Turkey Leg Hut has become much more than the long lines that have come to define the restaurant. Its rapid success has also made it a lightning rod for racially tinged conflicts over gentrification.
The hut’s roots are in Houston’s Livestock Show and Rodeo, which attracts millions of guests each year and is home to some of the sweetest, greasiest deep-fried foods in the state. After seeing stands selling fried Oreos, funnel cakes, corn dogs, and yes, slow-smoked turkey legs, Nakia and Lynn Price decided to throw their hats in the ring in 2016 and started selling turkey legs outside the rodeo — a bold move considering some of the stands boasted decades of experience.
“We were cooking turkey legs on a pit,” said Nakia, 41. “The main goal at that point was to shuttle people in the rodeo. We had people who were coming to eat instead of going to the actual rodeo, and it just ballooned and took off.”
With a little help from social media, their turkey legs became a must-have for rodeo visitors. The couple decided to expand, eventually opening Turkey Leg Hut in Third Ward in 2017, and stuffing the legs with such dishes as Alfredo shrimp and crawfish macaroni and cheese. Soon, the hut was seeing daily lines and such celebrities as Flo Rida, Roland Martin, Dave Chappelle and Quavo.
“We put a lot of love into it,” said Lynn, 39. “We don’t cut any corners, and people appreciate that.”
The Prices have long been aware of the unparalleled energy in Third Ward, where Lynn was born and raised. Third Ward, one of the most culturally significant districts in the greater Houston area, has a population that in 2017 was 63 percent Black, down from 79 percent in 2000. Nakia hails from Chicago, came to the University of Houston on a basketball scholarship, and fell in love with Lynn and with Houston food and culture.
“The Third Ward area has been home for me,” said Nakia. “It’s a melting pot, and that’s one of the things that stood out that I absolutely loved about the city. The fact that there’s a lot of positivity going on and people doing great things here, those are really some of the main reasons I stayed here in the city.”
Their turkey legs are decadent, sure. Like other rodeo-adjacent foods, they’re large, indulgent and full of flavor. They, in essence, are Houston. The Prices have worked to keep what they see as the best and brightest of Houston’s flavors — Southern, Creole and Cajun — integrated in their menu. It’s paid off, as guests regularly post images on Instagram of turkey legs stuffed with dirty rice and glazed with Hennessy. The Prices, who have no formal culinary training, said that they simply know what good food is and try to showcase their knowledge in each order.
“We have a niche,” Nakia said. “We’ve taken something that you would only have during rodeo season or during fair season, and we’ve made it possible for people to get it every day.”
Their gumption has paid off. The restaurant serves upward of 25,000 customers per week, and the team has been expanding, with plans for more. The Prices recently opened Daiquiri Hut, tents where guests can drink daiquiris, smoke hookah and eat their turkey legs in a celebratory environment.
Turkey Leg Hut is integral to Houston dining, but word has spread beyond the city’s borders. A recent pop-up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area served more than 20,000 turkey legs in just two days to newcomers, some of whom waited for up to 12 hours.
“As long as you have good food, people will follow you,” Lynn said. “Look at Dallas. We took our brand down there, and it did what the restaurant did times 20.”
No one in the area garners lines like Turkey Leg Hut, whose success goes far beyond the meaty fare, visitors say: It’s their unapologetic Blackness.
“It’s a restaurant that’s pretty diverse, and you just know you’re going to be treated well,” said Black Girls Who Brunch founder Erika Harrison. “It’s a unique thing where you’re able to see the convergence of a lot of different cultures in Houston. You see some of the Creole aspects there and the Cajun food from Louisiana, and then the barbecue that takes me back to the rodeo.”
Harrison, like other customers, appreciates the convivial atmosphere, particularly for Black patrons.
“The owners are very hands on,” said customer Dejana Higgs, a consultant. “They greet you, and it’s the type of place where everybody knows your name. It’s super important to have that kind of environment, because it makes me feel like I’m a customer that’s appreciated.”
The coronavirus pandemic has yet to significantly slow the restaurant down. Although a new effort to place a Turkey Leg Hut location in Bush Intercontinental Airport stalled because of covid-19, the restaurant’s outdoor setup has come in handy for meeting social distancing requirements.
But amid the ongoing dialogue about racial justice in food, there’s been a mixed reaction to Turkey Leg Hut’s success. Lynn says that some restaurants have tried (and failed) to imitate them, and that people have tried to steal their recipes. (Lynn caught an attempted recipe thief waiting in the dumpster one day.) The owners refuse to allow camera crews in their kitchen, or share any recipes with media. Furthermore, their location on a historically Black street that’s rapidly becoming home to young White professionals has led to racial tension.
