Valerie Erwin grew up cooking. With her mother hailing from South Carolina and her father from Georgia, low-country Southern cuisine was a staple in her house.
From a young age Valerie says she, and her four sisters learned to love and appreciate the foods that had defined their family for generations — shrimp and grits, smothered chicken, biscuits, cornbread and rice.
Erwin majored in politics at Princeton University but in 1979, she got a taste of her first job in the restaurant industry, and she never turned back.
After several years working in Philadelphia-area restaurants Erwin took a leap and opened her first restaurant with her sister Lisa in 2003.
“I didn’t really have this burning desire to be an entrepreneur as many chefs and restaurant owners do,” says Erwin about opening the first iteration of Geechee Girl Rice Café in Germantown. “But I wanted there to be a nice restaurant in Germantown and I felt I had something I could bring to the restaurant world and to the area.”
As one of the first restaurants in Philadelphia specializing in low-country Southern cuisine, Geechee Girl was met with great success and in 2006 moved down the road to 6825 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy.
The new location allowed Valerie to serve more guests (from a capacity of 25 at the original location to 50) and the larger kitchen served as an opportunity to evolve her menu with more ambitious dishes. The restaurant quickly grew to be a local — and national — favorite, even grabbing a spotlight on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
In a Nov. 6 Facebook post, the staff of Geechee Girl Rice Café made a sad and to many, a surprising announcement: they would close out the year with its last dinner service on Dec 31.
“This is traumatic news. I am so sorry for this loss of a woman-owned business that brought great food to so many,” responded local resident Gwen Bailey.
“I felt like I had to break it slowly to some of my customers,” laughed Erwin. “Many seemed more upset than I even am… For me, it’s bittersweet. I’m ready for a new venture.”
Erwin says at the moment she has no definite plans for that next venture.
Though she knows she would like to step away from the kitchen, she says she would like to still remain connected to the restaurant and food industry.
“I would certainly still be interested in consulting or menu development,” Erwin says. “But I’m most interested in social justice as it pertains to the restaurant industry and food in general, especially related to food access and inequality in employment. In a city as diverse as Philadelphia, which is made up primarily of people of color, there is a real apartheid in fine dining… this is something that does not happen by accident; it happens by design.”
While Erwin says she is sad to hang up her apron, she is looking forward to cooking and enjoying her food for herself for the first time in a long time, and is grateful for the years of committed support from her friends, family and patrons.
The Geechee Gala will take place at the cafe on Jan. 10 from 6 to 9 p.m. Open to all those who have loved the Erwin sisters and the Geechee Girl Rice Café’s authentic southern fare are welcome to celebrate a final night of food and fun.
Proceeds from the event will go to assisting Erwin pursue her “encore” career. Required advanced tickets may be purchased here. Space is limited.