Cutting the ribbon at the opening ceremony represented the fulfillment of a dream a long time coming. It brought feelings of joy to a Seattle chef and the staff of Communion Restaurant & Bar. After many months of planning, preparing and pushing forward, chef Kristi Brown could finally show off her culinary talents at a brick and mortar location in the Central District.
“We’ve been in this for four years. I just felt like it was time. I was grateful to start and ready to go,” says Brown. Communion’s official opening on December 5, 2020, brought to fruition a highly anticipated project in a neighborhood that at one time reflected Black entrepreneurship. “The idea of the restaurant came into view when a lot of people from the community started asking and describing what kind of feel they wanted for this neighborhood.”
Central District Homecoming
The Central District community Chef Brown grew up in was more than 70 percent Black until gentrification displaced many Black businesses and residents. It is now estimated to be close to 75 percent white. It is one reason the invitation to open her first restaurant at the corner of 24th and Union in the Liberty Bank Building excited Brown.
“I feel definitely valued and treasured because so many people in the community wanted us to be a part of the new vision for this area,” the co-owner of Communion says. “I really felt like it was a huge nod for me personally with the work that we’ve been doing in the community over the years.”
Brown’s son, Damon Bomar, is her business partner and operations manager. They came up with the name for their new venture after looking up the definition of communion. “I knew it had to be a name that reflected something around spirituality because it’s such a big deal to do that in the world right now,” Brown says.
Many people associate communion with the Christian sacrament of consuming bread and wine. However, Webster’s Dictionary also defines it as a sharing of something with others. The restaurant’s website describes communion as the “sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level.”
“No matter where you live, you are constantly seeking a place where you feel like you belong. That is a huge thing, making sure that people feel like they have a place,” says Brown. That sense of belonging and bringing people together is exactly what mother and son had in mind when they crafted their vision for Communion. They wanted a place where people of all colors and from different backgrounds could sit together and enjoy an exceptional meal. “I think typically, if we feel comfortable, of course, white people are going to feel comfortable. We create culture and community wherever we go.”
Valued in a Vision
The first thing patrons see when they walk into Communion is the statement, “I Am Home,” written on the entrance floor. It is an intentional nod to Black culture inspired by “I Am a Man,” a message displayed on placards carried by Black workers during the 1968 sanitation strike in Memphis. It is a line in Lorraine Hansberry’s play of the 1950s, “A Raisin in the Sun.” Blues and R&B artist Bo Diddley’s first single released in 1955 was “I’m a Man.” Brown explains why it is on display in her restaurant. “I think that kind of tied in with the stance we are taking by being here. That we are, not we will, or we were. It’s really about being present.”
For now, the welcome extends to customers ordering meals to go from Communion Wednesdays through Sunday. The coronavirus pandemic prohibited or limited indoor dining in Washington for most of 2020. Brown and her staff geared up for takeout and delivery service before the opening. “It’s definitely a learning experience. I love it, though. I love watching how everybody is growing together,” Brown says.
Bomar is the creative mind behind the craft batch cocktail drinks. “That’s all him. He started Brown Liquor Cocktail Company first. That was a part of the business he was running before we opened the restaurant.” Communion currently employs 15 people at a time when hundreds of Seattle restaurants have closed permanently. Brown is grateful that she provides employment with so many people out of work.
Brown also relies on her “borrowed son,” Jaylon Nazario, to keep operations on track. “He’s our front of house assistant manager. He’s our delivery driver. We definitely came together for this effort to make this all work, and he has been invaluable.”
Communion does offer heated outdoor dining. That brings other challenges with the state’s pandemic restrictions, included limits on seating. Brown recalls people trying to sit down on the restaurant’s patio before the official opening. She plans to start reserving outdoor tables to help control social distancing. “It was good to see everybody be able to sit down, but it’s scary. It’s a lot of policing that has to happen to be able to do that patio thing.”
Serving Seattle Soul
Deciding what to put on Communion’s menu was no easy task for a chef with more than 225 of her own recipes. “We wanted to keep it accessible and give them a chance to try everything. We wanted to do something that made sense for the price point and give people an opportunity to see what I can do.”
A loyal following of catering customers already know how talented Brown is in the kitchen. The graduate of Seattle Culinary Academy started That Brown Girl Cooks! in 1996. “My great aunt was a caterer, so I always was curious about catering. When I moved to Seattle, my best friend’s mom was a caterer. She would let me help on jobs. That’s really where I cut my teeth.”
The cuisine Brown calls “Seattle Soul” made her a sought-after culinary trendsetter, including her famous hummus. “We had already been doing catering. We make hummus out of black-eyed peas and sell it in local grocery stores. So we were really quite full with what we were doing.”
The black-eyed pea hummus was on shelves in some 26 store locations. In addition, Bomar’s business provided cocktail catering after he returned to Seattle in 2016 to help with his mother’s corporate and events clientele. Both the hummus and Bomar’s specialty drinks are on the menu at Communion.
Many of her restaurant’s dishes represent Brown’s “Seattle Soul” cuisine, from the fried catfish po’mi to the BBQ shrimp and grits. Her creations combine her food experiences from a childhood in Kansas City, Missouri, to her teenage years in Seattle’s Central District. On Communion’s website, Brown describes her culinary point of view as “…the story of a marriage between a love for people, the cultures that made me, and the food that’s nurtured me.”
