Ed “Pookey” Whitfield,” owner of the renowned Barbeque Pit restaurant in Seattle’s Central District (CD), is a contractor by trade who’s also a great cook. Resilient and determined, Pookey has continued to operate a successful business despite two relocations in the last four years. He’s combated the gentrification-related displacement impacting minority-owned businesses and residents throughout the CD, and is enjoying his new space while cooking up great food.
Community resources, including funds from the City of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development (OED) and support from students and faculty at Seattle University, have helped Pookey re-establish the Barbeque Pit as a popular staple in the CD.
Pookey recently reopened the Barbeque Pit in a new location at 1816 E. Yesler Way, just in time to provide barbeque for the Fourth of July. He is especially thrilled that the new restaurant is located in a historic building that hosted a popular barbeque restaurant from the 1960’s to 2018. “There’s a lot of people who appreciate the fact that this place is still surviving as a barbeque place,” Pookey says. “There are certain things people want to see not go away. They want it to continue — its comforting. It’ a landmark; me being inside this place is preserving the landmark.”
African American displacement and the struggle to preserve traditions
The space at 1816 Yesler was built by stone mason Robert Collins. In 1952, Robert and Louise Collins founded R&L Home of Good Bar-B-Que with Rev. Hasting Mitchell, and the family-owned restaurant operated on Yesler Way for over 66 years. R&L Home of Good Bar-B-Que flourished in the Central District and became a community gathering spot for locals and national leaders like Martin Luther King Jr, who visited in 1961.
From the 1950s through the 1980s, Seattle’s Central District was home to more African Americans than any other enclave in the Pacific Northwest. Due to racially restrictive covenants in neighborhoods throughout Seattle, African Americans were excluded from purchasing and renting housing in most neighborhoods besides the Central District. As a result, they settled in the CD and built a thriving community with Black-owned businesses and a vibrant cultural environment that nurtured the development of musical icons like Jimi Hendrix, Quincy Jones, and Sir Mix-A-Lot (Anthony Ray).
In 1970 Black community members made up 73% of the population in the CD. However, by 1980, the proportion of Black residents in the CD had slipped to 64%. Due to gentrification, increases in taxes and property values, and impacts of systemic racism, Black people and businesses have now been largely driven out of the neighborhood. Today, Black residents represent less than 18% of the CD population, and Black-owned businesses are rare.
University of Washington Architecture Professor Donald King explains in the documentary On the Brink that the “dissolution of culture and community” associated with gentrification and displacement of Black people in the CD has “broken up the social fabric of the city.” With this loss of diversity, “everyone loses something.” Despite gentrification and changes over time, R&L Home of Good Bar-B-Que remained in the CD and was owned and operated by Collins family members until the founders’ daughter, Mary Davis, retired in 2018.
Davis still owns the 1816 Yesler Building, but now has a new tenant — the Barbeque Pit. According to Pookey, Davis hoped that a barbeque restaurant would follow hers in the building. She “checked out his food” before leasing to him; Pookey explains, “she’s sentimental to this place.” As the new tenant, he’s delighted to continue the tradition of barbeque for the community. The 1816 Yesler building is registered as a Seattle historic site, which provides greater stability for the Barbeque Pit than it has had in the past.
Barbeque Pit history and gentrification impacts
Pookey initially founded the Barbeque Pit at 2509 E. Cherry St. in 2010, during the global economic recession that hit building contractors hard. He planned to operate the business for three years “to have a bank track record.” Barbeque, he says, “is not what I intended to do” long term. “I’m a contractor,” he insists, but when people started liking the food, he couldn’t quit.
“I do know how to cook,” he acknowledges – an understatement for a man whose business has earned number one ratings on Yelp for years and has and been featured by Seattle Met Magazine and Seattle Eater as some of the best barbeque in Seattle.
The Barbeque Pit’s original location, on E. Cherry across the street from Garfield High School, made it a popular hangout for high school students. Every day, he would serve lunch to 50-75 kids. Pookey made sure his food was affordable for the students. “I didn’t have money when I was going to school,” he says. “We found each other with my hot links – I sold them for $1 for the kids.” Some of those students later told him, “you saved us. That’s how I ate.” He reflects that his restaurant was like the soda shops in the ‘50s for that cohort of students. Many of them have continued to stay in touch, coming back to the Barbeque Pit during college and some, with their own children.
