Down home cooking comes to Salisbury Mall

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Noelle Edwards
Thelma Luckey opened Thelma’s Down Home Cookin’ in the Salisbury Mall on Aug. 17, and it would be fair to say she’s been practicing for that day most of her life.
For starters, she worked at Christo’s in Salisbury for 13 years, and before that she worked at the Chicken and Oyster Shack.
She left for college but ended up back there. She left again in the early ’90s, when her Army Reserve unit was sent to Saudi Arabia. But she came back to the kitchen.
“I still had a passion for cooking,” she said.
But before working in any restaurant, Luckey had years of cooking experience.
Her whole life, she watched her mother make Southern cooking, or soul food, as Luckey calls it, from scratch.
Luckey started her career by making cookies as a little girl, but she wasn’t satisfied with that for long.
Soon she was cooking everything that she now serves in her restaurant: macaroni and cheese, collard greens, pinto beans, green beans, chicken, country-style steak, mashed potatoes, okra, yams, cole slaw, pork chops.
And homemade desserts. At Thelma’s, she serves a different dessert every day. And so far, the daily dessert has disappeared within a few hours.
Luckey said the restaurant has been slammed every day since she opened.
She said she’s served 50 to 75 people each day, with the busiest time either in the afternoon, between 1 and 4, or around suppertime, depending on the day.
She got 15 orders one day before she had even opened ó called in by her sister, who works at the VA hospital.
Another day, a group of people visiting the mall all came at once and gathered around the cash register, anxious to order. She said she just kept her head down and kept writing orders and tried not to look at how many people were still waiting.
And her goal in opening the restaurant was to keep it small and simple.
She leased the corner spot in the Salisbury Mall food court because she thought she could operate it with help from her son, Derrick Luckey, and other family members.
That, she said, is not going to be the case if the pace keeps up.
She kept her job as a school bus driver for the Rowan-Salisbury School System, and with the start of the school year, Derrick Luckey will be alone for a few hours every day. She said she’ll have to think about hiring someone pretty soon to help him.
Her head is still spinning in some ways; less than a month ago the restaurant was just an empty space in the mall.
In three weeks, she made the decision to start Thelma’s, leased the space, bought her equipment and food, got her business license and health inspection and opened her doors.
She said she wanted to serve food that is “not about all that fancy dish stuff ó pay 18 dollars a plate and not even enjoy it. It’s good for your soul. … The aroma from the food just makes you feel good.”
She makes everything from scratch, refusing to use even already-made pudding in her banana pudding.
Thelma’s attracts people who are already in the mall, especially mall employees, but she said she’s gotten business from a lot of people who come into the mall specifically to eat at her place.
Luckey said that makes people who work at other mall restaurants jealous. She’s tried to make peace by selling things that aren’t sold elsewhere in the mall, but she’s willing to cook things that aren’t on her menu if people want them.
“If I got it, I’ll fix it,” she said. “I’m here for the public needs.”
She has hopes of opening a banquet room in one of the larger mall spaces that people could rent for events, and she could bring in food as the caterer.
She said she might even have to move the restaurant to a larger space if business is consistently strong.
For now, though, she’s practically beaming over the realization of her long-time dream.
“God gave me this place,” she said. “He said, ‘It’s yours, take it.’ And I did.”