Ruta Smith

It’s not about the money. It’s never been about the money.

Dell’z Uptown owner Maudell Grayson closed the last outpost of her beloved vegan restaurant on Feb. 27.

She’d spent six years at the corner of Rutledge Avenue and Nunan Street, right off the Crosstown. Business was good, a concept proven over and over again since Grayson’s first Dell’z opened on Cannon Street a decade ago. The Uptown space was packed in the days leading up to that gray, chilly Thursday — massive catering orders put lunch wait times at an hour, and people traveled from Columbia and Atlanta to soak in one last afternoon at the sunny bohemian deli. “I’ve never seen so many orders of nachos,” says Grayson.

Of course, in Charleston, a restaurant closing is hardly news. It happens all the time, as natural as high tides and traffic on the bridge. For Grayson, closing one place to focus on another was just as natural: In 2009 Dell’z Deli opened on Cannon Street. In 2011, Dell’z Vibes, a juice bar, popped up on King Street around the corner. Both of those closed, but then up popped Dell’z Uptown, followed by yet another short-lived space near what’s now King Street Dispensary. There was a James Island offshoot inside a Gold’s Gym. Dell’z on the Macon, helmed by Grayson’s eldest daughter Smarel Nicole Brown, brought vegan eats and fresh juices to Reynolds Avenue in late 2017.

Even as businesses changed, expanded, contracted, for the past decade there’s always been a Jazzy pizza close at hand. But this time, it’s different.

“If you pay attention to Dell’z, every location we’ve had we turn around super fast,” says Brown. “She’s had this building [the new lifestyle cafe] for over a year.”

Grayson nods, slowly, as if she’s calculating just how much time this particular project has been swirling in her mind. She sits to the left of her daughter, two-thirds of our small circle, the equanimous counter to the chatty, beaming Brown.

Brown has spent most of her time the past six months working on Democratic candidate Tom Steyer’s presidential campaign — she’s incredibly adept at speaking to people, at translating complex ideas into relatable concepts. She’s a campaigner, a civic champion. Her mother is more reserved, telling her life story in jolts and waves.

“I’ve proven I can do the restaurant,” Grayson says. “Now it’s time to come down and help other people.”

Maudellz Lifestyle Cafe is located at 1617 Ashley River Road. The building is painted a pale pink, and is much bigger inside than you’d think. There’s a kitchen and a half-dozen brightly painted rooms with space for a market, a yoga studio, a dining room, even a sauna.

‘I started out with a can opener’

Grayson possesses the calm of a person who has seen more than her fair share of hardships. Her story is not one of detached nostalgia — she’s still in it. She started with a can opener.

When Grayson, her son Michael, and youngest daughter moved to Charleston from Kansas City 12 years ago, it was not all Lowcountry sunsets and downtown dreams. Her husband at the time was fighting personal struggles, she and Michael say, and his troubles didn’t magically disappear into the salty ocean air. They hit a rough patch.

Grayson and Michael had a falling out. He was only 16 when they relocated, and he hadn’t spoken to his mother in two years when she showed up at his graduation.

“I said, ‘I missed you, let’s move back together,’ ” says Michael. He’s calling from California — he relocated to the West Coast at the end of February. He’s as charming as his sister with the grounded humility of his mother. He’s working to market Dell’z Goddess Sauce to the public, and says he’ll be back and forth between California and Charleston. He hasn’t been away from his mother in years.

“She told me, ‘I’m 45, I can’t work for anyone else,'” says Michael, explaining the genesis of the OG Dell’z. They entertained the idea of working with other people and even discussed going in on the opening of healthy local franchise, Black Bean Co. But Grayson was unflappable. No collaborations, no joint contracts. Just Dell’z.

Ten years ago, when Dell’z Deli opened at 1A Cannon St., the area was without chic European-inspired cafe Babas on Cannon and award-winning seafood emporium, The Ordinary. “It still had prostitution,” says Michael. But it was a space of their own. And fate, or divine intervention, or perhaps the long line of well-deserved karma keeping tabs on Maudell Grayson came through just in the nick of time. “My tax lady called me that day and I had just the amount we needed to open,” says Michael.

