Power Moves: Alabama chef Erica Barrett takes Southern culinary world by storm

Power Moves: Alabama chef Erica Barrett takes Southern culinary world by storm
Chef Erica Barrett is bringing Southern Culture to the masses with her restaurants and lifestyle brand. (Nik Layman / Alabama NewsCenter)

Growing up, Erica Barrett always had a passion for cooking and trying new recipes from various cookbooks and Southern Living magazines. But it wasn’t until she won Food Network’s “Shine at Dinnertime” contest that she began to turn her passion for food into a career.

In 2011, she started her breakfast lifestyle brand, Southern Culture Artisan Foods (SOCU), to create compelling, modern, ready-to-cook options for breakfast. Since then, she has earned a degree in culinary entrepreneurship from the International Culinary Center of New York and has appeared on popular shows like “Shark Tank” and “The Profit.” Though she has received attention from her television appearances, Barrett attributes her success to being uniquely herself and listening to her gut feelings.

“My first step was to see what would make me the happiest, and that’s why I chose to be a chef and entrepreneur … If you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life,” Barrett said.

Though it may not feel like work for Barrett, she is busier than ever. Her restaurant SOCU Southern Kitchen and Oyster Bar in Mobile remains a go-to spot for comfort food and seafood specialties. Barrett is expanding her SOCU brand by opening restaurants in Atlanta and Birmingham. Her passion for cooking, along with her passion for Southern culture, is what drove her to start her brand and to expand in Alabama.

“I want to create concepts that speak to multiple generations of young people, older people, people of any age, really. I want to create nostalgic brands that people can relate to and enjoy. The end goal is to make SOCU a household name known around the country,” Barrett said. “Southern Culture, it is exactly what the name says it is. We celebrate all things in the South … (it) is the richest culinary area.”

Like many restaurateurs, Barrett has shown great resiliency and perseverance during the pandemic. Though many small businesses struggle, Barrett saw the pandemic as an opportunity to showcase her business in a different way.

“I told myself, if I can survive this storm, I can truly survive anything. I learned how to take advantage of this unprecedented time to grow and start other businesses. … I learned how to make a profit, how to keep my restaurant open with bare bones by keeping my doors open, paying my staff and feeding people good food. You don’t have to be excessive to make good money,” Barrett said.

Looking toward the future, Barrett sees great potential in the culinary community for people who are like her, from all walks of life. Along with running her own business, she knows the value of mentoring and helping others thrive in a typically competitive field.

“The biggest thing is exposing other cultures to entrepreneurs. Whether it’s another woman or minority. You can only do what you’re exposed to. It is also exposing others so they can thrive in this industry. Meeting new people, telling them my story and, if they allow me to, helping them any way that I can,” Barrett said.

When it comes to opportunities and growth within the culinary ecosystem, Barrett thinks the greatest way for the industry to be successful is for chefs and restaurateurs to “support each other” and “figure out how to help each other grow.” She recognizes that, despite her success and her delicious food, she can still learn and grow from other professionals in the industry.

Though the culinary field is competitive, Barrett hopes that, by supporting fellow chefs and business owners, she can create ways for others to follow their dreams, as she has followed hers. For those who see the culinary world as daunting, Barrett says the only things you need are faith in yourself and a willingness to learn.

“It doesn’t matter how unique or different (your food) is, if you believe in yourself, you can do it,” Barrett said. “You have to hone your skills, read books, watch YouTube videos, find influencers in our niche that inspire you. You truly have to be a sponge. You must absorb as much as possible. One day you look up from all of the steps of faith you took and will be exactly where you want to be.”

Power Moves, an ongoing series by Alabama NewsCenter, celebrates the contributions of multicultural leaders in Alabama.

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