On a Mission

Words by
Kiki Aranita
Images by
Black Childish

One specializes in a unique riff on pizza. The other is a singular Afrocentric grocery. Together they share a belief that a restaurant can be a force for change.

Cybille St. Aude-Tate and Omar Tate, the couple behind Honeysuckle Provisions.

Honeysuckle Provisions

During the darkest days of the pandemic, Cybille St. Aude-Tate and Omar Tate found light in fantasy. The two chefs had met in early 2020, while cooking at the Charleston Wine and Food Festival, though both had long lived in New York City, orbiting one another professionally and philosophically. Now, their lives upturned by an uncertain world, Cybille was living with her mother on Long Island and Omar was back in his hometown of Philly and their courtship was playing out over long, impassioned chats on FaceTime.

“You think anything is possible because everything is ending,” says Cybille, reflecting on those transformative conversations that led to her relocating to Philly, the two getting married, and charting out a new life together. “We spent time fantasizing about a supermarket on a corner. A place that did all the things we wanted to do. Not like a traditional restaurant, but one that fed our community and served food that was nostalgic, that we grew up on.”

What began as a private node of connection is today Honeysuckle Provisions, the Afrocentric grocery and takeout café they run together in West Philly. Opened in 2023 and financed through a GoFundMe campaign, it’s best understood not merely as a conventional restaurant but as a platform for the couple to express their most tightly held convictions: celebrating Black culinary traditions and supporting Black farmers and food makers. Located in a part of the city with a turbulent history—from Black families being relocated by developers in the late 1960s to gentrification today—the underlying aim of Honeysuckle is to use delicious food as a means of addressing what Omar describes as “the erasure of Black history and culture.”

Honeysuckle Provisions is best understood not merely as a conventional restaurant but as a platform for the couple to express their most tightly held convictions: celebrating black culinary traditions and supporting black farmers and food makers.

Honeysuckle’s fried fish hoagie is an homage to the sandwiches served at Black Muslim takeout shops.

You become aware of these larger aims through aroma and osmosis as you enter the intimate space, which Omar likens to “a version of our living room.” There is a miscellany of VHS tapes, a small library of books donated by community members, and various artifacts on display—a West African maternity statue, a sack of Madame Gougousse rice. “It’s a Haitian American thing,” explains Cybille, whose family comes from Haiti and who has used her own cooking—as well as her career as a children’s book author—to bring attention to Caribbean culture and history. “It’s the next best thing to Haitian long grain rice.” The sack is not merely visible to customers because storage is tight; it alludes to the Haitian economy’s long dependence on growing rice and the predatory U.S. policies that devastated Haiti’s domestic rice industry.

Most dominant, though, is the lit-up glass case containing their prepared food: Danishes with pimento cheese, plantain snack cakes, West Indian-inspired beef patties, and pastries stuffed with collards and a jammy egg. Like the hot dishes made to order—such as their turkey hoagie, served on a roll made with benne seeds from East Africa—a repository of memory is built into each ingredient, each dish existing as a kind of subversive narrative about African American culture. On Fridays, for example, they feature fish hoagies stuffed with fried whiting, dill pickles, and Havarti—a riff on the sandwiches long served at Black Muslim takeout restaurants. “We’re not profitable at this point,” says Omar, “and yet we are still able to morally deliver on promises that we made to ourselves.”

Omar identifies first and foremost as an artist, though he’s worked in some of New York and Philly’s premiere restaurants, among them A Voce and Fork. Prior to the opening of Honeysuckle Provisions, he ran a lauded New York-based pop-up series, also under the name Honeysuckle and billed as “a narrative of Black existence,” which led, in 2021, to an invitation for a nearly month-long residence at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Dan Barber’s temple of farm-to-table dining in Tarrytown, New York. While initially motivated to make that kind of conceptual supper club experience into a brick-and-mortar, he began conceiving of Honeysuckle Provisions, as it exists today, when a grocery store in his mother’s predominantly Black Philadelphia neighborhood closed.

“It’s important to have real relationships with the people that supply us with food. It’s not just food—it’s a transfer of energy. The transfer of something special, that holds sanctity.”

In addition to its cooked food and a robust catering operation, the restaurant sells dry goods and produce—to be grabbed on the go or subscribed to via their Black Farmer Box, a weekly CSA-style medley from various producers, among them Smith Poultry, Farmer Jawn, KJ Organics, farms at the intersections of 61st and Osage Streets and 8th and Poplar Streets that have no names, and the couple’s own plot, which shares space with Plowshare Farms and Sankofa Community Farm.

“I always love spending more time with the farmers,” says Omar, whose days are generally spent running around to his various producers, bringing back goods to be transformed through baking, sous-vide-ing, salt-curing. “Sometimes I get caught up going to pick up stuff. The last time we were at Sankofa, we dropped off catering and ended up planting garlic with them for two and a half hours.” He laughs, though he wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s important to have real relationships with the people that supply us with food. It’s not just food—it’s a transfer of energy. The transfer of something special, that holds sanctity.”

For Cybille and Omar, Honeysuckle Provisions is the first chapter in what they envision as a larger energy transfer plan. Under the umbrella of Honeysuckle Projects, they’ve been working on securing funding for another, larger space that will operate as a fast casual restaurant, a fixed-menu supper club, an art gallery, and a community center. “We’re looking to expand our wings throughout the city and find ways to engage with other neighborhoods through pop-ups, dinners, activations,” says Cybille, adding that, down the line, she could envision Honeysuckle spreading beyond Philly.

