There’s no way Henry’s Soul Cafe founder Henry Smith — or anyone else alive back in 1968, for that matter — could have known that his family-run convenience store would wind up supplying the District with millions of sweet potato pies for decades to come.
When he first opened up shop at 1704 U Street NW, Smith — who considered himself more of a businessman than a cook — mainly sold basic necessities (canned food, paper towels, etc.). But he kept tinkering with featured items on the home-spun menu — neck bones and ham hocks were offered back in the day — with the help of his sister, Jean Quick, who relocated from South Carolina to take over the commercial kitchen.
“As time went on, the menu just grew extensively to fried chicken, and ribs, and fried fish,” second-generation owner and Smith’s son, Jermaine, told Eater. The mom-and-pop shop eventually found itself serving “a full-scale breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu. We would open up at 6 in the morning and close at 1 in the morning,” Jermaine said.
But it was the fateful introduction of sweet potato pie circa 1970 that really put Henry’s on the map.
Today, almost 50 years later, Jermaine said the business sells around 100,000 sweet potato pies a year. Orders placed during the week of Thanksgiving account for one-fifth of those sales, Jermaine estimated. D.C. mayors, celebrities passing through the legendary Howard Theatre, and even former President Barack Obama have all enjoyed slices of the family’s signature dessert.
But Jermaine stressed that bold-faced names aren’t the only reason Henry’s has endured for nearly half a century. “My dad was always the type that understood that while it was great to serve the celebrities, he took more pride in serving the everyday people that kept the store open,” he said.
Jermaine grew up in the very kitchen he oversees today. “I was born and raised there, now I’ve taken it on,” Jermaine said of his rise through the ranks, adding, “Just trying to keep the legacy going.”
In the intervening years the business grew to four locations, three of which remain open today (including a catering operation that is closed to the public). The U Street location of Henry’s has never moved, even after a fire in 2014 put the store out of commission for two years. Henry Smith passed away that same year after having a stroke, and never got to see the post-fire renovated shop. Meanwhile, Jermaine’s sister, Henrietta Smith Davis, currently owns seasonal barbecue restaurant The Rolling Rib Part 2 in Upper Marlboro, Md.
Even though the U Street/14th Street corridor around the shop has changed since Henry’s first arrived, Jermaine said the restaurant remains a constant. The menu’s largely the same, just a bit more streamlined. But the shop employs the same old-fashioned way of preparing its soul food. In other words, no shortcuts.
“We hear about these other restaurants, and we're seeing sweet potatoes coming out of a can and greens coming out of a frozen box. It really turns us away,” he said. “We’re the cheapest, freshest food you can get in the city.”
The plan is to keep the Henry’s tradition going for years to come. Jermaine’s working on a big 50th anniversary celebration for next year. He’s added a few new menu items like a sweet potato-infused waffle. And he’s focusing on getting sweet potato pies into local grocery stores (he listed Safeway, Giant and Harris Teeter as current targets). He’s got another business plan, too: get the younger generation hooked on his signature dish.
“The first thing I do with most kids when I see them is I give them a slice of sweet potato pie,” Jermaine said. “Because I know that when I can catch a two or three year old, four or five year old and give a slice of pie, it's going to ensure that I'll be in business for another 50 years. They're always going to have to come back for another taste of that pie.”