Conversations: Donetta Bethune, Brenda’s BBQ

A true testament to Jereline Bethune, the woman who started it in 1942, Brenda’s BBQ is still standing and reaching new heights thanks to Jereline’s granddaughter, Donetta Bethune.

Bethune is managing the 80-year-old family business, ensuring it keeps serving its legendary ‘cue while keeping her grandmother’s legacy alive. She shared why the eatery is such a staple in the community, what has contributed to its decades of success, how she got involved and her secret to withstanding challenges. 

What’s the backstory of Brenda’s BBQ?

Brenda’s BBQ was started by my grandmother in 1942. It was called the Siesta Nightclub when it first opened, but my grandmother had a different and closed down the nightclub to continue the restaurant. My grandmother’s need to succeed contributed to her success. She was the type of woman who never took no for an answer.

When you think of a Black person owning a business at that time, it was almost impossible, so when you think of a Black woman, you can imagine the challenges that she faced when trying to open a business. She overcame everything that was thrown at her.

What got you interested in entering and continuing the family business?

I have worked with the restaurant since I was 14 years old, but I have been actively involved for 15 years. My grandmother always told me that she saw something in me, and she kept me in the kitchen all the time. She continually told me that it was my God-given gift to be a cook.

But, it just wasn’t my dream. When my uncle passed away, the day-to-day tasks were too much for my dad to handle on his own at his age. I felt an obligation and a sense of responsibility to help him with the business to make sure it lived on. Over time, it became my passion, so I realized that my dad and grandmother were on to something, and they could see something in me that I couldn’t. I realized that this actually is my calling. 

What’s the No. 1 challenge Brenda’s BBQ faced last year, and how did you and your team overcome it?

The number one challenge that we faced last year and that we are still facing this year is the rising cost of food. We want to make sure that everyone is satisfied with what they have, and we want to make sure that they get what they pay for. But, we also want to make sure that we are not giving too much and getting into a position where we are losing money. We did what most restaurants hate to do—raised the prices. And of course, we’ve said a lot of prayers, and have a lot of faith and a lot of hope that we can overcome this as we have overcome so many obstacles that have come our way.

What is the most popular order?

The rib plate with baked beans and potato salad. However, I would be remiss to not mention a pig ear sandwich all the way. These two dishes really run neck and neck. It just depends on the day.

How was Brenda’s BBQ involved in the Civil Rights Movement and what does that mean to the business?

When African-Americans were first given the right to vote, they had to pass a literacy test in order to exercise that right. My grandmother sat in what we affectionately know as “the garden” (it was once grass but now it is concrete surrounded by a privacy fence) at night, and they would hold private meetings to tutor people to help them develop the skills they needed to pass the literacy test and gain the right to vote.

At the restaurant, there is a big photo of my grandmother in the front row of the Selma to Montgomery march. We have served everybody from Rosa Parks to Dr. King, and my grandmother met and had conversations with them. When you walk into “the garden” today, you’re reminded of the hearts and minds before you that contributed to the betterment of our culture and just people in general.

What’s the secret to keeping Brenda’s open and successful all these years?

 The drive that my grandmother instilled in us. We have a strong backbone. We have the mindset that we don’t let anything stop us, and I think the number one secret to our success is our barbeque sauce. Anyone can throw a rib on the grill, but the sauce is what makes us and sets us apart.

What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received?

Always treat every customer the same. Always treat the customers with respect, and let them know that you appreciate them.

What is your No. 1 piece of business advice for someone just starting out?

Make sure you have capital. Don’t just go into the business and think that you’re going to open the doors and make a million dollars. That will never happen. A lot of time, especially in the food service business, it takes at least five years before you see a profit.

Personal Matters:

If your life had a theme song, what would it be?

 “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor. This is a hard business, and sometimes it’s hard to keep going. You have to pour everything you have into it. It’s 24/7. 

What would you be doing if you were not running Brenda’s?

Hands down, I would absolutely be a nurse. I had gotten accepted into nursing school and was ready to go before my uncle passed away. My dad needed me, and I put that on the back burner. But I was recently reminded that you can do more than one thing, and that is okay. I am currently in nursing school, working full-time as a tech at the hospital and full-time at the BBQ pit. 

What’s your motto?

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” – Philippians 4:13

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