Dell’z opened with fresh, healthy eats, staying open late for college kids before “late night” menus at hip sushi bars and cocktail corners existed. Michael credits the community for the eventual, inevitable popularity of the forward-thinking cafe tucked away in a still-developing part of town, bolstered by bike taxis and neighboring stops Sugar and Hope and Union Coffee Co. (now Brown’s Court).

“It was hard, but it was so beautiful,” says Michael. “It was a community thing — everyone looked out for each other.” The Dell’z prices were cheap to start, probably cheaper than they should have been for the ingredients they were using. But they were building their audience, a throng of vegan nacho devotees. And people responded.

Michael worked as a chef at the Bishop Gadsden retirement community on James Island before helping his mother open Dell’z Deli, but running a kitchen day-to-day is a far cry from running your own operation out in the wild.

“We weren’t trained in the restaurant business,” laughs Michael. People showed up, though. “Fishermen on Shem Creek would bring us fish and shrimp for free,” Michael reminisces. Fresh local seafood was hard to believe then, well before oysters were being shucked a block away for $3 a pop. “How was that even possible?” Michael muses, “she just draws people in.”

Grayson doesn’t want to talk too much about her past, though she appears unfazed when we bring up the time in 2011 when she was attacked, her ex-boyfriend the suspect. It was breaking news at the time.

City Paper reporter Paul Bowers wrote in October 2011: “Maudell Grayson, owner of Dell’z Deli at 1A Cannon St., is recovering at home after being stabbed nine times in the arm around 10 p.m. Tuesday night.” Brown says she doesn’t think about it, she can’t think about it. Grayson shakes her head, points to her arm.

“We were doing late night, I was trying to show my son if you have a vision you really love you have to stick to it and be consistent,” says Grayson. “It was a lot of work … and the stabbing, I went through that.”

Grayson pauses — she’s ready to move to the next life event, to remember what happened next in the Dell’z timeline. But her daughter jumps in. “You’ve been telling half stories!” She reminds her mother of the Love Fest held after the stabbing, the one where the shop was filled with people for 12 straight hours. When people from Morocco reached out with love and concern. “They were on the phone and started crying,” says Brown. “People from Morocco!”

Grayson says she’s been cooking since she was 7 years old, always at peace when over the stove, serving people. But why vegan, we ask — why juices, why wraps and salads and gluten-free bowls? “I grew up on a farm, healthy eating is in my blood.” And while Brown is diehard, Grayson says she’s not strictly vegan. “I prefer ‘healthy lifestyle.'” That can include “weird” recipes that involve sardines, or vegan corn dogs from the “kidz menu,” or even a sliced turkey sandwich.

“She threw out the microwave in 2000,” laughs Brown. She’s bent over, recalling the scene. “We came home and it was on the curb, we thought she was crazy!” Grayson smiles, “I still don’t have a microwave.”

The self-taught chef hopes that the loyal customers will understand and appreciate the new Dell’z. “We all know the restaurant business is hard work. It’s exhausting. I love it, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” says Grayson. “But when you run a restaurant people don’t realize … they see me and say, ‘Oh, Dell, the food is good,’ but they don’t understand. I went all day yesterday and I didn’t eat! If I don’t take care of myself then how will the restaurant keep going?”

According to the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, 28 people move to the Charleston metro area daily. Figures like these, surfacing Charleston as a trendy destination, keep Brown up at night.

“Healthy eating has become a fad,” she says. “We have so many ‘vegan’ and ‘healthy’ restaurants that are no longer vegan or no longer healthy … with all the people moving to Charleston daily, we have no place for people to go and eat good food and not worry, somewhere their minds and spirits can be fed.”

For the mother and daughter, Maudellz Lifestyle Cafe will be that space. The cafe will have food, yes, but also communal spaces for gathering, unloading, and breaking down everything from daily gripes to “generational curses.” Brown is most excited about the classes, where folks will learn how to eat the way they eat at Dell’z, but at home.

Grayson says she’s ready to take some time off, travel, maybe join Michael on the West Coast for a spell and do some restaurant consulting. “My dream now is to help other people,” she says. “I will always cook until the day I die.”

Look for Maudellz Lifestyle Cafe to open at the end of March. For now, order Dell’z Eatz through Uber Eats.

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