Auntie J’s in Lennox offers much-needed comfort food for the soul

Published: Dec. 12, 2022 at 10:38 PM CST
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LENNOX, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Whether you grew up in the country or not, going to Auntie J’s American Soul Food is like going home.

Well, kind of. Chances are your supper didn’t involve Jamaican BBQ fried chicken, collared greens, and honey cornbread. Or Italian sausage penne with a Cajun flare.

“I just go above and beyond with the seasonings and stuff,” owner and chef Williamson said, “so you can have something that’s a little kicked up from what you normally have.”

The exceptional and heightened taste may not be familiar, but the setting is meant to be — for both the owner and customer.

Situated on Main Street in Lennox, about 25 minutes from the heart of Sioux Falls, this new small-town restaurant has big-time flavor and a grandma’s kitchen vibe. Asked what inspired it all, Williamson said, “My love of hospitality. Any birthday, holiday, special occasions that come up, it would always be at my place, and I would cook.”

But Williamson is far from home. She spent her entire life in Northern California until the pandemic hit.

”Everything was just too shut down where we were, and we lost a lot during that time,” Williamson said. “I lost a business. My husband lost a job, and it was just really horrific on our family structure.”

So, Joni, her husband of 25 years, Jess, and their five kids — ranging from ages four to 26 — packed up their lives and moved to South Dakota.

Why South Dakota? Joni did her research. She liked the state’s looser covid restrictions at the time, figuring it might give her family a second chance at running a family business. And Lennox — best known for its massive Fourth of July parade and celebration — reminded her of her rural upbringing.

”(I was) looking for America,” Williamson said. “I’m looking for the American dream again. I want to build it back up for my family and for myself. That’s why we’re here.”

But owning a restaurant was not the plan. One day, she was buying kitchen nick-nacks at a sidewalk sale outside a building on Main Street in Lennox that housed a Archery Shack, a bow-and-arrow range.

The former Sunshine Foods grocery store property had also housed “Dennis’s Deals,” a nick-nack retail space owned by Dennis Hatle, who noticed Williamson smitten was with a lot of kitchenware.

“He said, ’I see you like to cook.,’” Williamson said. “And I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I love cooking.’ He’s like, ‘Well, wouldn’t you like to have a restaurant?’ And I said, ‘Oh, yeah, sure. I’ve always wanted that.’ He said, “Well, come back on Wednesday.’ I’m like, ‘Uh, seriously?!’”

Williamson called it “serendipity.”

She had never owned a restaurant. Never really worked in a restaurant. But she had worked in kitchens. And she knew some gold standard chefs.

Her mother, Jurutha, a Louisiana native, was always cooking, even sold tamales out of a truck.

“If I remember anything, it’s food with her,” Williamson said. “She did some things I didn’t quite understand. She had all kinds of traditions, like making oatmeal cookies with cheese. That’s interesting. She liked Irish food. She liked pubs. She did a lot of interesting things, not just soul food. She was a foodie.”

Jurutha lost her life after battling breast cancer when Williamson was just 12 years old. That left a maternal void until she met Jesse and his mother Jeanine and his grandmother Iva.

And when she decided to take the leap and open Auntie J’s this past February, Williamson inherited her foodie ways from Jurutha, and adopted the human touch with customers from Jeanine and Iva.

“They embodied hospitality and taking care of people,” Williamson said. “Just bringing in people, whether it be family or friends or neighbors or community. Whoever they brought in, it made them feel comfortable.

“It was just passed down to me, and that’s something I try to do for my customers here.”

Which is why you should not expect a typical restaurant experience when you walk in.

”It’s homey. It’s comfortable,” Williamson said. “There’s people to hang out and talk to. It’s not just, you sit, you eat, you leave. You may meet somebody here and spend some time here. We like that.”

The family vibe at Auntie J’s is literal. Williamson is the sole employee of the operation most of the time. During the day, when she’s not preparing meals, she is home schooling her two youngest children — Abagail (6) and Sampson (4).

She also opens the space up to other home-schooled kids and their parents, calling it a “home school co-op.” They take trips to places like the police department and fire department together. The local dentist came by one day.

So, it is no surprise that part of the sprawling layout of Auntie J’s includes a living room space, complete with couches, a large TV, board games and puzzles. And that space is open to customers when they come to eat. It’s perfect if you have restless little ones that can’t sit still when you go out to eat.

“The kids are free to roam around,” Williamson said. “It’s very kid-friendly. It has to be because I have little ones myself.”

Another quirky charm of the place — it still houses Dennis’s Deals. Williamson now rings up some of those nick-nacks that caught her eye that fateful day. And there’s the giant archery range that is tough not to notice. It is only open to members and, typically, not in operation during Auntie J’s hours, which range from 4-7 p.m. on Tuesday thru Friday.

Archery Shack is owned by the building’s owners, Mark and Melinda Franklin.

They’ve bought Williamson new ovens and other equipment. They’ve given her space and time to try new things, re-set her hours and menu, and go back to the drawing board.

“Without that encouragement and support, I wouldn’t still be here today,” Williamson said.

The decor throughout the restaurant feels like a Crackel Barrel, yet far more original. It includes the menu of a cafe that used to be part of the building’s space decades ago.

Sunflowers are everywhere — real sunflowers, artificial sunflowers, and sunflower drawings. They are inspired by both her younger sister, Carla, a cancer survivor.

It was the first thing Williamson made a priority to do with the space.

“She’s beautiful. She’s strong. And she’s resilient, like the sunflower,” Williamson said.

But the star of the show is “Auntie J” and her “soul food,” a term you don’t see around the Upper Midwest much.

Other than having a little extra “kick” to it, Williamson said it is not as exotic as you’d think.

“A lot of people associate that with Southern, but I think it’s all good food,” Williamson said.

The “soul” part is more of a way of life, and way of being when you’re at Auntie J’s.

“Comfort. Family. Wholesomenss,” Williamson said.

The menu has been in flux since the eatery opened. She’s tried her own recipes. She’s tried to follow national trends. She’s tried to provide dishes you can’t get anywhere else, and the crowd pleasers everyone loves.

And what the menu will offer you depends on the day. Auntie J’s is open Tuesday thru Friday.

For now, Tuesdays are for Tex Mex, including “indian tacos.” Wednesdays, Italian sausage pasta with a “cajun flare.”

Thursdays, a true Southern spread — BBQ ribs and chicken, collared greens, sweet potatoes, and honey corn bread.

And then there’s catfish Fridays. Joni does that because she listened to her neighbors — and that’s what they like.

”These people are amazing,” Williamson said of the building’s owners and her newfound customers and friends. “And they really just want something going here. And we don’t have a lot in town at the moment, and so having this here is a good thing.”

Turns out, Williamson isn’t far from home after all. She’s found it.