Cynthia Green believes the patrons of her restaurant, Owens Grocery & Market, benefit from taking the time out to enjoy a good meal.
“They enjoy the pleasurable talking along with the food they get,” says Green, who has been serving customers comforting homestyle breakfasts and lunches in the Valley Park neighborhood since 1979, when she inherited Owens Grocery & Market from her parents. Owens opened in 1938 and has stayed dedicated to its neighborhood — and Green values seeing familiar faces come through the doors on a regular basis.
This weekend, the second annual Baton Rouge Soul Food Festival will recognize Green with its Pioneer Award for her commitment to feeding the residents of the Valley Park neighborhood. Along with running the shop on Balis Drive, Green has long been involved in community service work in the area, like providing free hot meals for those in need.
The festival takes place Saturday, May 25, and Sunday, May 26, at North Boulevard Town Square in downtown Baton Rouge.
Green says she was honored to receive this year's Pioneer Award "because I thought about my parents, who originated the store. The store is still standing with the same ownership, and the people, when they come in the store, are always remembering the kind acts of my parents who thought there was a need for business in the community.”
As a child, Green says, she watched her mother feed customers who came to Owens when they were hungry and without money. Her father — who had retired from Standard Oil, now ExxonMobil — saw the community needed a local grocer, gas station and hardware store and decided to open the business. In 1979, when her parents decided to retire from the store, Green and her family relocated back to Baton Rouge from Oakland, California.
Green starts a typical day at Owens with morning prayers before customers arrive. The business serves a generational spectrum of customers, but Green has a special affinity for the youth and the elders. Many of her older customers share stories of church, “old times” and politics in between bites of Owens’ yams, collard greens, cabbage and red beans.
The family-friendly Soul Food Festival, an invention of Baton Rouge blues musician Henry Turner Jr., will feature music, arts vendors, cooking competitions and, of course, good soul food.
Turner says it was an easy decision to start the festival. “I lived in Baton Rouge, grew here and toured nationally for 25 years," he says. "When I was grew up here there was a thriving African American community and soul food was everywhere. After 25 years of touring, when I started trying to make roots here again, I didn’t see it."
Turner used his experience in promoting music festivals around the country to help jump-start the Soul Food Festival, which, he says, is an outlet to give more exposure to mom-and-pop soul food eateries like Owens Grocery & Market.
Green herself is an advocate for the preservation of soul food culture in Baton Rouge.
“The culture of it is what you put into it," she says. "I feel that I need to advertise more of these foods and more restaurants need to deal with more of these foods. The past generations have lived long on these foods I serve now.”
For Turner, the connection between good, down-home cooking and roots music come together like a pot and stove.
“All of the roots music," he says, "in the black community — gospel, soul, blues, jazz, funk — all of those things are synonymous with soul food. Why? Because of community.”
Owens Grocery and Market
2444 Balis Drive
7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday; 8 a.m. to noon Saturday
(225) 926-5831; "Owens Grocery & Market" on Facebook
Baton Rouge Soul Food Festival
10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, May 25, and Sunday, May 26
North Boulevard Town Square, downtown Baton Rouge
Free general admission; $25-$100 VIP tickets
Saturday, May 25
10 a.m.: DJ “Teddy” Lloyd Johnson
10:45 a.m.: ‘Nspire
11:15 a.m.: Lee Tyme
11:45 a.m.: Leon Hitchens
12:15 p.m.: Wyanda Paul
12:45 p.m.: Larry “LZ” Dillon
1:15 p.m.: Champagne
2 p.m.: Eric Dixon
2:20 p.m.: Eddie Cool
2:45 p.m.: Soul & Parliament
3:30 p.m.: Determined
4:15 p.m.: Xavier
4:45 p.m.: Winners of the soul food cook-offs announced
5:05 p.m.: Ms. Jess
5:25 p.m.: African Queen Z’s Dance Troupe
5:40 p.m.: Henry Turner Jr.
6:25 p.m.: Proph3t
7 p.m.: Xavie Shorts
7:30 p.m.: Calandra Gantt
Sunday, May 26
10 a.m.: DJ-“Teddy” Lloyd Johnson
10:30 a.m.: Pioneer Award presentation to Cynthia Green
11:15 a.m.:Eric Dixon
11:35 a.m.: Christian Cordan
12 p.m.: Ivory
12:45 p.m.: Uncle Chess
1:10 p.m.: ‘Nspire
1:30 p.m.: Mr. Bow Bow Bow
2:15 p.m.: Vendi
3 p.m.: Winners of the soul food cook-offs announced
3:20 p.m.: Neva Ford Nation
3:45 p.m.: Lillie Lewis
4:30 p.m.:Henry Turner Jr.
5:15 p.m.: SmokeHouse Porter and Miss Mamie
6 p.m.: Clarence “Pie Man” Williams & the Rouge Band
6:45 p.m.: Kenny Neal