By Tunde Wey
February 13, 2013
If you have never tasted "batatas" (sweet potatoes) then you probably won’t realize what you have been missing until you have one. When describing their taste, most people only manage vague adjectives like "amazing" or "delicious" between savored mouthfuls.
Tawnya Clark is owner and operator of The Batata Shop
and local inventor of the sweet potato waffle, referred to colloquially as her "batatas."
To meet Tawnya Clark in person is to see the entrepreneurial spirit in motion. Her thick curly afro is a perfectly round frame around her oval brown face, and her signature gap-tooth smile, ever wide and infectious, is the most welcoming precursor to an even more endearing laugh – which she shares frequently with each serving of batatas.
The origins of the Batata Shop is the story of family, and in the Clark family waffles hold a legendary status.
Clark’s mother grew up eating waffles. After finishing late from a long shift at work, Clark’s grandfather would return home in the early morning. He would prepare waffles for his kids, sometimes waking them up as early as 1:00 a.m. for the meal. Groggy and bleary-eyed, the children would all delightedly eat their waffles, all initial protests at the early wake-up call drowned easily in the warm, sweet deliciousness before them.
Clark’s mother continued the family tradition of preparing waffles for the family. Instead of cakes on birthdays, the family celebrated with pancakes and waffles. So it was inevitable that as an adult Clark would also pursue the tradition, cooking her family a waffle brunch every Sunday that was "the bomb," as she puts it.
Clark’s use of sweet potatoes as the main ingredient in her waffle batter was also inspired by her family, specifically her grandmother, Claudia M. Forrest, whom she credits for being the inspiration behind The Batata Shop.
Clark returned home to help take care of her ailing grandmother. During this time caring for her grandmother, the idea for batatas was born.
"As my grandmother’s diet changed I started to diversify what I made for her. One of my grandmother’s favorite foods was sweet potatoes, so I started doing the sweet potato waffles and she was just over the moon about them."
The subsequent idea to turn her passion for making sweet potato waffles into a business came when Clark watched a TV show featuring another sweet potato purveyor delighting her entire community with her delicious creations.
Clark started The Batata Shop officially in 2010 as a way to spark the same pleasure and joy in the rest of the city, that her grandmother experienced when eating her batatas.
"I wanted to make a place where people would love to come. I want it to be place where people say, ‘When you come to Detroit, you’ve got to go to the Batata Shop.’ It still makes me glow to this day every time I meet people and they say, 'I don’t know you, but my friend tasted your food and loved it.'"
After a couple years running the Batata Shop it is evident that Clark is the torchbearer of the joy that her comfort foods bring. She giddily recalls one of her favorite customer testimonials from a woman who had visited one of Clark’s pop-up events. She had playfully chided Clark saying, "I thought about you the other day because I made my kids some waffles and they came down and said, ‘These aren’t batatas,’ and walked away." Clark is full of pride as she tells the story – an absolute affirmation of the value of the Batata Shop.
Clark is as entrepreneurial as her beautifully thick and dark afro is real – and it is
real. Standing behind her steaming waffle iron, pressed close with its decadent batter drooling from the sides of its stainless steel lip, Clark dons a waffle-print apron and unquantifiably hip Nike sneakers. She is a flurry of action, chatting up customers, smiling, serving up steaming waffles and deftly pouring more batter into the griddle to toast into golden goodness.
Clark’s ebullient personality, persistence and palatable food are but one part of Batata’s popularity. The other equal factor is Detroit. The city has embraced The Batata Shop because most good ideas that are willing to take that bold step into action are supported here.
Clark recalls Ben Newman, another local food entrepreneur of Detroit Institute of Bagels
fame, as the spark. He begun raving about her waffles to his friends after he had sampled them at an event. Soon after Clark was working extra hard to meet piqued demand. Not long after she joined FoodLab Detroit
, a group of Detroit food businesses working to grow triple bottom line food businesses. It was with FoodLab that her passion to build a strong community business was articulated and embraced.
"I joined FoodLab because I know how much food is a gateway to creating thriving neighborhoods throughout the city of Detroit, and I wanted to make it easier for future food entrepreneurs to grow."
With demand for her batatas growing, she was able to secure a commercial kitchen space working out of Traffic Jam & Snug
thanks to Carolyn Howard, the restaurant’s proprietor.
As her production grew, Clark began routinely hosting several pop-up events, selling her delicious bites in venues such as MOCAD
, the bottomline coffee house, Ponyride
She partnered with other local food vendors such as Porktown Sausage
and Anthology Coffee
at her various pop-ups, complementing their offerings with hers. With all her activity and hard work The Batata Shop was quickly closing in on serving its 500th customer and paying off a $5,000 loan Clark obtained from her family...
Then on Wednesday, January 9, Clark’s grandmother Claudia M. Forrest turned 100 years old and six days later, on January 15, she passed away.
Clark says, "The inspiration for The Batata Shop has passed ... She inspired me to build The Batata Shop and I am so grateful to have had her in my life."
Clark is now more determined to be mission-driven. She says contemplatively, "When I started working on The Batata Shop, I only thought of myself as a business owner, but now that I'm involved with other groups and food entrepreneurs, I see there is so much work to be done – I am happy to do that work, especially with food."
The issue of developing a local food system is very practical for Clark. She says, "My friend Devita Davison recently returned to Detroit after superstorm Sandy destroyed her home and business in New York. Devita makes a point of explaining that during the first few weeks of devastation there was no way for food to be delivered to her neighborhood and many others because the roads were impassable and that it was neighborhood urban growers and local food entrepreneurs that stepped up to provide food to neighborhoods during that time."
Clark, the entrepreneur who sold candy to her middle school friends, earning her the nickname "Candy Clark," continues to grow her business and ideas of what makes a stronger community. Forever inspired by her grandmother, her success will be a mirror for Detroit’s success.
Photograph by Marvin Shaouni Photography.