In 2016, Pookey returned to contracting and found himself doing two full-time jobs simultaneously: building a house and running a restaurant. Despite resistance and disappointed reactions, he closed the Barbeque Pit so he could pursue contracting full time. He’s a skilled craftsman who enjoys making furniture and managing building projects. He left the door open to future cooking, explaining on Facebook that if the Barbeque Pit reopened, it would be somewhere in the Central District.
In 2018, after finishing the house project, he decided to reopen the Barbeque Pit on 23rd and Rainier Ave S. in what he knew would be a temporary location. The space had been sold to a developer, and his lease expired in November 2019. Finding and building a new permanent location in the CD required substantial capital, given escalating property values and costs of construction. Pookey worked with Seattle University’s program RAMP-up for support in securing funding and developing a business plan for an expanded restaurant in a new CD location.
Ramp-up partners students and coaches with local small businesses and microenterprises to help preserve the social, ethnic, and economic foundations of the Central District and surrounding neighborhoods. The program has helped support numerous minority proprietors in the Seattle community.
RAMP-up, directed by Amelia Marckworth, is part of Seattle U’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center. She explains that MBA students who work in the program are paired with businesses to help provide “long-term wrap around services” that combat displacement, including help with standardizing financial records, developing business and marketing plans, providing loan application support, and negotiating leases. Students involved with RAMP-up helped Pookey assemble financial statements and write the application for a $100,000 City of Seattle Tenant Improvement Grant Award, which he received.
In areas of the city undergoing rapid gentrification, longtime local businesses often cannot afford space in the new developments that have replaced older buildings. They struggle to get financing to cover build-out costs and working capital, among other challenges. The Tenant Improvement grants—administered by OED –address these challenges and prioritize businesses in neighborhoods that are experiencing high displacement.
Tenant Improvement Grants typically are not the only source of funding business owners acquire for projects. Instead, the grants provide funds for the “last gap to be filled” in a project, according to OED staff member Ken Takahashi. They’re designed to provide funds for build-out, rather than operational costs.
In the case of the Barbeque Pit, the funds enabled Pookey to complete the renovation and modernization of the 1816 Yesler building. He purchased materials, hired others when needed, and did most of the finish work and carpentry himself. His artistry in woodworking is evident in the spectacular tables and custom-made wood frames that fill the new space.
Enjoying the present and looking to the Barbeque Pit’s future
Due to COVID-19, Barbeque Pit’s grand opening was delayed, and the restaurant is currently open for takeout only. Nevertheless, Pookey is happy to be cooking and back in the restaurant business. He loves seeing old friends and was restless during the Stay Home order. He laughs, “It was time to let the master out of the damn cage!”
From 12-7 p.m. customers can be seen lining the sidewalk in socially distanced formations to pick up their orders of Pookey’s famous ribs. Pookey has done a great job in adjusting operations to maintain the safety of staff and customers.
As he cooks in the back, one employee takes orders and mans the point-of-sale system at the front door while another helps to package up orders. Credit cards are accepted for the first time, and he says they have the time between order and pickup “down to three to five minutes per order.” Since reopening, the Barbeque Pit has sold out of food before closing nearly every day.
For now, Pookey’s working to “get the business running like a well-oiled machine” and looking forward to the day when he can open up completely for dine-in service. He wants the “ambiance and flavor” of community first established at R&L Home of Good Barbeque to carry on and envisions a gathering spot where “everyone is welcome and everybody is equal across the board. Anybody that comes in here,” he says, “I have one requirement: respect for the place. And that’s what they get from me.”
Looking farther down the road, Pookey hopes to eventually train someone he can pass on the business to. “I’ve just got to find that one,” he explains. “My ideal is to put some young blood into this. This legacy is bigger than me and is something I should pass on.”
To read more about the history of the Central District, see historian Quintard Taylor’s book The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era. To learn more about how gentrification has impacted the Central District and the Black community, watch On the Brink or view this shorter KING5 report.