Alcenia's: How hope and love kept one Memphis restaurant open during a year of COVID-19

Jennifer Chandler
Memphis Commercial Appeal

It may seem like an odd thing for a small restaurant owner to say, but B.J. Chester-Tamayo said despite all the trials and hardships, COVID-19 has been a blessing to her Memphis soul food restaurant, Alcenia’s.

“The outpouring of love and support is the only reason we are still here,” said Chester-Tamayo as she recounted story after story of customers’ small acts of kindness.

One customer paid $100 for a slice of pie. Customers from across the country have ordered preserves and baked goods to be shipped to their home. Many have shared social media posts of dishes cooked from Alcenia’s two cookbooks. 

Anyone who knows Chester-Tamayo would not be surprised by her sense of optimism, finding the good in every bad situation. 

How she started her restaurant is a story of both tragedy and hope.

BJ Chester-Tamayo, owner of Alcenia's, a soul-food restaurant in downtown Memphis on Friday, March 5, 2021.

In 1997, Chester-Tamayo opened her now famous soul food restaurant a little more than a year after her only child, Will Adler (GoGo) Tamayo III, was killed in a motorcycle accident. “The only way I was going to survive was to change my life completely,” she said. From the tragedy grew a dining establishment filled with happiness and good food.

She has taken every low point and turned it into an opportunity. A pandemic has been no exception.

A year of highs and lows

In March 2020 Chester-Tamayo, like so many others, had to reinvent how she ran her restaurant.   

Her dining room that used to be standing room only for Saturday brunch now sits empty. Due to the risks associated with COVID-19, Chester-Tamayo made the decision to keep her dining room closed and only offer takeout.

Much of her business is now done online, with items being shipped across the country. “About 90% of my customers were from out of town,” she said, adding she can’t wait until people can travel again.

John Matthews, who runs Hidden Memphis Tours, said Alcenia's is a favorite of his customers. "When people say they want to experience soul food, I take them to Alcenia's," he said. "The food is fantastic, and then there's B.J. You feel like you are in her home, not at a restaurant." 

He is eager to be able to take tourists there again for what he is often told is "the highlight of the day."

These days, Chester-Tamayo's income is 75% to 80% less than what it was a year ago. It will probably be late spring or early summer before she opens her dining room again. 

The eternal optimist who thanks God in almost every sentence, Chester-Tamayo is determined to make it.

In April Chester-Tamayo launched an online store. “I have always wanted to be in manufacturing,” she said, explaining she initially launched Alcenia’s as a preserves and dessert shop. Items like her buttermilk pie and bread pudding are now shipped nationwide; you can also get her pecan pie and sweet potato pie delivered to your front door. The shop also includes handmade preserves like apple butter, pickle tomato preserves and "Cha-cha" (her version of chow chow).

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BJ Chester-Tamayo, owner of Alcenia's, a soul food restaurant prepares fried tilapia  in downtown Memphis on Friday, March 5, 2021.

In June, she cooked her mother’s buttermilk pie on national TV with Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager via Zoom on NBC's "Today with Hoda & Jenna." Later that month, she was featured on "CBS Sunday Morning."

Persistence got her a spot on "Today." "Jenna interviewed me for my very first cookbook," Chester-Tamayo said, adding she had been emailing Hager and Kotb asking for their help to share the news of her recently launched online store.

In 2020, Chester-Tamayo also launched an online weekly cooking show “Alcenia’s Family Cooking with Southern Girl.” You can see her cooking with people all around the world from the comforts of their kitchen. Chester-Tamayo is not bashful about sharing her thoughts, memories of her childhood, her opinions (she has plenty of) and sometimes just pure and raw emotions. 

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When COVID-19 hit, Chester-Tamayo reached out to her customers and asked for help. “I was honest and said, 'I can’t survive without you.'

“People have been so supportive — every shade, color and nationality,” she said wiping a tear from her eye.

Restaurant — and building — owner

2020 also made a 23-year-old dream a reality.

On Dec. 2, Chester-Tamayo purchased the building at 317 N. Main St. that houses her restaurant, along with a retail space for one other business.

The purchase was made possible thanks to community grants from organizations such as the Memphis Medical District Collaborative, Downtown Memphis Commission and Epicenter. Chester-Tamayo is now one of just a handful of Black women owning Downtown Memphis commercial buildings.

“These people made it possible because those people believed in me,” she said.

Alcenia's is known for its fried chicken and soul food dishes.

Furthering her dream, overdue repairs and a remodel of the building are slated to start in March.

Chester-Tamayo is full of hope and determination that her restaurant will survive and that one day she will have customers in her dining room again.

“Alcenia’s is not a restaurant, it is a mission,” she said. “There is not another place in the world like it. This little girl from the 'Sip' [she was born in Meridian, Mississippi] has a place that brings people of all nationalities together."

Joseph Kyles has been a regular customer of Alcenia's since it opened, and still stops in regularly to pick up takeout. "The love that she shows when you walk into her establishment is amazing," he said. "Everyone, not just people she knows, gets a hug."

As Chester-Tamayo says: "You may walk in a stranger, but you leave as part of Alcenia's family. The most important ingredient in the 'roux' that makes this restaurant is love.”

Jennifer Chandler is the Food & Dining reporter at The Commercial Appeal. She can be reached at jennifer.chandler@commercialappeal.com and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @cookwjennifer.