“Many other cities face the same plight,” she says. “We’re finding ways to show up in those neighborhoods, to be a safe space for people to explore and dive into their Blackness. Provisions is the leadoff in a really cool Black relay.”

Muhammad Abdul-Hadi, founder of Down North Pizza, with Jamar Johnson, the restaurant’s sous chef.

Down North Pizza

Jamar Johnson, the sous chef at Down North Pizza, is reflecting on everything he’s been involved with, in and out of the Strawberry Mansion pizza shop. Johnson has worked at Down North for the past three years, prepping the dough, executing all the back-of-house knifework, squeezing lemons for fresh lemonade, and meeting vegetable and spice purveyors in the mornings—one of the last tasks of a graveyard shift that typically starts at 11 p.m. and ends when the rest of the world is still waking up.

“Everything we do is day-of. We don’t keep anything in here over 12 hours,” explains Johnson, who is 41. That means making up to seven sauces per week from scratch, including Down North’s “Norf” sauce, their base tomato sauce, along with the Zen-like process of converting 50 pound bags of flour into dough for 80 pizzas. “The dough is my favorite,” he says. “It’s relaxing, not something you can rush.” It’s a two hour ordeal—with each dough proofed twice in the 10-inch-square, Detroit-style pans the pies are also baked in—but outside of Down North Pizza’s walls, he’s known for more than his skillful kneading. Twice a week, Johnson participates in regular sessions at Philadelphia’s Juvenile Justice Services Center, a city-run youth detention center, and occasionally goes on the road to educate youth, using his own experiences to lead by example.

“When you work in an environment where everyone has similar experiences, you don’t have to live in the shadows.”

Down North’s gooey square pies put a Philly spin on Detroit-style pizza.

“Down North is a lifestyle!” he says, “At the end of the day, I’m part of the mission. I’m not working a job. I’m investing in myself.”

Down North Pizza is indeed a mission. Opened in 2021 by founder and owner Muhammad Abdul-Hadi, all its employees are formerly incarcerated individuals, and even the bones of the building the pizza shop is housed in were built by people who had served time in prisons. Abdul-Hadi, who is 38, has long seen the value of this community, as well as the challenges they face, dating back to when he was solely in real estate development and worked alongside a number of recovered addicts and formerly incarcerated people. “There’s a lot of nuances they have to deal with in returning to society,” he explains, from finding housing to lawyers.

Abdul-Hadi, who also owns Down North Pizza’s building, helps provide both, renting out the modest, individual apartments above the shop to his staff. “When you work in an environment where everyone has similar experiences,” he says, “you don’t have to live in the shadows.”

Where Johnson’s workday starts at night, Abdul-Hadi, who was born and raised in West Philadelphia, begins his in the early morning, with an oat milk cappuccino at his desk in his office above the pizza shop. “I stay on top of the dough,” he notes, laughing. Abdul-Hadi juggles the backend operations of Down North Pizza with a host of other related projects, all tied to the Down North Foundation, his 501c3 non-profit. Where Down North Pizza focuses on creating opportunities and preventing recidivism for the formerly incarcerated, who are typically hired via word of mouth, the Foundation widens his aim to serve more communities in Philadelphia. Past initiatives have ranged from offering free post-secondary education in tech fields to youth outreach to addressing food inequities through community gardening. Abdul-Hadi works with two social scientists on Growing Freedom Down North to create a new food system in Strawberry Mansion and making fresh food more available in a neighborhood that is considered an urban food apartheid.

“We want them to have the confidence—whether it’s in the culinary industry or another industry—and to just be that guiding light.”

The pizza shop, occupying a narrow storefront on Lehigh Avenue, is something of an anomaly in a swath of North Philly dominated by fast-food joints, a megachurch, and a nearby drive-through prayer tent. “It’s underserved, poverty-stricken,” says Abdul-Hadi of Strawberry Mansion, a neighborhood that is 90 percent African American. “People say it’s one of the worst neighborhoods. There’s a lot of violence. We want to be a beacon of light.”

As the lunchtime rush gets underway, customers start coming in, perching on bright red metal barstools and digging into signature pies like the Roc the Mic (four cheese plus pepperoni) and the Uptown Vibes (kale, mushrooms, red peppers, onions). One visitor muses that perhaps the Detroit-style pie—the thick and chewy crust, the lacey toasted cheese edges—resonates here in Philly because Detroit is philosophically similar, a working-class sister city.

“It’s Philly-style pizza!” Abdul-Hadi is quick to correct. “We got inspiration from Detroit-style,” he concedes, “but we played with the dough. It’s not as dense and it’s a lot more moist than Detroit-style pizza.” And Philly is an unmatched football town. “Football and pizza go hand in hand.”

As Down North Pizza continues to churn out pies, Abdul-Hadi has an eye on growth. His seven employees have been with him for years and he understands that to serve more formerly incarcerated individuals, he needs to expand. “The last time I hired,” he says, “was a year and a half ago.” Thinking of the future, Abdul-Hadi is looking beyond Philly, aiming to give other cities the inspiration to work, hire and help as he does. “We feel like we need to go into a lot of major cities and be that beacon for these individuals who are formerly incarcerated and give them the start that they need,” he says. “We want them to have the confidence—whether it’s in the culinary industry or another industry—and to just be that guiding light.”

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