Walking into Nicole’s Restaurant kind of feels like walking into a family dinner at my grandmother’s home. I hear hearty laughter as the restaurant door is opened and closed, and as I approach, the very pleasing aroma grows stronger and stronger — much like the aroma sent out when my grandmother was cooking and everybody showed up eager to fill their bellies.
Named after its owner Nicole Watters, a third-generation restaurateur, Nicole’s is a traditional soul food restaurant located on Hawkins Avenue in West Akron. Nicole’s started out as a concession stand in 1998 and has grown into more than just a restaurant: It’s a gathering place for the community. The menu offers all-day breakfast and all your soul food staples, including mac and cheese, barbeque ribs and fried fish. If you don’t have time to dine in, Nicole’s offers carry-out and catering options.
After greeting all the familiar faces, I take a seat at my usual table and look over the menu. Normally, I would order the rib dinner with green beans and mac and cheese or the shrimp basket. Today, however, I want to sample a portion of the all-day breakfast menu, so I order the chicken and french toast with a side of scrambled eggs. When the waitress asks me if I would like my chicken honey-fried, I quickly say yes.
Not long after my food arrives, owner Nicole appears from around the corner, flashing her beautiful smile and greeting her customers. I take the opportunity to have a conversation with her.
Charlee Harris: What’s the first meal you can remember cooking?
Nicole Watters: Meatloaf, my mom showed me the recipe and how to season the meat. I can remember her telling me to smell the seasoning and showing me how to set the right temperature for the oven. I was eight years old.
CH: When did you realize you were ready to run the restaurant?
NW: I pretty much always helped my mom run it, so I guess I’ve kind of always been ready. It is like kids in family businesses are thrown into it, and then it is in your blood, so you become made for it.
CH: What are some challenges that come with running a family-owned business?
NW: I think the main challenge is dealing with the public and whenever you’re managing the different personalities of your staff.
CH: How do you overcome those challenges?
NW: Experience is the main way to defeat challenges. There is no other way… Getting to know people’s personalities and how to interact with them. It takes time to kind of become a people- person. I think I have accomplished it. (Laughs.)
CH: The westside is changing, Amazon is coming, and with that, we are starting to see some big franchise chains finding their way back in the neighborhood. Have you been affected at all?
NW: No, business is thriving every day. People still want home-cooked meals. The people in this neighborhood want grandmother-style meals with smothered gravy, dressing and yams. I’ve seen our business grow.
CH: What is next for Nicole’s Restaurant?
NW: I think that what is next is finding a home of our own, a building of our own.
After we finish our conversation, I head to the counter to settle my bill, only to find another customer who has already paid it for me — a regular and a fellow entrepreneur name Montey — cementing the already overwhelming family feel you find at Nicole’s Restaurant.