Surely, Shaunetta Lowery hopes, Google Maps won’t lead folks astray who want to try her cooking on Sept. 9.
After all, unlike her Rockford restaurant, the Taste of Blount, scheduled for 6-8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 9, takes place smack dab in the middle of downtown Maryville. After being canceled last year by Blount Partnership due to the pandemic, the annual event returns with a record 30 vendors for 2021, and Lowery’s establishment — Shaun and Sherrie’s Soul Food — will be there for the first time.
Lowery, who operates the Rockford-based restaurant with her mother, Sherrie Avery (and with the help of her brother, Mark Avery), knows a few things about pandemic-related challenges: The family opened the eatery last fall, right before cases spiked across the country. And while it’s not a difficult place to find if you’re familiar with Blount County backroads — Hunt Road to Russell Road to Grade Road, and Shaun and Sherrie’s is located in the first sharp curve — for some reason, Google Maps doesn’t recognize it, Lowery told The Daily Times recently.
“A lot of people have a hard time finding it, and I’ve been going back and forth with Google Maps,” she said. “It’s been a long road, and we’ve been having a hard time because of that. That’s one of the reasons we’re looking forward to being part of Taste of Blount, to maybe help us get a little bit more business.
“Because all along, we’ve kept up with the consistency of the food. We’ve got great customer service, and we’ve gained a lot of regular customers. That’s what keeps us afloat — that, and we have dine-in, delivery or take-out options.”
Given the proliferation of local fare at Taste of Blount, the addition of Shaun and Sherrie’s Soul Food to the list of culinary participants seems like a perfect match. The event grew out of the Blount County Chamber of Commerce Business and Industry Show, a showcase of area businesses and industries that included a sample of area restaurants. In 2002, the first Taste of Blount was held as a separate event, open to the public, and while many of the participants from those first few years are no longer around, their spots have been filled by newer, and more local, establishments.
And it’s hard to get more local than Shaun and Sherrie’s Soul Food. Although she’s nurtured a dream of owning her own restaurant for years, her love of cooking was born out of necessity, she said.
“I learned pretty young, because I had to get in the kitchen way younger than I wanted to!” she said. “I was like, 8, when I had to figure my way around it, because sometimes life throws you curveballs, and you do what you’ve got to do. But I remember cooking for my little brother, and making him fried bologna sandwiches. But then, around 19 or 20, that’s when I got more into cooking after I had my own child.”
Time and practice have sharpened the edges of her abilities, to the point that one of her signature dishes is acclaimed by all who try it — but Lowery herself won’t touch it, she said with a laugh.
“Macaroni and cheese — I’ve never eaten it, and I don’t like it!” she said. “I have a problem with textures, and I’m not really a cheese person. But when I cook the noodles, I don’t cook them all the way. I use a lot of milk, Velveeta, parmesan and cheddar, and sometimes if I get to feeling a little snazzy, I get some different cheese. Really, you can put anything in there.”
Another favorite: Her collard greens, she added, prepared with a little vinegar, brown sugar, vegetable oil, crushed red pepper and her special blend of seasonings. She won’t reveal the exact ingredients in it, but it’s been a work in progress ever since her early 20s. And, she added, there’s nothing particularly exotic in the blend.
“It’s not what I’m using; it’s about how much,” she said. “I put Tiger Seasoning in it, and that’s what makes it so bomb to me.”
And, she added, to so many of her regulars. It’s a toss-up what she sells more of, pork chops or chicken wings, but the daily specials and the regular menu items are mostly made from scratch, and one of the things Lowery enjoys most is a challenge.
“I accommodate everyone. I had a customer ask me one time to make a caramel apple cake, and I did it, and now it’s a must-have,” she said. “That’s almost up there (in terms of customer demand) with my mini apple pies. I just love cooking, because it’s an easy thing for me. It’s a stress reliever when I have too much on my mind, because I’ll go cook something or bake something, and when I’m using my brain for that, I’m not really paying attention to what’s going on in my head. It’s my escape.”