Chef Brown’s “treasure trove of food memories” includes southern fare from home and her exposure to Asian, Filipino and other cultures at her Seattle high school. “There was a huge assortment of different folks, getting invited over to a friend’s house, and going out to lunch at the different restaurants in the neighborhood. All of that was a huge influence.”
So were the Asian markets her dad Alvin Brown loved to explore. His experimentation with unfamiliar ingredients taught her to embrace trying new culinary combinations. “My dad would throw some bamboo shoots in spaghetti sauce and see how that worked out. I’d be like, ‘Yeah, that didn’t work, sir,’” the chef adds with a laugh. “He didn’t know what he was doing, but he didn’t care. He would just try it.”
Her dad’s fascination with the meats, seafood, and vegetables at the Central District’s Asian markets still inspires Brown. “I continue to use those ingredients because I like fresh food. I don’t want to overcook vegetables. I’m not a casserole person. The longest thing I like to cook is broths or any kind of stocks,” says Brown. Her love of fusion comes through in the Communion dish called Ode to Pho. “I love noodles, and I try to echo those things inside the soup and play with it. I put rib tips with it because I love pork.”
Nourishing Community Spirit
The spirit of Brown’s grandmother lives on through the chef’s sense of purpose and desire to nourish her community. Gladys Brown was a pastor and a teacher with a master’s degree. Yet, she still threw down when it came to cooking for her family and friends. “Her food was a way of taking care of family and giving you the sustenance you needed to keep it going,” says Communion’s chef.
In addition to cooking at the restaurant and catering, Brown runs a separate operation that feeds people in need. “Everybody Gotta Eat is our community kitchen, where we provide meals free to the public two days a week. We also deliver to senior communities.” Everybody Gotta Eat launched in March of last year through a partnership with other chefs.
Brown also participated in a Community Kitchen Collective when the pandemic first hit Seattle. She wants to expand Everybody Gotta Eat to serve more children, seniors, and people going hungry before COVID-19 struck. “Food disparities are real and need to be addressed. The thing is, it’s not that there isn’t enough food. It’s that we don’t have enough channels to get the food to the right people. We’ve got to work on that part of the system.”
Communion contributes to the well-being of entrepreneurs trying to survive the coronavirus crisis. Brown and Bomar make it a point to support businesses owned by Blacks. Seattle’s Metier Brewing is one of the restaurant’s vendors, and Uncle Nearest whiskeys are used in cocktails. One of the dessert providers is also an African American business owner. “Any vendor we use, we do try to find someone in our community. They may be Black, or they may be people of color, but we definitely try to make sure to support them first,” Brown says.
A Beautiful Light
The restaurant’s connection to African American entrepreneurs of past years comes from the Liberty Bank Building history. The first Black-owned bank in the region was once housed at the site. Africatown-Central District Preservation and Development Association, Community Roots Housing, Black Community Impact Alliance, and Byrd Barr Place redeveloped the property. It provides affordable housing and space for new businesses.
Liberty Bank opened in 1968 to support African Americans encountering discriminatory redlining and housing practices. “All you have to do is look at the rich history of things that Black people have been doing here, and it’s not anything new,” says Brown. “I feel like we’re living a part of that legacy by being here, so it’s very important to me.”
In many ways, Communion stands as a beacon, welcoming people to the beautiful light inside the building. “When you walk up to the door, we just look like bright lights. We look like somebody saying come here. This is a place you want to be.”
Even with the current ban on indoor dining, customers can see the beauty of the restaurant’s décor. Brown and her son worked together with the designer Atelier Drome to achieve a warm, rich atmosphere. “The architect did a wonderful job of having a good balance,” says Brown. “It is dark and sexy, but then the lighting is so wonderful. I feel very accomplished because it is really beautiful.”
Embracing the Long Haul
The mother and son business partners are looking forward to an end to the pandemic. They will be excited to see diverse groups of diners sitting together at the communal table, enjoying a booth, sitting at the chef’s counter or relaxing at Communion’s bar. Fostering connections is at the heart of the restaurant’s creation. “I don’t care where you live. It is going to be essential to figure out how to get people to connect and talk again. With all the virtual stuff going on, we’re going to need it,” Brown says.
The chef and co-owner is equally pumped about adding new offerings to the menu. She is already tinkering with her recipes to showcase her culinary skills. “The thing I’m finding out about restaurant cooking as opposed to catering is that things can be more refined. You can spend more time on a recipe. Being able to take those ideas and go further with them has been super duper fun.”
Other concepts are on the back burner until pandemic restrictions are lifted. Brown wants to offer virtual and in-person cooking classes. Bomar has ideas for a late-night happy hour and a brunch service. “Damon really is the driver for the vision. I think he is just hungry to make his mark. We have a lot of places we can grow. It’s more about how far we can go, and I’m with him.”
Whatever plans Brown used to have about slowing down at age 50 are in the past. The restaurateur couldn’t be more proud of the legacy she and Bomar are building together. “The whole reason why I do this is so the community can have something for generations. But so my family can also have that ability to sustain themselves past the time that I am here.”
Although Brown’s 29-year-old daughter is not involved in the restaurant, she can envision a day when her 13-year-old daughter will be working there. It is a family endeavor the chef and her son are setting up for the long haul. “We’re making a statement by being here politically. It’s that whole thing about we won’t be moved. I think it’s really important to let folks know we’re here. We plan on being here for quite a while.”
Stay up to date on Communion Restaurant & Bar by following Brown and Bomar on Facebook and Instagram. You can also follow That Brown Girl Cook!s on Instagram and Twitter. More information is available on the websites for Communion and That Brown Girl Cooks!