consistency and modifying by taste or sight. When she visited, she sampled every dish, providing further feedback.

The salmon croquette, fried green tomatoes, yams, mac and cheese, fried chicken, and sweet potato cobbler are fan favorites, and Chester-Tamayo says she has many, many repeat customers.

"One guy got nothing but the pork chops on every single visit,” she says, “until he tried the meatloaf. Now 8 out of 10 visits a month, it’s only meatloaf for him."

"Anyone can have good food, but what matters is how you make people feel."

Everything is made fresh daily, right down to the tartar sauce. And despite being the full-time chef and owner, Chester-Tamayo finds time for her Southern Girl YouTube cooking show, the publication of her Soul2Soul cookbook, and yes, the distribution of her mother’s products—the very first goal she had 25 years ago.

Her granddaughter, born six months after her father GoGo’s death, is named after her great grandmother Alcenia. She’s been clearing tables at the restaurant since she was 7, and at 26, can handle every aspect of the business.

“The secrets to my success,” Chester-Tamayo says, “are God, my mom, and the way I was raised. You may come in as a stranger, but you leave as a member of our family.”

Abraham mom and daughter

Courtesy of Abraham Family

Laura Abraham—Texas Biergarten, Missouri City, Texas

When Laura Abraham and her husband Tom realized that there were few beers on tap in Missouri City, Texas, just outside of Houston, they saw a niche that could be enhanced by Abraham's German heritage. 

After all, what's better than beer and brats? Abraham had grown up enjoying them, thanks to her mother and grandmothers.

“Every summer table featured cucumber dill salad, and every year of my childhood, my mother threw Oktoberfest parties at the house. None of my grandmothers nor my mother wrote any of their recipes down," Abraham says, "so I would stand beside them with a clipboard while they cooked, documenting everything and asking questions.”

That dedication paid off when curating the menu for their new restaurant, Texas Biergarten. “The foundational dish, the one that started it all, was German potato salad,” says Abraham. “It’s one of our most popular requests, along with our pork schnitzel with cucumber dill salad, all unchanged from grandma’s recipes."

"None of my grandmothers nor my mother wrote any of their recipes down, so I would stand beside them with a clipboard while they cooked, documenting everything and asking questions."

Since the family are also proud Texans (Abraham's family has been there since 1850), they describe their menu as Texas comfort food with a German twist.

Abraham says, “When we opened, draft beers were hard to find in this area, so we added as many as we could, all Texas beers and wine. We wanted to stay as local as possible with our food, as well, so our sausages all come from Texas smokehouses. It’s the way people in Texas want their sausages—with heavier flavors like smoke, garlic, black pepper, jalapeño, and a courser grind of meat.” 

Now Abraham's 12-year-old daughter—who is named after her Grandma Jo—has begun working at the restaurant, baking sweets that serve as prizes on Bingo night. As Texas Biergarten comes up on five years, four generations of women now keep their Texan-German traditions alive.

Schroeder family

Courtesy of Schroeder Family

Melissa Schroeder—Ancient City Brunch Bar, St. Augustine, Florida

They are a family that eats dinner together every night—the one thing mom Melissa Schroeder has always insisted upon—but it’s brunch that ultimately brought this family closer. 

In 2020, when twin sisters Sophia and Emily Schroeder needed business experience for their St. Augustine, Florida high school entrepreneur class, COVID had shuttered most businesses. Melissa got creative and suggested they open their own restaurant. 

The kids, who had grown up seeing their mom's charcuterie boards photographed and devoured at parties, brainstormed the idea of a bruncharcuterie—a beautiful display of customized breakfast items that would be both Instagrammable and delicious. 

"In every aspect, it was their business, and I just guided and mentored,” says Schroeder. The girls negotiated a lease, decorated the restaurant with items from home, worked with distributors, and employed focus groups to test their menu creations.

The concept immediately grew favor, and their restaurant, Ancient City Brunch Bar, won Brunch Restaurant of the Year for Northeast Florida in its first two years in operation. 

This year, Sophia and Emily took full responsibility for presenting a business proposal for expansion, winning a 3500 square-foot space in a prime location in historic St. Augustine. Their current space will house cooking classes, after a successful experimental run proved popular.

"Waking up early and dealing with crankiness, struggling to make a go of a business, dealing with successes and failures—we shoulder this together and put parenting theory to practice."

As both girls prep to study abroad, Schroeder is taking over the helm. "Being a mom is one of the hardest jobs, but being the boss and leader by example is the most rewarding and challenging position a mother can take. Collaborating with them in a live situation is a completely different ballgame. Waking up early and dealing with crankiness, struggling to make a go of a business, dealing with successes and failures—we shoulder this together and put parenting theory to practice."

Customers love the girls' creations, including their cinnamon mini waffles, spinach and artichoke quiche, and their just-added chicken and beef empanadas with a Cuban twist. And they never miss the opportunity to snap a pic of the artfully designed boards.

With plans to move into their larger space by the end of the year, Schroeder will introduce an authentic extended brunch menu on Sundays, based on generational family recipes. And when the girls are home, they still sit down for dinner every night.

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