And when her brother found the building that now houses Shaun and Sherrie’s Soul Food, that escape became a reality. The cinder block building has a long history of soulful chefs working therein; on two separate occasions, it was a restaurant run by John Townsend, who made a name for himself serving pigburgers (40% ground pork, 60% ground beef patties) and other country meals that share a similar aesthetic with the fare made by current cooks.
When Mark Avery called Lowery about the availability of the building, she took a leap of faith and left her job as a server at Blackberry Farm.
“The (late) owner, Sandy Beall, gave me a lot of good advice about business ownership over the years, which I was really appreciative of,” she said. “But food-wise, I’m going to do what I’m going to do, and what makes me feel comfortable.”
And next Thursday, Taste of Blount patrons — tickets are still available, and while it’s difficult to gauge how the turnout will be for the event, more than 700 people showed up in 2019 — will get to taste for themselves the love and care that goes into everything Lowery and the Averys do in the kitchen. On their Taste of Blount menu: meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, green beans and those mini fried apple pies, which Lowery plans to enter into the judging.
Other participants and their wares will include:
• A Spoonful of Sugar (buttermilk pie, chocolate chip cookies, brownies)
• A&R Texas BBQ (baby back ribs, brisket, Texas Twinkies)
• Apple Valley Cafe (chicken salad mini croissants, Tony’s Townsend brownies)
• Between the Slices (salted caramel cheesecake, almond wedding cake, apple crumble pie)
• Blount County Bakery
• Clean Eatz Cafe (Bowl of Happiness, energy bites, Clean Crunch)
• Crafted Jolt (caramel frappe, iced mocha cold brew latte, Sunshiner Lemonade; Ocean Breeze Italian Soda)
• DaddyO’s Filipino Food Truck (Filipino barbecue, turon)
• Dunkin’ Donuts (Munchkins, coffee)
• Full Service BBQ (pork, chicken, beef sliders, banana pudding, sweet tea)
• It’s Not the Coffee (Ridin’ Shotgun Coffee)
• Joe’s Italian Cuisine (lasagna, chicken parmesan)
• Little River Pub & Deli (moonshine barbecue pork nachos, pimento cheese with pita chips)
• McAlister’s Deli (tea)
• Metz Culinary (chicken Fajita, shrimp quesadilla, churro bites)
• Petro’s (The Petro, Hint of Orange Tea)
• Pistol Creek Eats (brisket, banana pudding)
• “Pop” Korns (assorted gourmet popcorn flavors)
• Quick Fix Coffee (brewed favorites)
• REO Cheesewagon (gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches featuring old favorites and unexpected pairings)
• Rocky’s Jamaica Sunrise (jerked pulled pork, jerked chicken, rice and beans, mac and cheese)
• RT Lodge (watermelon salad, pimento cheese)
• Southern Grace Coffee Co. (jam bar, pumpkin muffin, iced chai latte, iced Butterbear cold brew latte, Southern Blend brewed coffee, Smoky Mountain Sunset)
• Southern Twist Nutrition
• The Colonel’s Coffee Co. (The Colonel, Café ConBon, Raspberry-Chocolate Frappe, Nitro, Latte, Pear-Raspberry-Green)
• Walnut Kitchen (charcuterie, Smore’s cheesecake)
• Windy City Grille (Maryville): sandwiches
• Windy City Grille on the Water (Friendsville): shrimp tacos.
While awards will be given out, the competition is not cutthroat, and all of the vendors undoubtedly will take time to stroll the grounds and sample snacks and edibles not of their own making. If, that is, they have the time between the lines and the crowds. Which, for a lady who can’t get technology to point potential diners in the right direction, is a very good problem to have.
“We are a family business, and I put my heart and soul into everything that I fix and put out there,” she said. “I want to continue to do the best I can with the food. I love it when people tell me it’s good, and I love it when they tell me if something’s not good, so I can make it better. I just want folks to come and try it for themselves, because the atmosphere is good, I’ve never had any complaints about my staff, and we just want to make you feel at home when you come in, like a family restaurant.”