By all accounts, Shirley’s Soul Food shouldn’t work.
No customers showed up to the grand opening. The restaurant is run by Shirley Combs, whose main career is driving a Stephens County school bus every day. It’s all she can do after her morning shift to come in and cook everything in time to open by 11:30, only to be back on the bus at 2.
The 66-year-old Toccoa native says she hasn’t been anywhere — save for regular trips to the Chick-Fil-A down the road in Lavonia to get ice cream.
But the Lord works in mysterious ways, and Combs’ story has reached across the country. After an opening in 2000 where her only customers were homeless, Shirley’s Soul Food has become a Northeast Georgia institution over the last two decades.
Alton Brown and his Food Network crew filmed a segment in her Downtown Toccoa restaurant back in 2006. Just this past October, she was featured in Charles Stanley’s In Touch media. A reporter who grew up riding on her school bus followed her driving the school bus, cooking in the restaurant and running a small homeless shelter in town.
In turn, the majority of diners stopping in are from out of town.
“People come in here from everywhere because they pull it up on their computer or their phone,” she said. “They come in and I tell people my story and they look at me why I am crazy. I don’t mind telling my customers about Jesus. They know who I am for.”
As Combs and I sat in the corner of the restaurant and talked, a group traveling from West Palm Beach, Florida, to Boston arrived after reading about Combs on Google.
“I’ve been blessed like you cannot believe,” Combs said of the national attention. “I’ve gotten letters and checks from California, Louisiana, Texas, and even Hawaii. I take what people give me and just am able to help more people.”
The donations coming in the mail have outpaced what’s left in the donation jar for Shirley’s Shelter sitting in the dining room. Since 2007, she has housed more than 300 homeless people in her shelter. Every day at 2 p.m. when the restaurant closes, she takes what’s left over and feeds whoever is looking for a meal.
Making a Full Turn
Combs’ arms are wide open, but there is a path she wants everyone who comes to her shelter to follow.
“When you come into my shelter, first of all you sit down with me and you accept God in your life, and we start you a new life,” Combs said.
Combs travels everywhere with her Bible she got when she says she was saved — May 3, 1991. She had already been to church that day and went up to the pastor afterward saying, “I just want to do better.”
She also had a newborn grandchild who weighed just a few pounds at the time. Doctors didn’t expect her to make it. Combs pled in prayer that the Lord spare her.
It all came to a head on her front porch later that evening.
“I was sitting out there drinking coffee, smoking a cigarette and reading the Bible,” Combs remembered. “Suddenly, I just said to myself, ‘What am I doing? I am saved. I don’t need to do any of this no more.’”
She hasn’t smoked since. And the granddaughter doctors didn’t expect to live was working a shift Saturday in the restaurant.
“I told the Lord when he saved me, I wanted a 100-percent turn,” Combs said. “It’s been a journey. I’m still on the journey.”
As we’re talking, the phone rings. After less than a minute on the phone, Combs hangs up and looks at me.
“Just a minute,” she interjects. “We got to pray about something.”
We pray for Terry, a fellow bus driver for Stephens County who has grown seriously ill from COVID-19. We pray for it to be God’s will that he can be healed from COVID-19, that God’s will prevails.
A few moments later, and she is filling in the travelers from Florida on the situation.
“We have to pray and be safe,” she said. “It’s all I know how to do.”
I can’t say I found Shirley’s because of Google Maps or a good story online.
A few Saturdays ago, desperate to get out of the house under pressure of an early Libra Fever, I set out for a hike in the national forest near Currahee Mountain. I had planned to drive up Chimney Rock, North Carolina, but I was just a few miles into my journey when I drove into Toccoa.
I wasn’t looking for soul food, but I saw “Shirley’s Soul Food” painted on one of the storefront windows and immediately turned my car around. It was nearly noon that Saturday, so I was shocked to discover I was the first customer of the day.
Shirley advised me to get the fried chicken and advised her cornbread over her biscuits, and I added some mixed beans, butternut squash casserole and macaroni and cheese. I sat down and began stuffing my face under an old wooden speaker that blasted out some old revival gospel tunes like “In the Cross” and “Rock of Ages.”
I would like to talk about the recipes and ingredients that stood out in the meal, but that would assume there are recipes.
“I ain’t got no recipes — I cook, but I don’t have recipes,” Combs said. “I just know when I got enough of whatever I am doing, and when I am seasoning I just know when it’s enough.”
It’s more than enough. It’s just right. The beans alone say “Jesus Loves You” even more clearly than the hand-carved wooden sign above the kitchen.
Combs reminds every customer just the same of God’s love in every encounter, of which there are more and more as lunch hour begins.
Remembering the Mission
As she nears the end of lunch service, Combs and her staff start making plates for any homeless people who might want them — just as they have done every day since the first. She doesn’t know how many homeless people she’ll have today, but four to five plates is the going average.
She knows most of them by name and by food preference.
“Luther is gonna want some beans and a chicken breast,” she said. “He ain’t gonna want no baked chicken.”
The restaurant business is still hard — and COVID-19 has made it even harder. But Combs has persevered and kept her doors open, not just to the restaurant but to her shelter.
Her success and strength all goes back to the same source.
“It ain’t about nothing but seeing God’s work through me. I do what he tells me to do,” she said. “It’s what we all ought to be doing. It ain’t just for me. It’s for everybody.”