When Washingtonians, even those who have lived in the White House, think of sweet potato pie, Henry’s Soul Cafe emerges as the best place to get it in the metropolitan area and Jermaine Smith, the president and CEO, and his family are working to keep it that way.
Jermaine’s father, Henry Smith, opened up a convenience store and restaurant at 1704 U Street NW in February 1968, where he sold goods and merchandise but also cooked hamburgers, hot dogs and sub sandwiches also.
In 1970, Henry Smith added employees that included his sister, Jean Quick, to the business and they collectively decided to add soul food items such as fried chicken, sides and the family’s version of sweet potato pie.
Jermaine said the sweet potato pie soon became popular.
“My father told me people really liked the sweet potato pie and started coming into our restaurant for it,” Smith said.
The business eventually became Henry’s Soul Cafe, abandoned selling non-food items and focusing on soul food, Jermaine said. Presently, Henry’s has become a well-known eatery with its original location on U Street and another in Oxon Hill, Md.
Customers can order soul food fare but the sweet potato pie remains its most popular dish. Jermaine said Henry’s sells 100,000 sweet potato pies a year, with one-fifth of those sales taking place during the Thanksgiving season.
Jermaine notes Henry’s customer base consists of everyday people to District mayors and U.S. presidents. Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have had the sweet potato pie, Jermaine said.
“As a matter of fact, President Obama orders two pies from us a month,” he said proudly.
When asked why the sweet potato pie popularity endures, he smiles and says, “it’s an old family recipe.”
In Jermaine’s view, family has become the key to Henry’s success. Henry Smith died on Oct. 10, 2014 and left the business to his family.
Jermaine’s sister, Henrietta Smith Davis, runs U Street location and he supervises the enterprise with her, his mother, Eleanor Smith, and business partner Bernard Brooks.
Jermaine, a 1991 graduate of H.D. Woodson Senior High School and a 1999 alumnus of Howard University, said he worked alongside his father almost daily while growing up.
“I put some blood, sweat and tears at the U Street location, but I learned a lot from my father,” he said. “The food is the draw but it is how you treat people when they come into your business. Many of our customers have been with us a very long time and we appreciate them for that.”
Clifton Thompson has come to the U Street location for several years and plans to continue to patronize Henry’s.
“The food is great and the service is great,” Thompson said. “My mother has been coming here for years and loves it. She is now up in age and can’t come out like she used to so I buy the food for her. As a native of South Carolina, she loves chitterlings but likes the sweet potato pie, too.”
When it comes to the future of Henry’s, Jermaine said his children will go into the business and even speculates that his grandchildren will also run it, too.
On the business side, Smith’s plans don’t include another venue.
“We don’t need another brick-and-mortar location,” Smith said. “We are looking to get our sweet potato pies into local grocery stores such as Safeway and retailers like Walmart and Target. Plus, we want to expand our catering businesses that is doing quite well.”