What makes a family? For Barbara Collins and Lillian Rambus, the mother and daughter behind Simply Soulful, it’s their rock-solid, got-your-back attitude that centers closeness amongst both their biological and chosen kin.
Barbara and Lillian bring this familial energy to their Seattle soul food parlor. Currently tucked in a snug corner of Madison Valley, Simply Soulful opened its doors in 2014, after making a humble start as a farmers’ market pie stand. Barbara’s specialty was sweet potato pie, which enticed marketgoers from Seattle to Tacoma. Barbara had perfected the recipe while caring for her elderly mother, Elizabeth, who was born and raised in Clay County, Mississippi.
“Every night I had the opportunity, I would make the sweet potato filling,” she tells me. “I’d bring it to her and ask: ‘Does it taste right? Does it need anything else?’ And she’d tell me what it needed without even asking what I had put in it.”
Grandma’s sweet potato pies were simple, with only six ingredients to the filling. And as the pie stand grew in popularity, Barbara and Lillian warmed to the idea of a permanent café.
“We wanted something that was small, where people could eat good food,” Barbara says. The family found a small unit on E Madison Street, rigging the space with just a five-burner stove, a regular household fridge and freezer, and a deep pot turkey fryer. Despite the austerity of these appliances, Barbara, Lillian, and their small team have been churning out generous portions of delicious fry, stews, and sides for the last seven years.
Sometime soon, likely by the end of this summer, the Simply Soulful family will move to a new location in the Central District, at the Jackson Apartments’ retail pavilion on 23rd and Jackson. The new place is larger, more central, and permitted to serve alcohol, and it reflects renewed Black ownership in an area severely impacted by gentrification.
As Barbara and Lillian recount their story to me safely over Zoom, Barbara’s level-headed energy feels like a ballast, dependable and grounded. Her gravelly voice resonates through our digital connection. She doesn’t get much free time from Simply Soulful, she reflects, but she doesn’t mind. “I get two days off. On my days off. I actually don’t do very much. I’m 72 years old. I enjoy my rest.” Other days, Barbara is steadfast behind the café counter, stirring beans or serving grits. “Wednesdays are my day alone at the restaurant. Even though it’s a lot of work, I spend a lot of time at the restaurant. I’m comfortable there, you know?”
Like Barbara, Lillian carries herself with an anchored assurance, although her open laugh and adventurous spirit also shine through. In her free time, Lillian travels, exploring regional cuisines and cultures. “My favorite place that I’ve been is Cuba,” Lillian lists. “But I also loved Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil. And Bahia—that’s where all the Black people are. I just came back from Florida. I visited Vegas recently. And San Antonio. You’d love San Antonio,” she tells me, after learning that I was born in Texas but had never been to most of its major cities.
In the beginning, Simply Soulful served but a few soups and salads, along with its beloved pies. Lillian encouraged her mother to expand the menu over time. Lillian’s own spiced chicken rub turned into “Chicken Dinner” at Simply Soulful, which was the first addition to the small menu. “Little by little, our menu grew,” Barbara narrates through her video screen. Behind her, morning light peeks through the uncovered windows of her living room. “I would always say, ‘I don’t think we can do that up in this little place.’ But Lillian would respond, ‘Yes, we can do it!’ And then I’d say, ‘Ok, we can try.’”
“That is how we started with the soul food part, the chicken and greens,” Barbara continues. “We were already doing the biscuits. And then we added the black-eyed peas and ended up with the oxtails.” Even with its modest variety, Simply Soulful keeps simplicity at its core. “We cook with as little salt as possible, we don’t use a lot of stuff. When you eat our food you eat the food, and not the spices,” Barbara concludes.
As Barbara, Lillian, and I chat, my mind drifts to when Alex Dorros, of Siembra (another family-forward operation) and I convened over containers of oxtail, rice, and black-eyed peas from Simply Soulful. The thick tailbones, mantled in tender meat and delicate fat, were perfect for uninhibited chomping. It made me smile. Grease oozed off the bones onto the bed of white rice below, hugging each grain with a deep, brothy flavor. Hymns could be sung about the black-eyed peas, each one cooked soft but not smashed. I wanted more of those creamy legumes, but between Alex and my two bottomless bellies, the peas were soon more memory than meal.
But it’s not just Barbara and Lillian who do all the cooking. Their family helps; there’s also a team of three who know the recipes as closely as the back of their hands. The dynamic of their kitchen, Barbara says, “We try to make people feel like they are family. We try to make sure they feel appreciated, if they need any help we’ll step in and help them. For us, it’s more family-oriented than business.” All in all, she adds, “It’s such a small space, so we have to all be in there like we’re family.”
At their new and bigger location at 23rd and Jackson, Barbara and Lillian intend to keep the grounded vibes going, never straying far from their humble roots: a small soul food cafe, a pie stand, and a recipe from Clay County, Mississippi. “We hear a lot ‘I feel like I’m at grandma’s house!’” Barbara tells me. “A lot of the young people call me ‘momma’ and that’s fine with me and I try to be a mentor to them too. You never know what a person’s day is like. I try to make sure they feel like they’re just part of the family.”
She cherishes the community around Simply Soulful. “You can’t be phony with people. We try to be truthful about how we feel and show appreciation. Try to make everybody feel like they’re at home.”
Lillian and Barbara share the vision for their upcoming place. Although sad to be leaving their first café behind, the pair are ready for a change, and looking forward to new beginnings. “The design of our restaurant is so that there could be lots of art on the walls,” Lillian describes. “And we want it to feature BIPOC artists. It’ll change up, like an art exhibition.” She keeps on. “And the interior will be contemporary southern. Woods, farmhouse. We’re going to get reclaimed furniture, have it represent Seattle and the Central District. There’s going to be jazz on the patio. We’ll keep it with a Southern feel.”
“But we haven’t figured everything out!” Barbara adjoins. “My thing is I am just gonna be so happy to have a commercial kitchen. I cannot wait to have an air conditioner. Just being a part of the Central District. It’s gonna be a lot of fun. We’re excited about it. The overall thing of being part of the community.”
For both Lillian and Barbara, Simply Soulful has been one of the most challenging—and rewarding—experiences. The work has put their savvy, resilience, and teamwork to the test. “You use what you got to get what you want,” Barbara reflects. “It’s been a struggle, but it’s something we enjoy. We enjoy feeding people, we enjoy cooking. We have a lot of fun doing what we do.”