Wendy Puckett, a veteran Minneapolis cook and caterer, is resilient.
She survived being shot with a pellet gun last fall, which put her in the hospital and temporarily forced the closing of her popular Wendy’s House of Soul restaurant.
Then, the coronavirus outbreak came along, disrupting business again. Last month, the restaurant lost its lease on W. Broadway, prompting a move and a reopening a mile away.
“I’m praying this will [turn out] a good year,” Puckett said. “We plan. We work hard. I live one day at a time.”
Puckett has chosen to deal with adversity with an offensive led by love for her neighbors — and good food.
Puckett, 49, works with her sister, Heather Warfield, 47, who serves as chief financial officer for the business. They and some of their 15 employees worked tirelessly for two weeks to clean, install equipment, paint and otherwise prep the new location.
It has ample seating room for post-pandemic days and additional food-preparation space to cover a catering business that has surged to almost two-thirds of revenue in a down year.
A steady stream of customers poured into the new location at 1825 Glenwood Av. over a lunch hour last week. Most asked for takeout orders but a few stayed
“This could be a $1 million business within two years,” Warfield said. “We are at less than 50% capacity. And we are going to [build the business] and do it right.’’
Her sister is back in playing shape, recovering physically from the shooting last November. She had just closed up the shop around 8 p.m. when four young men in a car with a pellet gun swung by and paused. One fired a BB that went up her nose. Puckett collapsed into her van, stunned.
Surgery was required to remove the pellet that had lodged near her eye. It took weeks to recover from the physical and psychological trauma.
“It still gives me the weekie-geekies,” Puckett quipped. “It was traumatic. I tasted my own blood.”
Two adults and two youths were arrested by police in February, on suspicion of shooting Puckett and being involved in other shootings on the North Side, Northeast and Brooklyn Center. They were released on bail and are awaiting trial, as the pandemic slowed prosecutions in Hennepin County District Court.
Without Puckett, Wendy’s House of Soul closed for a couple of weeks. It was saved by $5,000 in community donations and a chef from the Minneapolis Women’s Club and others who donated their time.
“The response was overwhelming,” Puckett recalled. “I met people who helped me who I did not know. Many put a prayer in the air for me. It was unbelievable.”
Just as business was getting back to normal, the pandemic hit. It has caused dozens of Twin Cities restaurants to close. Many others are scraping by with takeout, patio service and limited indoor seating.
At Wendy’s House of Soul, Puckett created a soul food menu that features standards like burgers, wings and waffles. She developed something special, a “soul roll” that places dinner or sandwich ingredients inside an eggroll wrap, which is then deep fried.
Her original idea was that her kids would eat more vegetables if they were stuffed inside the rolls.
Now, the restaurant offers more than a dozen varieties, with fillings as simple as mac and cheese and as fanciful as the “Soulfood Sunday” stuffed with turkey, yams and greens.
A number of outfits have increased business to help Wendy’s House of Soul, from Xcel Energy to the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center, Minneapolis Park & Recreation and the Prior Lake Chamber of Commerce.
“We missed Prior Lake Days this summer due to COVID,” Warfield said. “But we’re still members in good standing of the Prior Lake Chamber of Commerce. And we’ve made good contacts.”
After being forced to make the most recent move, Puckett, Warfield and team spent a couple weeks cleaning, painting, installing equipment to create a colorful, bright bistro.
It’s a significant upgrade and vote of confidence for upticking Glenwood Avenue. As they have settled in, they have also been on a media blitz, attracting local food journalists to test their expanded menu.
A minority-owned business in a low-income neighborhood with little capital, the sisters bet again on their community. They are trying to raise $20,000 on GoFundMe to cover the transition-related costs.
And because meat and vegetable prices have been driven higher by the pandemic, they have also raised prices 10 to 15%.
Customers have not seemed to mind. The first couple of weeks in the new location have been the best of the year, the sisters said.
“We’ve seen the goodness of people,” Warfield said. “These people have helped pull us together.”