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Minnie Bell’s New Soul Food Restaurant in the Fillmore Is a Homecoming

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A chef poses inside her restaurant in front of a photo mural that shows her great-aunt and grandmother.
Chef Fernay McPherson poses for a portrait near a mural of her great aunt Minnie and grandmother, Lillie Bell, at her restaurant Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement in the Fillmore neighborhood of San Francisco on April 16, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Chef Fernay McPherson has been serving her take on Southern comfort foods, like crispy rosemary fried chicken and apparently the Bay Area’s best mac and cheese, at her stall at The Public Market Food Hall in Emeryville since 2018. But she has long dreamed of running a restaurant in her hometown.

“My quest was to find a space in San Francisco and preferably in the Fillmore,” McPherson says.

She grew up in that neighborhood, once known as the “Harlem of the West,” which used to be full of Black-owned businesses. But urban renewal efforts from the 1950s through the 1970s forced tens of thousands of families to leave, and most businesses shut down.

WATCH KQED’s 1999 documentary on the history of Fillmore:

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A few have remained, and in recent years, a citywide effort — the Dream Keeper Initiative — is trying to revitalize the area and help bring back Black-owned businesses, like In The Black, a shared retail space.

The program helped make it possible for McPherson to realize her dream. On Friday, she’ll welcome the public to dine at Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement — a stand-alone brick-and-mortar version of the East Bay stall, featuring a similar menu.

“I want to be able to educate people who may not know what was here before,” says McPherson, wearing a blue-gray apron and a graphic T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of Whitney Houston, from inside the 40-seat establishment in the heart of the Fillmore District. “Share those stories that my dad, my aunt share with me about how rich this was and be able to represent the culture and look forward to seeing more of it.”

For her, food is personal, and the restaurant pays homage to her family history. One wall is decorated with a large mural of a photo of Fillmore Street in its heyday in the 1960s. Another wall has two large-scale photographs of her biggest inspirations — her grandma Lillie Bell and her great-aunt Minnie.

A fresh batch of fried chicken is pulled out of the deep fryer.
Pulling a fresh batch of rosemary fried chicken out of the fryer. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“I picked these photos because I wanted a photo of them in their youth, like my aunt has on her cap and gown. She was graduating high school. My grandmother was about 21 and it was a professional portrait,” she says. “I just think they look so beautiful, and when I look up at these pictures, it just gives me all the strength that I need to get through my day.”

McPherson talked more about how important the past has been toward shaping her present with KQED’s Adhiti Bandlamudi.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.


Adhiti Bandlamudi: Tell me more about your grandma and great aunt. How did their story manifest when it came to creating a menu and thinking about what experience you wanted to give at Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement?

Fernay McPherson: While I may add a little twist to it, everything that I cook is food that I grew up eating. Before my family left Texas in the 1960s, my grandma made the chicken and pound cake for their journey into San Francisco. So we have that pound cake that she made — but [with] the addition of the caramel. I make it the same way that she taught me to make it. It was one of the cakes that everyone in the family wanted for their birthday.

We have fried chicken, which is the highlight of what we do, [and] the addition of the rosemary, is very San Francisco with so many rosemary bushes here. So those two married together — the flavors that migrated during the Great Migration with the fried chicken and then the freshness of the rosemary in the city, where I was born and raised. It’s like a perfect blend of Chef Fernay.

It almost seems like your approach to soul food is tradition with a little twist.

Exactly! It’s tradition with a little twist. But the twists are not so much that it doesn’t display a homestyle comfort meal. That was so important for me, for people to eat the food and feel the comfort of home. In Emeryville, people would come and say, “Well, I’m from the South, so I’ll let you know how it tastes.” And I’m like, “Okay, that’s cool.” I know how it tastes [too], you know? But they would always come back and say, “That was so good, that really reminds me of home.” That is definitely the experience that I want people to get. Not too much of a twist, but the perfect twist.

A chef picks fresh rosemary leaves.
McPherson prepares rosemary alongside Mundo Pérez at her new Fillmore restaurant. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

You’ve been operating out of Emeryville since 2018, and now you’re getting ready to open up in San Francisco. You’ve wanted this for so long. What’s going through your mind right now?

It’s a surreal experience. [To] be in the Fillmore, the community where I was born and raised, but also in a neighborhood that was rich in African-American culture, ownership, businesses, jazz clubs, just means so much, because I want to be able to represent a bygone era.

I am third generation. My aunt and dad talk about the history of the neighborhood. Then, I have my own history. So it’s three layers to what that history used to be. And by the time I was a teenager and walking around these streets, it was minimal Black businesses; whereas now, it’s almost nonexistent. So being a part of that revitalization is important, so that we can learn about the culture and know what used to be here.

Are any of your relatives, like Aunt Minnie, coming to the restaurant’s grand opening?

We have a private grand opening party on Thursday, when my Aunt Minnie will see her face on this wall for the first time. My parents, they’re still in the neighborhood. My aunt lives with them, so they’ll all be here. My brothers will be here. My children will be here.

A paper-lined basket of fried chicken on a countertop.
McPherson’s famous rosemary fried chicken, ready to be eaten. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

What do you plan to serve to Aunt Minnie ?

For her, I will do candied yams, fried chicken, cornbread and greens.

How might she respond? Are you ready for her critique?

She critiques it all the time! She tells me all the time you’re getting better and better. She has the food often. So when she comes in, it won’t be anything new. It just has to be right. Because if it’s not, she will let me know. But when she tells me, “This was delicious,” that’s all the validation I need.


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Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement is located at 1375 Fillmore St. in San Francisco.

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