From the Freedom Riders of the civil rights era to the pandemic and politics, taking the long view.
By Geno Lee as told to Laura Kiniry
Geno Lee is fourth-generation owner of the Big Apple Inn, the oldest operating restaurant in Jackson, Mississippi. He took over the reigns in 2000. In the 1960s, the eatery’s Farish Street location hosted meetings for the civil rights movement. Today, there’s also a second downtown location.
What’s going on in the world right now is a first for me in the restaurant industry, and I don’t think there was any way to prepare for it. The news of first the virus, and then the pandemic, caught us all by surprise. Suddenly there were outbreaks and massive closures everywhere, including dining rooms. Then as soon as things started to ease up just a little, our whole political climate erupted. I have to say, 2020 was a year!
Here in Jackson, we’re on lockdown again, meaning there are curfews in place, and Mississippi’s governor said we have to go back down to 50 percent capacity in our restaurants. The city itself also has an indoor mask mandate, and for the most part our customers comply. It’s just the one percent that complains for the sake of complaining.
Despite any setbacks, the Big Apple Inn has managed to be open the whole time, though for a couple of months it was carry-out or take-out only. That hurt us. But what really made it tough is that both of my restaurants are in Jackson’s downtown, which completely shut down. Thankfully, our place is very small—we only employ 12 people—which isn’t as bad as some of these restaurants that employ 40 or 50 or 100 people. I promised my employees that if I could keep the doors open, I would keep them all working. They never missed a paycheck. I never even cut back hours. That was the roughest time for me as the owner.
We’ve been open since 1939, which means that some of our customers have been coming down here for four generations. They are what’s probably our majority demographic—people who’ve been raised on our food their whole lives. Suddenly they’ve been told to stay home. This affected us greatly. Then COVID outbreaks at meatpacking plants made prices triple as well. It’s been a hard thing trying to keep inventory when prices on ingredients and supplies are going through the roof.
There’s also the fact that both of our locations are in the poorer section of Jackson, so we’re probably at the max of what we can ask customers to pay. When food prices rise, we just have to take a hit. But whenever I raise prices, my clientele—the same folks that have been coming down here for years—will say, “I remember when these sandwiches were a dime.” Of course, they’re only $1.60 now, which is very inexpensive. In another area of town I could charge $10 per sandwich, but here along Farish Street I have to remain as is. Otherwise they’ll stop coming.
The original Big Apple Inn is on Farish Street in downtown Jackson’s historic district, which is known for its Black-owned businesses. Freed slaves built the district, and it became a self-sustaining community. That’s one of the reasons I want to stay here. We’ve been a really big part of the area and of the history along Farish Street, including the civil rights movement. Freedom Riders would have meetings right inside our restaurant. We could always move, but we just love the area and its history, and Jackson in general.
I went to seminary school because I wanted to be a priest. While that didn’t happen, I’ve always had ministry at the forefront of my life. In fact, I’m a pastor now, and I’ve always considered the greater Farish area and the Big Apple Inn to be my ministry. When I first bought the restaurant from Dad, the first thing I did was to implement programs for the local children. The one thing my grandfather said when he passed down the restaurant to the next generation was, “You’re never going to be rich, but you’ll always be satisfied.” It’s true. I’m very far from rich, but I’m happy.
Something I’m really big on, with Mom being a Freedom Rider and grandfather always fighting for the cause—I’m a very big proponent of diversity. My wife and I make sure that our kids go to a diverse school, and our church is diverse. Everything that we do, we choose diversity intentionally. Now, the Big Apple Inn has been mainly an African-American restaurant throughout its generations. When I took it over, I thought to myself, I’ve got to figure out a way to make others know we’re here, and to make us more diverse. Not just the restaurant, but also Farish Street in general. The area that we’re in is 99 percent African-American, if not 100 percent, and for the past 50 years it’s been an area of town where most white people were afraid to come. But it’s a hidden gem. My main goal is to share the stories of this community and the history of Jackson in general, and to convey an atmosphere that people just want to come and see.
I think the current political climate is a shame. Truthfully, I’ve never seen such in-your-face division like I see right now. I’ve heard about it from Mom and Dad, though I’ve never actually seen it. It breaks my heart, and I believe America is better than this. My wife and I have been very careful to teach our children about diversity and to love all races. In fact, my best friend calls the Big Apple Inn “Switzerland,” and I laugh because Switzerland is neutral. Nobody messes with them, and everyone loves them. They don’t get involved in anything or get on anyone’s bad side. Even though there’s been a cultural divide in some places in Jackson, the Big Apple Inn has remained steady. We still have people from all walks coming in, some who want to meet me and shake my hand because they’ve heard about me or saw me on TV. My joke is always, “not that America’s Most Wanted piece?”