After years of seeing his sandwich board on the sidewalk across the street from Braddock Public Library, I finally ate at Aunt Cheryl’s coffee shop in late March, one of the first warm days of 2022. It was the height of the fish frying season in Lent. in Pittsburgh, and I felt disappointed; none of the cod or haddock crust I ate was as crunchy and hot as I wanted, so I decided to try the Braddock restaurant.
Fifteen bucks brought me a fish dinner, four large fresh fillets steamed and peeled under the cornmeal that crackled with each bite. The sides were rich and delicious, the greens stewed from the neck of the turkey and sprinkled with its flesh, and the red beans and rice neatly but not sparingly, broken into a styrofoam layout.
That sunny March afternoon in Braddock I was sick and desperate for coffee. While I waited for my fish to fry, Sheila Woolford, who was left alone behind the counter while cooking and caring for the scythe, phone, and sink at the same time, found time in her many tasks. General Hospital played on a flat screen TV to brew a fresh pan for free.
Here’s how Aunt Cheryl: service is slow but attentive, straightforward kindness and flexibility are expected from all sides. Some of the listed menu items are not always available until someone can get to the grocery store, or because the dish is so fresh that it is still being prepared. In any case, the result is to be expected.
During my last trip to the brightly lit basement cafe, I spent the 25 minutes it took Wolford to finish cooking a batch of red beans and rice (New Orleans-style, with sausage mugs garnished in a hot pan), cooking friends with locals, Brad came prepared for the expectation I had learned to expect.
As we talked, Wolford watched the sidewalk through the block glass windows, told how people approached, and shared what she knew about them. One chicly dressed elderly man chatted about the weather while we waited for our orders in the coffee shop’s leather chairs, sincerely inquiring about my day. After he left, Wolford turned and said, “He runs the funeral home. So you know all knows him. ”
It seems Wolford also knows everyone. She has been cooking for Cheryl since 2018, grew up on the streets and says the work came to her by accident. Before working for Cheryl, Wolford was looking after a corner bar on Braddock Avenue in Lucky Frank’s Irish pub (Frank’s only, for locals) when a stranger stopped her in search of something to eat. Woolford gave him a portion of what she had prepared for the staff – fried chicken with cabbage and rice – and, according to Woolford, a man who turned out to be “aunt” Cheryl Johnson’s partner, told her, “My woman should try this.”
At the time, Wolford hadn’t even heard of Aunt Cheryl’s coffee shop. “I ordered food from Swissvale,” says Wolford, “when it was just down the street!”
Wolford believes Johnson’s partner changed her life that day. “Miss Cheryl taught me so much,” she says. “In this work, I learned what freedom is.” She says working at the restaurant also taught her to serve, gave her the confidence to cook for 200 people at a time, allowed her to afford a new car when she crashed, and take a real vacation – to Las Vegas – for the first time in her life.
Four years after the start, Wolford now manages the restaurant’s day-to-day operations on his own, learning all of Johnson’s recipes. But when she was first asked to talk about the restaurant, she said, “You know I’m not Aunt Cheryl, right?”
While the restaurant’s doors are still adorned with a brilliant, richly colored portrait of “Aunt Cheryl” in a white chef and red robe, Johnson has since retired from everyday chores in a basement cafe at the Nyia Page Bi Community Center to focus on his catering. But Wolford seems to be running the case perfectly on his own, offering a lot of conversation.
While I’m eating my lunch, she asks if I’ve tried any of the desserts, then offers a slice of almond cake with white icing made by the woman she and Johnson go to church with. It’s light and sweet, perfect for a summer picnic, and I quickly finish off a thick slice.
“Can I try the famous sweet potato pie?” I ask. Unfortunately, it is so popular that it has already been sold out. “It’s better than my grandmother’s,” she says. “But I would never have told her.”