From photographs and stories, not much appears to have changed over the years at Aunt Bea’s Café in Rock Island.
Fluorescent lights still illuminate the restaurant’s bright interior, which features a long counter and square tables covered in red-and-white checkered tablecloths. A tribute to civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, decorate one wall, while a homemade sign thanking customers for “not using profanity” hangs on another wall nearby.
A classic vinyl jukebox player no longer works, but its presence adds to the luster of the establishment, which opened almost 25 years ago at the corner of 25th Avenue and 9th Street.
Most importantly, soulful owner Beatrice Harrington still runs the place and cooks in front of her customers on Rock Island’s west side, which, historically, has struggled to stand out for the right reasons.
“That was one of the reasons why I opened up in the west end of Rock Island because there was so much negative publicity about this area,” said Harrington, who lives above her restaurant. “A lot of people discouraged me from opening up here because of all that (gang) activity.”
In 1993, the then-35-year-old who worked for Iowa American Water at the time, purchased the property she now calls home and opened for business. Three years later, she quit her desk job to cook full time.
February marks Black History Month, and Harrington prides herself on her work that’s made her an integral black business owner in the community. In 2010, the Mississippi native was honored as a “Shero” at the Women’s Black History Month Tea Party.
However, the 58-year-old Harrington, who raised one daughter and has nine grandchildren, does not plan on stopping her service — which is not limited to her extensive menu of Southern home cooking — anytime soon.
'Matron in charge'
Aside from her fried chicken, vegetable platters and all-day breakfast specials, Harrington serves guidance to those she thinks need assistance. She sees herself as a “spiritual mentor” for troubled young men on the “wrong path” and said she has connected with several of them since opening her door in 1993.
“I would talk to them as a mother,” she said. “As long as they were here, they were safe.”
On Thursdays, she takes a break from her morning duties to participate in prayer with a group of regulars, including the Rev. Leonard Astrowski of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Rock Island.
The pastor, who moved to the Quad-Cities about two years ago, called Harrington the “matron in charge.”
“She’s the one who brings us all together,” said Astrowski, who routinely orders one of her big breakfast plates, which includes grits, for less than $6. “It’s the best breakfast in town.”
Astrowski, who also salivates over Harrington's peach cobbler, fried chicken and collard greens, continued his praise for the landmark and everything there made from scratch.
“She blesses everybody’s day,” he said. “It amazes me when I hear people who have lived in Rock Island their entire life have never had food there.”
Hog guts, anyone?
But Astrowski, among other white customers, Harrington said, have not tried one of her most popular meals: chitterlings, commonly called chitlins, a Southern staple prepared from pig intestines.
While several customers revere the dish that sets Aunt Bea's apart from other soul food restaurants in town, others completely avoid it.
And because of their popularity, chitlins are not always available upon request.
"A lot of times, I’m cooking them, but they’ve already been sold because most people reserve them," Harrington said.
She orders 10-pound buckets of the stuff and prepares several batches every week.
In the back of her restaurant, which is heated by a gas furnace during the winter months, Harrington cleans the goods in a three-bay sink. Six of her grandchildren, who attend Frances Willard Elementary School across the street, sometimes help her, as well.
They scrape the fat from each chitlin strip before boiling or deep-frying the finished product with onions and potatoes, which should not smell if prepared correctly, Harrington said. Before digging in, enthusiasts usually douse them with hot sauce or mustard.
Traditions passed on
If they help out in the kitchen or bus and clear tables, Harrington will reward her grandchildren.
"They know in order for them to get paid, they have to work, and that's what I want to instill in them," she said. "You have to work for it. It's not just going to be given to you."
After school on Monday, five of her grandchildren stopped by Harrington's digs for an after-school snack.
As they appeared one by one through the restaurant's doors, "Granny" served them bowls of collard greens, red beans and sweet potatoes.
"They're picky, but they know there are some foods they have to eat here," she said. "I don't call it soul food because people associate soul food with grease, and I don't like grease."