“We want to be good neighbors, and we try to be good neighbors,” Nakia said. “We try to do everything the right way. But I just think the fact of the matter is that we are a successful Black couple in an area that is being gentrified, and they don’t want the traffic that’s there.”
Houston, the largest city in the nation without zoning, is also one of the state’s most rapidly gentrifying cities. Black and Latino residents in such neighborhoods as Third Ward, East Downtown and the Heights have been displaced amid new property development and restaurants from typically White owners. As White residents enter formerly predominantly Black communities nationwide, Black business owners are frequently accused of problematic business practices. In Dallas, De’Vante Harris claimed his Harris’ House of Heroes restaurant was being targeted by racism coded as crowd control complaints, and in Brooklyn, Akiva Ofshtein closed Woodland Bar after losing its liquor license due to noise complaints.
Turkey Leg Hut has faced complaints about noise, parking violations and regulatory issues. Such complaints are coded language, Nakia and Lynn allege, for objections to their running a Black restaurant in a location where White people also live.
In one claim, neighbors filed a lawsuit alleging that the restaurant’s “noxious” smoke was “significantly impacting their quality of life.” The plaintiffs eventually dropped their case (although they are open to resuming litigation), and Nakia and Lynn say it was a direct assault on the inherent Blackness of their business — and their disruption of ongoing gentrification in the neighborhood and region. While plaintiffs (most of them White) say they are merely trying to protect public health, Black customers refer to them as “colonizers and gentrifiers” who want to live in Black neighborhoods but don’t like what the Black residents, business owners and customers do.
“We don’t make it about race, because we see all types of people that come through and that support our business,” Nakia said. “But when the lawsuit happened, we knew what it was about.”
The restaurant has also been embroiled in other lawsuits, including two between minority owner Steven Rogers and Nakia, each alleging financial misconduct, theft and embezzlement, among other serious accusations. Despite these lawsuits, the restaurant’s social media is filled with Houstonians supporting their mission, long lines continue to form every day, and ongoing visits from top celebrities have only reinforced its local and national reputation. The Prices have maintained their innocence and have aimed to keep the focus on their food and local community engagement activities. They’ve been seen helping feed the city’s homeless and held a vigil for Houston native George Floyd. The owners see the restaurant as part of Houston’s larger Black community, and they are determined to serve their food, their way.
Turkey Leg Hut sits on Almeda Road, the name of a track on the fourth studio album from singer Solange Knowles, a Third Ward native (along with her older sister, Beyoncé). “We aren’t going anywhere,” Nakia said. “We chose that location for a reason. We brought light back to a street that, at one point was moving, and then before we got over there, it was dead. This is our community.”
Almeda is Black in its history and its present, serving as a mainstay in Houston’s influential rap community, the students who seek education at nearby Texas Southern University and the University of Houston, and the long-standing residents of downtown. Nearly 23 percent of Houstonians are Black; the city has also been home to musicians Megan Thee Stallion, Chamillionaire, Yolanda Adams and the late DJ Screw, and boasts a hip-hop and artistic culture that is fundamentally rooted in Blackness. Chefs Chris Williams and Marcus Davis are two of many Black chefs who carry on the legacy of soul food and Southern cooking for Houstonians, and the city’s political landscape wouldn’t exist without the work of Black political leaders.
Customers worry that critiques against Turkey Leg Hut represent a bigger issue within gentrification: a specific attempt to push out Black culture.
“If we lose that part of the culture, where does that group go?” Harrison asked. “We like the places that we’re not going to get hassled for wearing typical urban wear, because that is part of the culturally relevant culture here.”
Although the Prices own the land their hut sits on, they are part of an ongoing American legacy of systemic racism in business ownership. In 2014, 53.4 percent of Black business owners who applied for loans were turned down, compared with 24.7 percent of White owners, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve. Despite their success, Lynn and Nakia have yet to acquire a business loan or a line of credit.
“We understand the position we’re in, and we know it is difficult for our people,” Nakia said. “So we’re going to keep at it. We’ve invested our money wisely, and we’re going to put that into the block.”
Regardless of how neighbors react, Nakia and Lynn have made it clear that challenges won’t stop them. With expansions through more food trucks, new pop-ups planned throughout the state, and other projects on the horizon (coming this year: the Breakfast Hut), the business appears to just be getting started.
“We’ve created good food and a vibe that’s just unmatched,” Lynn said. “How does anybody think they’re going to stop that?”
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