Next chapter for Granny’s Kitchen

Granny’s Kitchen owner Hassie Russ and her husband, Charles

Granny’s Kitchen owner Hassie Russ and her husband, Charles, are retiring from their landmark restaurant business March 1. INDIAN RIVER MAGAZINE 2007 PHOTO

One of the joys of running a magazine company has been the opportunity to get to know many of the people we feature in our stories and to follow them throughout the years.

Such has been the case with Hassie Russ.

In our first issue 11 years ago of Indian River Magazine, our flagship publication, writer Bill Maxwell produced a story following the last days of author Zora Neale Hurston in Fort Pierce. Among other jobs, Hurston had worked as a substitute teacher at Lincoln Park Academy, and Maxwell interviewed several of her students, including Hassie. Hassie not only studied with Hurston but also lived next door to her and became friends with her, often bringing meals to Hurston as her health and financial fortunes continued to decline. It was in a small apartment that one image stands out to Hassie — that the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, later celebrated by Alice Walker as A Genius of the South — had been reduced to writing her prose on a makeshift desk consisting of a door and two tomato crates.

Hassie was spellbound by the author’s stories of Harlem and the turpentine country she wrote about. Of Hassie’s generosity bringing her meals, “She’d say, ‘Now I can’t pay you, but I know you’ll be blessed.’ And I was,’’ Hassie says.

Hassie and her husband, Charles, opened a grocery store — Russ’ Grocery No. 2 — at Ninth Street and Avenue D in 1965. Hassie kept the books, helped stock shelves and work the counter while also holding a full-time job waitressing at Indian Hills Country Club. But secretly, she harbored a dream of her own — opening her own restaurant in the space next to the grocery store.

At first Charles was hesitant, but later relented and in 1975 they opened Granny’s Kitchen, named after Hassie’s mother and inspired by many of her recipes from her days as a hotel cook in Brunswick, Ga. The restaurant became so successful that they eventually closed the grocery store. The restaurant became a sort of community center — a place where neighborhood kids would eat free all week if they made the honor roll or would work their first jobs.

After the Hurston story appeared in our inaugural issue, we did a feature story on Granny’s Kitchen, stressing its longevity on Avenue D and emphasizing its importance in the community. After that came a 2010 article in The New York Times, sharing Hassie’s relationship with Hurston and praising her for serving up “delicious soul food at her cozy restaurant.”

Hassie credited our earlier articles for leading The New York Times to her door. Over the years, we have kept in touch, sharing various developments — the restaurant’s expansion into a catering venue for private parties; her daughter and manager Angela’s move to Atlanta; Hassie’s battle with cancer and emerging free from the disease two years ago; and plans for her son, Greg, to take over the restaurant. Last year, she was one of our featured speakers at the annual Treasure Coast History Festival we produce in downtown Fort Pierce.

She returned to the history festival once again this year to meet the students from Indian River Charter High School who produced excerpts from a musical they performed at the festival that is based on recently discovered letters between Hurston and Vero Beach icon Waldo Sexton. It was our opportunity to give the students a real connection to history by letting them get to know someone who knew the author they were portraying.

Hassie said she was touched by the performance, which brought back many memories of the woman she knew as Mrs. Hurston.

Sadly, it was during our most recent reconnection that we learned that Hassie, 77, and Charles, 78, have sold their restaurant building, with a closing set for March 1. Their plans for their son to take over the restaurant were sidelined by his own health problems, and Hassie and Charles plan to retire March 1. They are in negotiations with several prospects to continue running the business and hope a deal can be worked out so that a restaurant continues at the site.

In the meantime, we hope you’ll stop by Granny’s Kitchen to meet our friend Hassie, learn about her hopes for Avenue D and Lincoln Park, hear a few stories about Hurston, sample some incredible down-home cooking like smothered steak, chitterlings or oxtail and just generally experience history in the making.

Gregory Enns Signature

Reach Publisher and Editor Gregory Enns at 772.940.9005 or contact here.