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Family owned restaurant opens in food desert

An Indianapolis family says they’ve put their own twist on a unique cuisine but still have the staple items as well.

INDIANAPOLIS — Monica and George Nelson Sr. are the “Pa” and “Ma” behind Pa & Ma's Backyard BBQ on North College Avenue and Fairfield on Indianapolis’ near north east side. They specialize in BBQ and soul food.

Soul food is American food.

“If you understand the history, every nationality had slaves and they weren’t doing the cooking. And what we did is we took their food and added our flavor to it,” said George Nelson Jr.

Historically, what later in the 1960's came to be known as soul food originated in the rural south, and during the Great migration the foods and preparation techniques were brought to the north.  

Pa and Ma’s Backyard BBQ said they’ve put their own twist on the cuisine but still have the staple items as well.

“Shrimp Alfredo, shrimp fried rice, steak, catfish, and a lot of BBQ. And the traditional - macaroni and cheese, the greens and green beans. Ribs and Brisket too,” said Owner George Nelson Jr.

But he said there’s one big difference between his restaurant and other similar establishments.

“We don’t have any cans in the kitchen. We peel our own potatoes, I make my own chicken stock,” said George Sr.

Credit: WTHR

The Nelsons said the journey to creating this family owned restaurant hasn’t been easy.

“Me and George met when I was 15 and he was 17 and here we are 35 years later. And If I didn’t give up on us, I wasn’t going to give up on the business. I knew we were going to do it,” said Monica.

Monica said this family owned business has been twenty-five years in the making.

Credit: WTHR

“We were sitting at the house (in 1995) and my brother Sidney asked my husband what (type of work) would you do for free?

And he said ‘I would cook for free.’

So he said,‘let’s get it started.’

He said ‘Sid, I only have $175. I can’t do this.’

He said, ‘Why not?’ He said ‘I got the vehicle, let’s go.’”

The two men went to the store and bought some food. The Nelson family already knew that the demand for their cooking was there.

“We got the neighborhood, everybody already loves Ma and Pa,” Monica said pointing to herself and her husband respectively.

“That’s the piece!,” said Monica and George Sr’s son George Nelson Jr.

“Everybody was already at the house,” said George Jr. as his mother laughed.

The Nelsons said it was essential for them to provide quality food in their neighborhood.

“They took Double 8 grocery store out of the inner-city Indianapolis and they created food desserts. There’s no place you can go to get fresh food. Everything’s processed there’s no fresh vegetables. I think that’s one of the things we’ve focused on,” said George Jr.

“We’ve been in the hood in Indianapolis, every location we’ve been, and we’ve been one of the only places you could go to get fresh food in the area,” he added.

The Nelsons believe providing that quality food at a reasonable price is pertinent to their business model and their effort to provide access in a neighborhood where gas stations are the one of the only nearby location that sells food.

For $5 to $6 a place customer can get “a meat, two sides and hot water corn bread,” said George Sr.

When the pandemic hit, “we know people in these areas lost jobs, that was a real thing. So people came in and could with us because it was $5 you could get a real meal,” said George Jr.

Part of the mission behind Pa & Ma’s Backyard BBQ is to help rebuild the neighborhood.

George Sr. said that there’s a sense of community in his restaurant similar to “a barber shop.”

One of the things he aims to do and said is important “is to start lifting ourself up and quit having people say ‘we’re not included in the downtown plan. We’re not included in the broad ripple plan.’ Since we’re not included in those plans we’re going to have our own plan,” said George Sr.

George Sr. said that “in order to get our college educated kids back to the community that they grew up in we have to have some amenities.”

This weekend the Nelsons are hosting the “Taste of Pa & Ma’s” where they will host 20 black owned vendors from various industries. As this is a new endeavor, currently they will be the only restaurant onsite but they hope to expand to include other black owned restaurants as well. The entry fee for this weekends event is $20 and includes a full plate of food as well as the opportunity to speak with each of the vendors.

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