Big Herm is cooking up a storm. Chicken sizzles on top of the grill in front of him. Potatoes dunk into the rolling boils of oil. Buns toast in the oven below. In the robust grills, fryers, and ovens of Big Herm’s Kitchen, the machinery keeps the galley kitchen feeling like a sweaty summer. By the door, boxes are filled to the brim with the best southern style goodies the cooks could produce, as the cooks inside dance along to Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.”
Outside on 2nd street in Richmond’s Jackson Ward, a Quickness rider wheels to a halt. Unidentifiable beyond a Wu-Tang tattoo on his neck, shiny-black Gore-Tex covers him head to toe. He has all the trappings of an industrial cyclist fighting the tentacles of winter. As he unfurls the bag strapped to his handlebars, the labor of bike delivery seems to weigh heavily in the freezing, soiled February evening. It’s the type of misery only found when winter lingers on its way out.
Yet inside the kitchen, it is hot. With his worn-out yellow t-shirt and his constant hustle, Big Herm is impervious to the weather outside. He is in his own elements, barking friendly orders to the staff around him and commanding the little kitchen that could.
With a bit of squeaking, a little bit of stuffing, and a chorus of zips and clips, the rider is gone — off to spread the products of the kitchen on a very unhappy day. For Big Herm’s Kitchen, the tough riders of the Quickness delivery systems are only one cog in the system that keeps the lights on and the food hot. Through wintry weather, summer heat, and a global pandemic, “Big Herm’s” has served Jackson Ward for the last 10 years, nonstop.
Nonetheless, Big Herm has his work cut out for him. Amid the ever-changing tides of Richmond’s food scenes and the fluctuations of the industry, Big Herm has fought to keep his Jackson Ward dream alive. Meanwhile, beyond the confines of his shotgun kitchen is a neighborhood that seems to hang in the balance. On the other side of the one-way street, facing the facades of Herm’s, Henderson’s Bail Bonds, and Shakoor’s Merchandise, is a row of the shuttered buildings — a reminder of the urban blight that claimed one of Black America’s richest neighborhoods just a handful of decades ago.
The “Mayor of Two Street”
Herman “Big Herm” Baskerville Sr. pulled up a chair and sat down with a sigh in the dimly lit room of Henderson’s Bail Bonds. Big Herm is, as his moniker suggests, big. Not so much in height, although he is taller than most, nor in weight, although he is far from skinny. Big Herm is big in his gravity. Like the planets and sun above, Big Herm creates orbits with his presence.
“Every week I send out a Two Street newsletter about what is going down here,” Herm explained in his gravelly baritone, leaning forward to emphasize the intention behind his projects. “I call myself the ‘mayor’ of Two Street, and all that means is I look out for the street. It’s about the block and getting what is best for everyone. Whether that is the State of Two Street [his newsletter], or helping neighbors, it is all for the block.”
On Jackson Ward’s ‘Two Street,’ the spirit of Black Wall Street lives on in the small family businesses clustered on the East side of the street. Henderson’s Bail Bonds, Big Herm’s, and Shakoor’s Merchandise make up a tight cohort of Black-owned businesses at the heart of Jackson Ward’s “Two Street.” While Big Herm isn’t the owner of Henderson’s Bail Bonds, the owner has carved out a space in the back for some of the kitchen’s bulkier catering equipment.
“Henderson has been here for longer than us,” Herm explained. “He has been here as a bedrock, both in what he does with bail bonds, but also in his appreciation for the community here.”
The camaraderie of the two businesses, along with the others clustered around on the block, is a resolute reminder of Jackson Ward’s Black history. As the heart of Richmond’s Black economy in the early 1900’s, the neighborhood was home to Black bankers, politicians, musicians, and artists. “The Harlem of the South,” as it was known, was the promise of Richmond’s future as a city for Black Americans to thrive.
Next to Big Herm’s on “Two Street” is Shakoor’s Merchandise. Inside, the fragrance is that of the perfumes, oils and incense collected on the shelves. Vivacity floods in to replace the gray. Shakoor’s Merchandise has carved out a niche in the neighborhood as a small family business specializing in goods and clothes for the majority-Black community.
“You know, we had Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles —this was their habitat,” the owner, Dawud Shakoor, said of the neighborhood, as customers flowed in and out. Across the street was a grocery store and the big names hung out at the theater down the street. “When I first moved here, it was that energy that struck me.”
When Shakoor came to Jackson Ward in the mid 2010s, however, that energy existed in memory only.
