It’s not that often that the things you’re supposed to do in life just come to you with a clarity that compels you to act. But that’s exactly how the idea for Sugarfoot Grits came to Stephanie Fields—despite the fact she claims she really isn’t that attuned to such things.
“I’m not that ‘woo woo’ about visions coming to you,” she insists.
Still, it was a vision of herself hanging out of a window, yelling about grits and selling them that came to her so strongly one night as she was home talking to her boyfriend that she felt she could not ignore that calling.
“I’ve always loved cheese grits,” she said. “You can’t find them in San Francisco. My friends would ship them to me, so I started making cheese grits and food I’d loved and always eaten at home.”
Originally from Henderson, North Carolina, a small town just shy of the North Carolina-Virginia border, Stephanie’s profession when not slinging grits is as a music publicist. After graduating from college, she worked at various record labels in both New York and Nashville. When she and her boyfriend moved to San Francisco in 2010, she began her own publicity firm, Make it Bigger Mama, and still works independently with artists specializing in Americana, roots, folk, bluegrass and Celtic music.
In addition to music and grits, Stephanie’s other passion is belly dancing. In fact, belly dancing was part of the reason she and her boyfriend Matt decided to move to San Francisco. (That, and Matt’s work within the computer gaming industry.) As the center for the modern tribal fusion belly dancing movement, Stephanie knew that the San Francisco belly dance community would welcome her if she came.
She didn’t realize they would also help propel her into a new food venture. While at the wedding of
Jo Jill Parker, the founder of tribal fusion belly dance, she struck up a conversation with another guest who asked her what her favorite thing to cook was. “I make a mean cheese grits,” she told them. Two months later, she found herself doing a grits pop-up on residency night at Amnesia in the Mission throughout the month of December. She sold out every night she was there.
That was nearly a year ago. Since then, 2013 has bubbled over with opportunities for Stephanie to make a business out of her love of grits. Still, she says that she’s probably been preparing for this for a long time without knowing it. Her grandmother owned a “meat and three” called Dabney Drive Restaurant that served southern soul food—meat and three sides—where Stephanie spent a significant amount of time while growing up. Her Uncle White also owns a meat and three, the Cardinal, and he would make her a bowl of cheese grits every afternoon after school.
“Fifteen years later, now I’m doing this food thing. I never thought I would do this,” she said.
Food is also a central part of her relationship with her boyfriend, Matt, both of whom enjoy seeking out new places to eat throughout San Francisco. As is often the case with newcomers to California, the sheer volume of good produce and the different things available here also inspired her.
“Just having San Francisco produce at our fingertips,” she said. “The first time I had an avocado here I thought I was going to die. Without knowing it I’ve been preparing for this for a long time.”
Things really kicked into high gear for Stephanie this past spring when she applied and was accepted to the food business incubator program at La Cocina within the span of just a few days. On a trip to the Ferry Building, she happened to stop by the La Cocina kiosk and found out they would be holding an orientation session the following Monday. Applications for the next group of culinary entrepreneurs were due Friday. Even though the orientation session was daunting (“you go in and they scare the hell out of you,” she said), she applied anyway.
Called in for an interview shortly thereafter, she arrived with a crockpot full of grits in tow and a grits pie made with store-bought pie crust. Her interviewers were completely stone-faced during the interview, not giving away whether they liked her or her food. Finally, she received some feedback when Mary Gassen from Noe Valley Bakery told her she liked the pie. A couple weeks later, Stephanie was accepted to the program.
When you’re a member of La Cocina, doors open for you here, Stephanie said. But she is also aggressively pursuing opportunities on her own and has gone out and used her PR skills to gain exposure, such as scoring booths at both Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and the Eat Real Fest within a few weeks of each other. Although serving thousands of people at two large festivals back-to-back left her exhausted, she loves doing it.
“La Cocina is like being accepted to an Ivy League school for food businesses. But it’s up to you to show up and use your resources, to make it work for you. They have an amazing reputation and give you a ton of help…I love it. It’s everything about me and my personality and what I want in the world and my community to be put in a business. I’m not a chef, I’m a good cook. It’s just so much fun.”
Why Sugarfoot Grits? The name comes from the nickname her uncle gave her. In the South, Stephanie says, the terms “sugar” and “shug” are very common nicknames. “Sugarfoot” actually is a term for someone who is sweet, but a bit slow. It was her uncle’s way of teasing her, she says, because he’s both the only person who calls her Sugarfoot, but his other nickname for her is “College Girl.”
One of the things Stephanie enjoys the most about serving grits is the opportunity to share a part of who she is and her Southern culture with other people.
“That’s been one of the biggest gifts of doing food here. I feel so embraced. It feels really good. People want to help each other here. I love that I feel embraced.”
