Photograph by Drew Podo
Quiet moments are rare at Busy Bee Cafe. Six days a week, patrons cram into the dining room and the line snakes out into the parking lot. It’s a stopover for almost every visiting politician and celebrity, and the list of famous diners include Martin Luther King Jr., OutKast, and President Obama. Customers flock to the Vine City restaurant for Southern classics like ham hocks, candied yams, and oxtail, but the most ordered dish is always the fried chicken.
Busy Bee may boast the city’s best fried chicken, but it wasn’t always their top seller. When owner Tracy Gates first started working at the restaurant in 1987, the menu was dominated by ham hocks and chitlins. The restaurant, opened in 1947 by Lucy Jackson, had once been a bastion of fresh, Southern food, but its reputation was slowly fading. Jackson sold the restaurant to two Auburn Avenue businessmen in the late 70s, but they had trouble keeping the restaurant staffed. “My father bought it in 1981, and he wanted to bring it back to the way it was when Ms. Lucy was here,” says Gates. But despite taking steps in the right direction, the quality of the cooking didn’t match Jackson’s until Gates took over the operation. “The first thing I did was research the history and the owner, to understand her passion and methodology,” she says. “I took it product by product, learning the science behind everything. How the weather affects it, what you had to do to get it to this standard. I more or less became a scientist.”
Gates also decided to reinvent Busy Bee’s fried chicken, basing her new recipe off of her grandmother’s. “I wanted to sell the fried chicken that my grandmother cooked,” Gates says. “She brined it on Saturday nights and would cook it in a cast iron skillet on Sundays when we got out of church.” She spent three years finding the right brine, seasoning blend, and frying technique before it was finally perfected. “I’ve seen people call their moms and wives, they call their grandmas to say it was almost as good as theirs,” Gates says. “It brings back memories for people.”
Even though Gates claims that the biggest draw of the restaurant is the food, she thinks that it has remained popular because of its importance to the neighborhood. The restaurant has long served as a local meeting spot, and it has a rich history. “We’re the only business in this area that was started in segregation that still exists,” she says. “It’s a part of history that still exists.”