Daddy’s Soul Food founder overcomes troubled youth; now celebrates 10 years in business & plans third location

Bennie Smith, Jr with daughter Amber. Photo supplied.

Fatherhood. Everything Daddy’s Soul Food does can be boiled down to being a loving, caring, understanding and present father — and more importantly promoting the importance of fatherhood in Milwaukee.

Daddy’s Soul Food, 754 N. 27th St. #3552, Milwaukee, is a cornerstone of the community. The  restaurant cooks up family recipes inspired by the family of owner Bennie Smith, Jr. His journey to being a restaurateur was far from simple. His upbringing was wrought with issues with his father, Bennie “Daddy” Smith Sr., who the restaurant is named after, but a brush with death in the 1980s led him to a path of forgiveness and understanding what it meant to be a father to his own children.

“Your time is running out”

“My life now that I’m given is to be an inspiration to other people, because in 1986, my heart stopped beating and I died on a hospital table,” Smith said. “And when I died, on the hospital table, it was me coming out of jail.”

In his youth, Smith had faced legal trouble a fair number of times. After he came out of jail, he met up with a friend who gave him some grain alcohol that was 190 proof — 95 percent alcohol. His body did not take to it. The last thing he remembered before waking up, strapped down to a hospital bed and being told he had died for roughly 10 minutes, was seeing his mother hours before.

Life was a haze for a couple years after Smith’s brush with death. He was always an introvert, but he took it a step further, shying away from activities and friends he had previously enjoyed. 

Soon after his death and revival, Smith entered a church in Milwaukee on 20th St. and North Avenue, where a pastor told him his time was running out. Smith was left confused, but it stayed in the back of his mind.

“I don’t know my church. You know, my family didn’t know about that — we just went on Easter. But it’s something about what she said to me. She said, ‘Young man. Your time is running out. You don’t have long to live,’” Smith said. “I looked over and I wondered, who was she talking to?’ I looked behind me and she walked up to me with the dearest eyes and said, ‘I really advise you to get saved.’” 

As time went by, Smith landed in trouble again and was arrested — wrongly, this time — in Milwaukee. During a traffic stop, a police officer thought he fit the description of a Black male involved in an armed robbery in Milwaukee.

Officers had the wrong person, but did not figure it out until he was in custody. At the time of the crime, Smith was playing baseball, and his father, Bennie Sr., provided a photo to prove it. This act, providing the evidence that exonerated his son, was the moment Bennie Sr. fully re-entered Smith’s life in nearly a decade.

“I didn’t have him in my life”

Bennie Sr. was an alcoholic and wife beater. As a child, Smith’s room was next to their parents’. He would hear his father beat his mother frequently from his room. 

“I put my head on my cover and hear my mom’s squeaky voice yelling, ‘Stop. Stop,’” Smith said. “She would come out with black eyes and broken arms. But one particular night, it was so bad — he put a hot iron to my mom’s skin.”

Smith and his sisters came to help their mother after the particularly brutal beating in 1979. His sisters took their mother to the neighbor’s house and Smith vividly remembers the blood trail leading from the house. After the incident, his father seemed to have no recollection, and it became one of the first times Smith was able to recognize his father’s struggles with mental illness and dementia. 

Another incident later in 1979 involved Bennie Sr. being found frostbitten in a warehouse during a blizzard. His family found him after police reported his mother’s car found in the middle of the storm. Smith and his family knew that their father was using it for work. After he recovered, Bennie Sr. left his family for a culinary job in Zion, Illinois. Bennie Sr. still visited his family occasionally, but was mostly absent from the family.

“I didn’t have him in my life for all those years. I knew how it was to have a father, but I had mine,” Smith said. “I could make it on my own. Make my own decisions, most decisions were bad. Most people have that guidance.”

Smith did not have his father fully in his life again until 1988 when Bennie Sr. provided the picture that exonerated Smith from the crime he was wrongly arrested for. Smith was facing 20 years in prison if convicted, and his father came through in one of his greatest times of need. Smith went on to stay with his father in Zion.