Grits, she says, are important to the history of food in this country, and they remain a comfort food and staple to this day. She is trying to highlight the importance of grits and Southern culture. Her up-leveled versions are served in a variety of ways—most often with fried eggs on top or with things such as bacon or greens, making them the star of a complete meal rather than just a lowly side dish.
“You think you get away from who you are, but you don’t. At the end of the day, God bless it, I’m cooking grits in San Francisco.”
What drew you to food?
I’ve always loved food. I used to be 250 pounds—if you meet me, I’m not anymore. I’ve always just loved food—I’ve learned how to have a good relationship with it.
My family drew me to food. It’s always been a way to show love. Food is a way to show love in the South in general. If someone dies or there’s a wedding, there’s a house full of food. If you have flour, sugar, eggs, you can whip up a cake. You can always show love and take care of one another. I’m really quite social, and you can always get people to come over if you put on a pot of soup. It’s always been a source of pride and connection for me.
So, they’re my favorite food. Whenever I’d go home to the South after moving—I moved away completely four years go, even though I’d been to New York and Milwaukee—I’d go somewhere and ask for the biggest bowl of grits you can give me.
Grits are often relegated to a side item, poor people food, a side item. I’m trying to take grits to the level they should be. I use the best grits I can find and use Clover and Straus Dairy. I want to bring this Southern tradition through the food—comfort, hospitality, kindness, love—and use the California products and sensibility of ‘you’re supposed to eat this well and be kind to your body.’
Because I love it, it’s my comfort food. It has a really strong family connection and because no one’s taking care of them like they should be right now. I want grits to be taken up to the level it should be as one of the most defining foods of Southern culture. Nobody’s taking care of grits. I’m going to do that. No one else is doing grits. I saw a place to do it. Really it comes from the emotional side first, then the business side second.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
My food inspiration comes from what I like to eat and what I ate growing up. Grits and collard greens, grits pies, grits and bacon, grits and mushrooms. My inspiration is primarily breakfast food. Instead of [grits] being a side, I took it and put it in the middle and put stuff on top of it.
I’m inspired by clean and simple food done well. I’m a super sensitive and aware person. Inspiration comes constantly. My base menu is what I like to eat, what I grew up eating and just a notch up because we didn’t have access to the kinds of things we have out here.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
There’s been a few things. One was from Mary Gassen at Noe Valley Bakery telling me I was going to fail at some point and I needed to be OK with that. If you’re going to be a serial businesswoman, that’s going to happen and it’s going to be OK. That’s been a great piece of advice. Not everything’s going to run perfectly.
She also told me to read the book “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg from Facebook about being a woman in business. There was a lot of practical stuff in there, especially when she was starting her career that I thought was awesome.
Caleb [Zigas] from La Cocina about momentum. My momentum had started and I had gotten some press and then my mom got sick (she’s totally OK now) and I had to cancel a month long run of pop-ups. He told me people will always come out for a good bowl of food, you can always get momentum back.
Michael [Gassen] from Noe Valley…Mary and Michael. She always says the most important thing…is Michael and my children. They have a beautiful marriage and they’re great parents and they work really hard and they are a huge inspiration to me in my own relationship and in having balance. And Michael will say the same thing about Mary when she’s not around.
That’s so important in a city where everything is driven by industry to hear that.
Bini from Bini’s Kitchen; Azalina from Azalinas; Alicia from Alicia’s Tamales; Tiff and Sylvee from Hella Vegan Eats; Luis from Merlin’s Catering. All these women from La Cocina—I could write books. Daniella who works at La Cocina; Brent Johnson, the head chef of the kitchen. He’s the first chef who taught me to move in the kitchen—he’s been a big mentor for me.
Charles from Crème and Crumble, the cheesecake chef…he’s my bestie in the program. We take care of each other and text almost everyday.
A huge influence has been Erin from Homeroom, who runs the mac and cheese restaurant in Oakland. She’s taught me all about efficiency, Erin has gotten me through my festivals. And Dennis from Jeepney Guy, he’s a friend from La Cocina, a Filipino barbeque chef. He was my right hand and my rock through my festivals and ran my kitchen for me.
My biggest piece of advice about business and life is to be kind. When my people circle up [before a pop-up or festival], my number one rule is ‘Kindness forward.’ Be kind to each other, kind to me, kind to the musicians, the customers, etc., If you can’t be kind, you need to tell me and go home. If you’re going to lose it, we need to try our hardest anyway. That’s my advice in business. And I really feel like the rest will shake out. It’s a very hard city to start a food business in. I’m good at managing people and taking care of people. My staff is really happy. If someone is rude or a bully or smarts off, I tell them it’s time to go home. They want to be on that team, and they snap it together. And not BS or fake kindness…that’s my biggest piece of advice, the rest will shake out.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
Money. It’s incredibly expensive. No, I take that back. It’s fear. It’s fear that after you drop XX amount of dollars, you drop it, it’s fear that if my cat gets sick I won’t be able to pay for it. It’s fear from growing up. It’s letting that fear go. Almost always at the end of the day it works out. That’s a big challenge. And then the permit side of all of this. They don’t make it easy, it’s hard–the city, etc. Places like La Cocina and the Small Business Administration, help. There used to be a high barrier to entry.