“I just hope those property owners open up those storefronts. It is such an eyesore, and it doesn’t have to be. Those are great buildings,” Shakoor said, gesturing to a dilapidated green facade with chrome trim and sweeping windows on the corner. “That building could be a diner, or a nightclub. That one was a grocery; another was a boxing gym. There was so much life, so much history, and now they are just sitting there.”
“But business begets business, and we are here to stay.”
In the Kitchen it’s Hot
Above all else — the newsletter, the legacy of the neighborhood, and the efforts he makes to shape his community’s future — Big Herm is a cook. It’s the food that brought him to the city, and it’s the food that, through all the chaos, keeps him here.
“I am a cook first,” he said. “People think I am here just to get my name out, because my name is all over the place. Hell, it’s on my shirt right now. But all of that is secondary to making good food. That’s what it’s all about, and that’s what keeps people coming back.”
And come back they do. Since opening the business in 2011 and the storefront in 2012, Big Herm’s Kitchen has been in nearly continuous operation. With Big Herm on the stove and his business partner, Leanne Fletcher, doing the administrative tasks, the compact team has built a thriving multi-dimensional dining service.
Between catering weddings, running food for company meetings at nearby healthcare companies, and being the longest serving minority-owned business at the Washington Commanders pre-season training camps, each element sustains the next.
“I don’t like to answer the phones,” Herm said with a chuckle. Seamlessly, Fletcher, who carried a box of seasoned French fries and grilled chicken into the room, chimed in: “He can’t answer the phones, or else he will be gone chatting for the next half hour!”
Beyond the phones, and the emails, and coordinating the catering, all of which has been studiously taken care of by Fletcher over the past decade, Herm stays busy with the operational work that spreads his home cooking far and wide.
“Many owners just own,” Fletcher said. “They aren’t a part of their business at the ground level. Herman is not only a part of the business, Herman is the business.”
If dishes need washing, Herm will wash them. If chickens need grilling, Herm will grill them.
Over their time on Two Street, employees have come and gone. The kitchen is small, and generally has 8 to 10 employees, including Fletcher and Herm. The tight workforce and high demands of the job generate a fair amount of turnover in the day-to-day staff. But for Herm and Fletcher, who have worked together since Big Herm’s opened on Two Street, these challenges are all part of what makes the business a success. Job turnover, a global pandemic, and the spectre of inflation have challenged their mettle, but they fill a need, they have a following, and they are good at dealing with the heat.
“You know what people say: if you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen,” Fletcher said with a chuckle. “We don’t have air conditioning, so for us that’s true in more ways than one.”
A month later, the March evening on Two Street is proving to be gentler than that February afternoon. Like the weather, the battered sidewalks and shuttered buildings take on a brighter appearance. The yellows, blues, and reds of the facades shine through — past fortunes peering through recent neglect.
Today, the light shines on one storefront that defies the battered storefronts around it. A month before, it blended into the gloomy surroundings, but in March the foliage arranged on the windowsill and the twinkling lights coax strangers in from the city street.
Sara Parker, who co-owns Tigers Eye Hair Studio, is not like the other owners on Two Street. She and her business partner are young white women. Parker did not know what to expect when they started in 2018. Would the traditionally Black neighborhood see the two as a threat? But soon after they began to settle into their space, it was clear the opposite was true.
After the pandemic descended from its peak, Parker and her business partner decided to move out of their small, upstairs studio and into the spacious storefront below. Within days of completing renovations, Herm was crossing the street to see how he could help, extending a hand like any good mayor would.
“We would be out here at 9 p.m. painting and renovating our space,” Parker said. “And of course Herm would come over and start talking.”
“We knew historically this was a Black community, and … we wanted to respect it and the people here – but it was almost like there was nothing to do,” she said. “They were just so welcoming and so nice to us. We were immediately connected here.”
“All I want to do is see this block back to what it was,” Herm said, considering the prospects of the street he has championed through the many years of challenges. “You see all those shuttered buildings across the street, they were filled.”
“If I could walk down the street and see businesses and people, like it used to be. If I could send folks somewhere else when we are not open. The base has been here. There is something here.”
Herm did not set out to get his name known. He didn’t intend to try and change the fortunes of neighborhood modernization. He did not even intend to have more than a window and a kitchen. For Big Herm, everything has come from hard work, great food, and the area’s capacity for Black success. If the recent past is anything to go by, the future for Two Street seems bright. With these ingredients, this cook can work wonders.
Top Photo by Logan Jones-Wilkins.