When she opened the latest incarnation of Vera’s Kitchen in the former Boyd’s Bar-B-Q building on Northside Drive West, Vera Badie Baldwin brought in cooking skills she has been seasoning for more than 40 years and a depth of business experience.
Baldwin, now 55, was 11 when she took her first restaurant job, washing dishes at The Den in Millen, her original hometown. The Den, a local landmark and self-proclaimed soul food restaurant, belonged – and still does – to Domingo Green, who became her principal at Jenkins County High School while she was working at his restaurant as a teenager.
But it was a Mrs. McKenzie who was head cook then, and taught Baldwin how to prepare the dishes that she simply calls “country cooking from a country girl.”
“She’s the one that instilled everything that I know,” Baldwin said.
About her hard-work ethic and style of cooking, she means. After working at The Den to age 21, Baldwin went on to a variety of on-the-job learning in how to operate a business, especially one that serves food. She cooked for a time at Chester’s Café and then at Judy’s Restaurant, both in Millen.
She also started a lawn service, but handed that business off to her sister.
Next, Baldwin was working at Jazzy’s Pizza in Millen when a representative of the pizza distributor offered her some advice.
“He said, ‘Vera, you keep this place so clean and you do such a nice job, you need to open your own business,’” she recalls.
Springfield and back
But she couldn’t open another franchise of the same pizza label within a certain distance of Millen, and the building he found for her was in Springfield, more than 60 miles away.
“That’s how I got my very first business, and the name of that was Vera’s Pizza and Subs, on Laurel Street in downtown Springfield, Georgia,” Baldwin said.
But the commute became too much when gas price prices rose, and she returned to business in Millen, opening Vera’s Restaurant. Next she moved to a building adjoining a service station there on U.S. Highway 25.
After she married a man from the Statesboro area, she made Pulaski in Candler County her home but opened businesses in Bulloch County.
Four past locations
At one point she operated Vera’s food counters inside four different convenience stores, on Northside Drive West, on U.S. Highway 301 South, on Cypress Lake Road and at Clito.
But keeping good help and watching so many locations proved a challenge, she said. So, she cut back to the first of those locations, in the Valero’s on Northside Drive West. She stayed in business there until last July.
“I was going home to sit down, that’s what I was going to do, but it didn’t work like that. I couldn’t just sit there,” she confided, laughing. “I couldn’t sit there and I couldn’t find nothing else to do but cook, so I began searching again for a restaurant.”
She looked several places, including a location in Brooklet, and originally wanted a smaller place she could manage by herself. But Todd McIntosh, who had operated Boyd’s under its long-established name since 2015, was looking for someone to rent the building.
“So I guess God saw fit for me to get this one, and I’m thankful, and that’s how I wound up here,” Baldwin said.
So not long after Boyd’s closed, she took over, and opened the new Vera’s Kitchen in late October.
8 staff, 7 days
The results are currently being served up three meals a day, seven days week. Baldwin keeps it going with just seven employees besides her. At lunchtime she always seems to be there either cooking or operating the cash register.
The restaurant operates cafeteria-style. Three pricing options start at $5 for one meat and two sides and top out at $10 for all you can eat.
Sides include macaroni and cheese, rice and gravy, dressing, greens, green beans, lima beans, cabbage, fried okra, stewed okra, even grilled okra, “okra every kind of way,” she said. Besides the very popular fried pork chops, meats range from the more middle-American meatloaf to the deeply soul-food pigs’ feet and chitterlings.
Of course there’s hoecake-style cornbread, biscuits, rolls, plus pies and cakes by a home baker who comes to the restaurant to make them.
The Vera’s Kitchen sign has been placed on the same pole with the old Boyd’s Bar-B-Q sign, keeping a Statesboro landmark intact.