Turkey legs, hookah and building a black empire in gentrified Dallas

On a Saturday afternoon in sunny downtown Dallas, hookah smoke and the delicious scent of roasted turkey legs fill the air. Gray clouds exhale from soft pink lips, weaving between black and brown bodies swaying to the sound of dirty Southern rap. At Whole Foods across the street, white people stop and stare. The Karen begin whispering into their phones. The principles of gentrified beige towers slam their windows. There seems to be something about blacks and browns having a good time that pisses off the surrounding sterile, pale businesses and apartment complexes. But people who are just trying to seek out pleasure at Turkey DAM are largely unaffected. Most would greet any of the Karen, invite them to sit down, and pass them the hookah.

Turkey DAM’s overwhelming hospitality is driven by African-American entrepreneur David Singh, who is helping make the Uptown neighborhood of downtown Dallas a safe neighborhood for black businesses. His restaurant and hookah establishment, Turkey DAM, is one of the black-owned businesses he owns on McKinney Avenue, Uptown’s main thoroughfare. Singh is the only black business owner on McKinney. Unfortunately, the region’s thriving black business history has been so whitewashed that even influential figures like Singh were unaware of its heritage. He only knew that starting a black-owned business in a hyper-gentrified neighborhood would be difficult but worth it.

“Walking into it was scary. We struggle enough as African Americans because of a lack of knowledge,” Singh said. “When you start a business, we don’t have, culturally, 10 years of ancestry for doing this, for coming to show us the way. It’s not their fault or our fault. They’re kids raising kids. We weren’t raised to own businesses. Now my family was. My dad was a patriarch. He did a lot for Dallas. But a lot of people in normal situations don’t know which way to go.

Freedman’s Town, as its African-American citizens called it during the post-Civil War era, was founded by freed slaves as a sanctuary from racial violence. Due to segregation, the neighborhood became self-sufficient with black-owned and operated churches, stores, and schools. This all came to a screeching halt when the city built US Highway 75 in the 1940s, dividing the African-American community and demolishing homes in the process. It was the beginning of the end for Freedman’s Town. Singh is trying to bring the neighborhood back to a place where blacks and browns can feel comfortable again.

“After we opened, a lot of people came to tell us they were happy that we gave them something they can call their own,” he said.

His entrepreneurial experience proved useful. His father, David Price, established 30 clubs and restaurants in 30 years in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, creating an urban culture in Dallas for everyone. One of his father’s spots is the iconic South Dallas Cafe.

“For Turkey DAM, we came to Uptown and wanted to find a place where we could bring culture,” he said, “to show that we could mingle with the gentrification across the street and show them the culture without them seeing it in a light negative. We welcome everyone.”

Turkey DAM’s outdoor patio is regularly a mix of all breeds. Singh welcomes everyone and has gone to great lengths to hire the right kind of staff who embody his high standards of customer service. Its staff is all-black, which helps the African-American community that frequents its restaurants feel welcome. It builds a community around good food and hookah, which is a community experience in itself, as users pass around the hookah pipe for everyone to share and enjoy. Singh is already considering San Antonio, Las Vegas and Miami to develop the Turkey DAM brand.

Singh also came up with the cheese sauce for the restaurant’s signature turkey legs, smoked on the spot. “I play myself in the kitchen. You have to enter the kitchen by trial and error. The menu also offers vegan options. But for Singh and his business partners, brother David Kyles and friend Rudy Moreno, it’s also about creating a space where all cultures can come and mingle.

“Although it’s a black-owned business, we’re not just focused on that,” he said. “Because on the weekends we have urban customers, other people might not think they’re welcome here. But we’re not a black and black-only place. The culture mixes the cultures and makes them understand who we are, who they are, whether you’re from Oak Cliff or Plano.

Trying to build a mecca for everyone is hard enough. Doing so in a historically racially segregated neighborhood is even more difficult.

“I’m not one to hide behind being African American,” he said. “Just because I’m African American, I don’t want different rules. I just wanted to be held to the same standards as everyone else. It was not worth going here. Singh said people started having a problem with his business once they saw large groups of black people having fun on his terrace at the weekend. “It was shocking to them. Not because they don’t accept it, but because they don’t understand that these people can be sophisticated too.

Turkey DAM opened just before COVID, when confusion around the city’s inconsistent compliance codes made things more complicated.

“We caught a lot of problems during COVID, based on opinion,” he said. “People were calling the police from the back of this building (the apartment complex above Whole Foods) saying they heard noises. The police were driving by and we were already closed. There was a lot of hate. I don’t blame them because that’s how they were raised. We have to show them something different.

He did everything possible to integrate into the neighborhood by meeting with members of the city council to introduce himself and spread his vision of positive entrepreneurship. It chose to close at 11 p.m. on weekdays to show respect for the surrounding buildings. Even if he loses prime sales during those hours, was that enough? During COVID, Turkey DAM was visited 256 times by the Fire Marshal, Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and Code Compliance. After talking to nearby businesses, Singh found that the city had visited other businesses in the area an average of 10 times during the same period. Through it all, Singh remains unfazed.

“A lot of what governs this field is people’s opinions,” he said. “I have to realize it won’t be a fair battle, but it’s a battle I will fight.”

And fight he has. In December 2021, Turkey DAM was attacked in the middle of the night by two arsonists who tried to set the bar on fire by dotting the patio with lighter fluid. Singh and his staff were hanging out after hours in the back of the bar when it happened and were able to immediately call the police and put out the flames. The entire crew spent the night cleaning up and repairing the damage. They were open for business the next day, undeterred, ready to shoot fireballs.

“We had to replace the doors, rebuild the tables,” he said. “The publicity was crazy. People came in saying, ‘What’s wrong?’ We worked from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. We weren’t going to let him hold us back. No insurance claim, no GoFundMe, we just rolled up our sleeves and moved on.

This kind of tenacity is the attitude that helps Singh grow. He just bought a closed bar around the corner from Turkey DAM and his restaurant TEN01 Bistro. This will give him three businesses on a corner, unheard of for a person of color in a whitewashed neighborhood. “To be able to have so many properties on McKinney and Routh Street, it’s prime real estate,” he said.

“I don’t want you to support me just because I’m black and you’re black. We are here to stay. We are not a clandestine place. I work hard every day to change their opinions.

About Louis Miller

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