The Modern Southern Table: Reinventing The Way We Think of Food Court Cuisine

ECDI Spotlight — By on April 24, 2014 at 8:00 am

At your typical mall in the Midwest, you expect to find your commonplace food offerings – an oversized pretzel diner, a fast-prepped, Asian inspired eatery, maybe even a sit-down restaurant where you can visit their dessert bar before you depart. Sure, they may curb your appetite while you’re picking over clearance items at Macy’s but that is what you’ve come to expect…the typical food court offerings that allow you to shop fast, eat fast, and leave fast, all in the name of saving you time. Challenging the way we think of mall food one satisfied customer at a time is The Modern Southern Table, located in The Colony Square Mall in Zanesville, Ohio.

The Modern Southern Table owner Sadaya Lewis never pictured her cuisine being served in a food court. Her unique concept, slow-cooked, high-quality food, made from scratch with fresh, authentic southern ingredients, is what you would expect to find in a five-star restaurant.

Working out of a kitchen most of her life, Lewis crafted her southern-inspired, culinary skills through years of hard work, determination, and some familial mentoring from her three grandmothers.

After losing her mother to breast cancer at a young age, Lewis had no choice but to become the meal matriarch of her family. Her father would take her to her grandmother’s house so she could soak up all the knowledge of southern food that had been passed down through generations.

“My grandmothers taught me more about cooking than I ever would’ve learned at a culinary school,” Lewis said. “It was there, in their homes, where I [learned] how to cook appropriately, slow, carefully, and with love.”

Lewis received her big break when one of her catered meals ended up in the hands of a Food Network representative. Floored by the combination of flavors, Lewis was immediately handpicked for The Food Network’s hit show, Food Court Wars.

“They called me while I was at my day job and offered me the opportunity to try out for the producers,” Lewis said. “I initially thought it was a joke. I was a ball of nerves but I was extremely excited for the opportunity.”

Lewis went on to win the Food Court Wars competition by outshining competing team, Brunchaholics, a high-end brunch concept. Squaring off in a one-day sales competition, The Modern Southern Table made the most money, and Lewis was awarded free rent for a year, valued at over $100,000.

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Featuring a menu of chicken and sausage gumbo, fried chicken (three types: traditional Alabama-fried, low country-chicken and Tennessee Hot Chicken for the bravest of consumers), shrimp and grits, and fan-favorite side dish, mac & cheese, as featured on Food Court Wars, Lewis has created an untapped market for food-based businesses, revolutionizing the tired concept of fast food.

The Modern Southern Table has attracted countless regulars, as well as interested food connoisseurs from as far as west as California and as far north as Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Lewis has had to adapt her traditional cooking techniques due to limited space and the volume required to meet the demands of hundreds of daily visitors.

“My kitchen is only eight feet long!” Lewis notes. “I also have to account for large volume so people get what they need. It’s easy to prepare gumbo because it can simmer all day, but having fried chicken or catfish prepared is tricky. If it sits for only a few minutes, the quality begins to deteriorate.”

Lewis admits that maintaining the integrity of her dishes in a Food Court setting is challenging but she is well aware that keeping her food consistent is crucial to her success. Reinventing an entire industry can’t be accomplished over night, but Lewis is not deterred.

–Sadaya Lewis came to ECDI to help finance kitchen adjustments at The Modern Southern Table. The Modern Southern Table is located in The Colony Square Mall, 3575 Maple Ave., Zanesville, Ohio, 43701. Visit them at modernsoutherntable.com and see all that they offer. You can also reach them by phone at 740-450-1996.–

Kevin Brennan (11 Articles)

Kevin joined Economic & Community Development Institute in June 2013. In his role as Marketing & Communications Coordinator, Kevin works with the other ECDI programs to help their marketing efforts, specifically through the use of various social media platforms. A Columbus native, Kevin attended The Ohio State University receiving his degree in Strategic Communications. He can be contacted via email at kbrennan@ecdi.org or by phone at 614-732-0573.