Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Honeysuckle Provisions feeds a West Philly neighborhood with food and Black culture

Chefs Omar Tate and Cybille St.Aude-Tate’s grocery store features takeout

Chefs Omar Tate and Cybille St.Aude-Tate have opened Honeysuckle Provisions.
Chefs Omar Tate and Cybille St.Aude-Tate have opened Honeysuckle Provisions.Read moreCourtesy of Honeysuckle Projects

After eight years of cooking in fine-dining restaurants, Philadelphia-raised poet, essayist, and historian Omar Tate set out to tell the story of Blackness in America.

His concept Honeysuckle, named after the bushes that grew wild outside his childhood home, was a series of pop-up dinners combining poetry, food, and music, held mainly in a Manhattan penthouse. His goal was to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant and cultural institution in Center City Philadelphia.

As 2020 rolled in, Tate was on his way with Honeysuckle to winning a chef-of-the-year nod from Esquire. Then two events changed his plans: He fell in love and the world was roiled by the pandemic, in quick succession. He moved back to Philadelphia, living for a while in a spare room in his mother’s house, running Honeysuckle as takeout from South Philly Barbacoa in the Italian Market.

Last week, Tate and his now-wife, chef Cybille St.Aude-Tate, opened Honeysuckle Provisions, a grocery store with takeout food, on 48th Street near Pine in West Philadelphia. And while Honeysuckle still focuses on the values of nourishment and reclamation of Black food traditions and cultural aesthetics, its mission has shifted literally closer to home.

The couple, who tend their own small farm in Montgomery County and work with other local Black farmers and producers, want to give their neighbors access to good food and fresh produce, helping to meet a challenge in areas that are food insecure.

Take the “dolla hoagie,” which Tate, now 35, ate as a cheap but filling meal from the corner stores when he was a boy. Honeysuckle’s $12 offering is not a spongy white roll enveloping a few slices of lunch meat and cheese. It’s made with house-smoked turkey or smoked turnips and built on a dense, flavor-packed roll baked in-house with benne seed — a crunchy, more oily sesame seed brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans.

» READ MORE: Honeysuckle's breakfast boxes

Honeysuckle also employs sustainable practices, for example, upcycling Cheddar to make Cheez-It-like crackers. The tiny storefront has a dairy case, freezer, and fridge, and the shelves are full of house-made condiments like chow chow and vinegars, as well as a modest assortment of ordinary pantry items like jars of peanut butter and boxes of cereal. Baskets of produce line the front window.

The menu reflects St.Aude-Tate’s Haitian roots and Tate’s ancestry in Charleston, S.C., by way of the Great Migration. The work of George Washington Carver comes through in the COWPEAcoffee, and the sweet potato-based BLACKenglish muffin’s name is based on James Baldwin’s essay “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?

Mornings start with made-to-order breakfasts, such as the BLACKenglish sandwich (fresh pork sausage or vegetarian BLACKEYEDPEAscrapple); a savory hot pocket-like pastry filled with scrambled eggs and coconut-stewed collard greens; sweet pastries; corn bread muffins; a grain bowl; and coconut yogurt parfait.

The lunch menu also includes a veggie or beef patty; a salad with greens, vegetables, ginger turmeric dressing, and benne seed crumble; a walking yam topped with molasses and spices; and the 1804 sandwich made with in-house Tasso ham, fried griyo (or griot), Brie, and pikliz on a house-based baguette (the proceeds of the $18.04 sandwich go to Haitian Bridge Alliance).

“If you go to Black neighborhoods on a Friday night out, it’s not going to look like Le Bec-Fin,” Tate said, evoking a now-closed fine-dining restaurant in Center City. “It’s going to be [dinner from] your favorite takeout restaurant, spending $20 on a food platter. To me, this store is the refined version of how people in our culture experience luxury, enjoying food. You come into a place, and there’s more of a practical approach to the experience. You’re buying things to take home and enjoy with your family.”

There also is a subscription plan for seasonal food boxes, resembling a CSA. During the pandemic, Tate pivoted his Honeysuckle dinners into takeout from South Philly Barbacoa’s kitchen. Then, the Tates began connecting with the public by producing breakfast box meal kits featuring some of the provisions that are now staples of the market.

The love part of the Honeysuckle story dates to March 2020. Tate was still in New York, doing his pop-ups.

The pair had known each other casually online. In the weeks leading up to the 2020 Charleston Wine + Food Festival, where both would be cooking at a dinner hosted by renowned Gullah chef BJ Dennis, people were telling St.Aude-Tate, “You have to meet Omar. You have to meet Omar.”

“We met at the bar for a drink and we just talked about literally everything — our families, the industry,” said St.Aude-Tate, 34, who grew up on Long Island. “What was really interesting was this common ground, this common understanding that there’s bigger things at play in the world. And how do we do our part, how do we make a name not only for ourselves but for the things that we’re doing and to make it sustainable. It wasn’t even like, ‘Let’s join forces to start an empire,’ but it was just a very transparent and vulnerable conversation about two chefs who were doing pop-ups and struggling to survive living in New York. We just took a very deep route with our conversation.”

The big test came next: working together. “I could see how this person is outside the kitchen — we all went to karaoke that night — but I also wanted to see how this person is at work. It was cool, something like I had never experienced. It was a full moon. That’s my explanation for it.”

The dinner was March 4, “and I think Cybille and I fell in love on March 4 and a half,” Tate said.

The world was shutting down. “They say that everything that happens in pandemic time is way more intense and way more advanced than regular time,” St.Aude-Tate said.

“I think that was probably to our advantage because you’re just communicating with this person consistently, every day, every minute of the day, because you have nothing else to do. And everyone’s just wondering what is happening, restaurants are shutting down, where are we going with our careers and our livelihoods. From that moment, we had this kind of shared pandemic experience where we were figuring it out together on our own terms.”

They were married four months later and welcomed a son, Jupiter, 16 months ago. Their second baby is due in mid-November. Tate’s son Bashir, 15, lives with his mother nearby.

The pandemic forced a rethinking. “We were both at this point where we were like, ‘Man, what’s about to happen with food? What’s about to happen to our loved ones in these communities, with food or with the lack of food?’ St.Aude-Tate said. That’s how the grocery and the provisioning aspect came about.

The couple would like to scale Honeysuckle into other neighborhoods, and in other permutations. Perhaps with a sit-down restaurant.

“It’s been a wild ride,” St.Aude-Tate said. “We have 2½ kids, this, and a lot of people are like, ‘Aren’t you guys tired? Isn’t it crazy?’ But it doesn’t feel like work at this point. It just feels like something that we’re supposed to do. You just roll with it, and you do it, and then it just becomes a part of you. We’re blessed and fortunate that we have all these opportunities and so many great people that support us. Not a lot of folks are privileged with that opportunity.”