The happy reunion was short-lived, however. Smith stayed with his father for some time until an incident after the two went to a club together saw Bennie Sr. again turned to violence.

When the two were at the club, Smith recognized that his father was being set up to be robbed by two other patrons at the club. He rushed to his father’s aid. The two left the club shortly after and his father inexplicably struck him in the face. Bennie Sr. stopped the car and went to go get a rod from an old carjack out his trunk. He intended to beat his son with it.

Smith jumped into the driver’s seat as his father walked back to him and knocked windows out of the car in his path. Smith peeled off and was stopped by an Illinois State Trooper. Bennie Sr. wrestled with the trooper admitting that he was trying to kill his son.

Smith was advised not to go home. The state trooper drove him to a 24-hour diner where he sat until 6:00 am to call his boss to pick him up. Later that day, Smith went back to his father’s house since he had nowhere else to go. Bennie Sr. returned to the home drunk and proceeded to strangle Smith until he was able to get free and run away.

Smith remembered the church in Milwaukee. He called and asked for help, which that pastor – the one who’d told him two years earlier that his time was short – was happy to provide. At the end of his struggle with crime, life and death and his father, Smith was only 22 years old.

He spent the next few years recovering. He met his wife, had his first kid and found stable work as a caretaker of an apartment building. After six years and seven months, Bennie Sr. again reappeared into Smith’s life, but he was different. Bennie Sr. had returned as the loving father Smith had known in his early childhood. Bennie Sr. died of cancer on Easter Sunday, 2013.

“I tell this testimony because most people don’t understand that fatherhood is not about the good times, it’s about what made you who you are,” Smith said. “So that’s why this restaurant is named after Daddy, because it talks about what fatherhood is. It’s the trials. It’s the ups and downs. It’s the brutal, good, bad and ugly.”

At the same time, Smith was at a crossroads as an entrepreneur. During the stretch of time in Milwaukee, he started Daddy’s Soul Food as a catering company and was trying to work it into his own full-on restaurant. He felt that if he wasn’t able to move into a brick-and-mortar location, he’d have to change paths and find a new way to support his growing family. A friend who owned a building called with the chance he needed.

Smith only had a few thousand in his bank account with bills to pay and a family to support. The location was ideal, but he could not afford the necessary remodeling costs needed to launch the restaurant. Another stroke of luck hit due to him and the owner having history. The owner offered to pay for $25,000 in for the costs to get set up.

Everything was almost ready to go but Smith was waiting on the license to operate Daddy’s Soul Food — a license that required a fee he couldn’t afford. He gambled, floating a bad check with the hopes that nothing would happen, and he could raise the last bit of money he needed before the city cashed the check. It worked.

Years went by and the small operation, just as big as the former Subway it was housed in, found popularity. Eventually Smith received services from the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation. He was able to expand into the entire building and later into a second location at 6108 Bluemound Rd.

Smith is passionate about telling the story that made him into the man he is today and starting the restaurant he loves to operate. Tears well in his eyes recounting the hardships he felt, but the tears were mostly for the pain he saw his father go through.

His time with Daddy’s Soul Food has been a great success. The restaurant is one of Milwaukee’s best-kept secrets that sees the Bucks and celebrities from all over come to enjoy. 

“Then we had Kylie Jenner coming in and Travis Scott. I came here on a Saturday and said, ‘Why is nobody on the line,’” Smith said. “I saw (my daughter) Amber. She was crying and I said, ‘Amber what’s wrong?’ She said, ‘Kylie Jenner is eating my banana pudding.’”

The menu is designed by the whole family. Between Smith, his wife Angela and their six children, the offerings are plenty. Soul food staples like collard greens, yams, catfish and so many more can be enjoyed from the family inspired dishes.

Smith is set to open a third location at a multi use facility at the previous former State Theater, 2612-2616 W. State Street, Milwaukee, called Dulaney’s — named after his mother. The name deviates from the Daddy’s franchise, but the overall goal of providing family inspired soul food and providing a space to build community and promote positive family relationships is the same.

Dulaney’s is set to open in mid 2024. The hours and full menu for Daddy’s Soul Food at both current locations can be found on its website