That’s a challenge—fear, money. For me my biggest challenge is I’m not culinary trained. Going from cooking in my kitchen and cooking grits for 25 people to cooking for thousands of people, learning to move in the kitchen and upping my operation and how to manage all that—those have been the biggest challenges.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
There’s a couple things. One is that I get to be out in public and I get to talk to people about my food and I get to love on them and make them feel good and nourished and I get to educate people about where I’m from. I grew up a singer and dancer. I like being the Grits Queen and having a personality behind it. It’s a way to express myself. It’s a way to be artistically fulfilled as well. Some side of it is an artist side, not just the food. There’s a presentation to it, there’s a show to it. I talk about the customers as an audience, I talk about what we wear as costumes.
What I hope will happen—I have been trying to help people all my life—I realize that I can have a company where, with other women, I can help them. I have that ability to give them a job and put them in an environment where we have good food and they’re having fun and feeding people and they go home with a little cash in their pocket. I get to do that. I can’t believe people are letting me sell cheese grits in public. I can’t believe I’m getting away with this, that I’ve been able to take it to this level. I’ve been able to surround myself with a good community and good village. I hope that other entrepreneurs will come through and work with me, especially female entrepreneurs, that I’ll get to see that happen within my company –they feel supported…I want to work with women, the LGBT community, anybody who’s been relegated to the sidelines or not taken care of, I want them put them in my company. Everyone’s welcome at my table and my circle—boys too—I want to support them.
What’s your favorite item on your menu?
You know what? My favorite thing on the menu is grits and pulled pork from somebody else. I don’t have a smoker and that’s an art. Anyone’s barbecue and a fried egg on top—I love it. I was vegetarian for 12 years. I love that. I also love a good bowl of grits with eggs—it’s my Uncle White’s meal. I also love peanut butter delight. They’re no bake—peanut butter, oatmeal, butter, sugar—they take five minutes to cook. Chocolate, oatmeal, fudgy peanut butter. I call them Mama Pat’s peanut butter delight after my mom. I love it. I cannot bring myself to make an almond butter delight. It just doesn’t taste the same—I can’t do it.
What other local food artisans do you admire? Why?
Oh, gosh. You know I wish that I could remember. Dirty Girl or Happy Girl Farms—they set up at the farmer’s market. I love their product, and I love their staff.
I admire Dandelion Chocolate. I think their facility is incredible. I admire them from a branding, aesthetic, and taste [standpoint]. The way they present chocolate is gorgeous, and they’re so sweet, such nice people. I admire what they’re doing with their storefront in the Mission.
I admire Hella Vegan Eats a lot. I love their food, the people around them, their relationship, how they handle veganism with a sense of humor. They’re great.
4505 Meats, I love those guys. And I love what they do.
Drewes Meats in Noe Valley. They’re brothers working in a an old butcher shop. They source my meat. Joey, he’s my guy. He takes care of me. They have great local bacon …I love those guys.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
Oh my gosh, my last meal. My last meal would be…I would have a fresh, juicy tomato sandwich on white bread with mayo, salt and pepper. I would have fried chicken. I would have a chocolate brownie—gluten free. Gluten free chocolate torte—not because I’m gluten free, but I just like dense, fudgy stuff. With hot fudge and ice cream.
And some really, really good greens. Collards or whatever and my Aunt Yvonne’s potato salad. And the tomato sandwich would have bacon—I’m going to have to make that next summer.
I want a southern cafeteria at my disposal. You know, where you get a tray and you go through a line? That’s what I want. Something like that.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
I love Firefly in Noe Valley. It’s kind of tucked away. The menu changes maybe daily. They have the best dessert I’ve ever had. Simple farm to table, best wine list. The staff is very gentle and kind and it’s unbelievable. And it’s right up the street from me. We only eat there for special occasions, but you never go wrong.
Favorite Bay Area food… I never really had Chinese food or Thai food until I moved here. Henry’s Hunan is incredible. Generally Asian food—any of the Asian food. And burritos. What am I thinking? All the taquerias. When I’m not in San Francisco, when I’m traveling and get back home, if I don’t eat a burrito in 10 minutes I’m going to have a heart attack!
Photos courtesy of Stephanie Fields and @thedapperdiner.