Shoppers at the Maine Mall in South Portland are used to grabbing a burger, a smoothie or a chocolate chip cookie at the food court. Soon they’ll be able to sit down with a plate full of fried chicken, collard greens, mac-and-cheese and corn bread, then finish up with peach cobbler.
The owner of Soul Food Paradise, a Portland takeout restaurant now operating out of Fork Food Lab in Portland, has signed a three-year lease with the Maine Mall food court and will be moving his business into the spot formerly occupied by national chain Arby’s.
Martin Beavers said he is waiting on a state health inspection, but hopes to open by Oct. 1. While soul food restaurants are located in strip malls across America, Beavers thinks Soul Food Paradise may be the first one to open in the food court of a big shopping mall, although verifying that is difficult.
“This would be great to start a trend,” he said. “Why don’t we have this type of food in the mall?”
Beavers started cooking at Fork Food Lab in May and quickly gained a loyal following. In August, he hosted a catfish fry and barbecue in the parking lot of the shared commercial kitchen. But his dream has always been to own his own place, and the move to the mall is the next step.
Beavers said he and his fiancé used to live by the Maine Mall in South Portland and often shopped there. Not long ago, on another shopping trip, he noticed a space was available and decided it was a sign. He filled out an application and went in for an interview, where he had to pitch his food. Why, he asked during the interview, do all malls offer the same Chinese and Mexican food, pizza and burgers?
“What about something different? What about comfort?” he said. “When I come to the mall, I think about family, I think about kids coming after school. Why don’t we have American cuisine in all these American malls? I think it would be something different to have soul food.”
His food court hours will be 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week. Beavers said he hopes to expand his menu, adding ribs, mashed potatoes and string beans as regular items, as well as mini sweet potato pies and banana pudding cups.
His long-term goal is to make enough money to open his own place, preferably one with a big parking lot where he can hold outdoor summer events like the “Sunday dinner” catfish fry he hosted in August. Many transplanted southerners and other soul food lovers showed up and told Beavers stories of how they hadn’t been home in 30 years, but his collard greens took them back.
“That touches me,” he said, “so I’m trying to bring back the tradition of Sunday dinner, bring back that tradition of family and being together.”