by Jessie McKenna
This article first appeared as the third part of a series of blog posts for Rainier Ave Business Coalition (RainierABC).
Emma’s BBQ has been treating southeast Seattle to the rich and oh-so-satisfying tastes and textures of traditional southern cooking—leaving no expectation unsatisfied—for three years, but the (secret) recipes were created in the actual South by “Momma Emma” Thomas a generation ago and have been passed down to current generations. Some menu items might be a little heart-healthier than they once were, says owner, Tess Thomas. “Through the years we may have tweaked a recipe,” says Tess, but the family gives all the credit to Momma Emma for the flavors of Emma’s BBQ.
Tess says the community has welcomed Emma’s BBQ with open arms. The restaurant sits just on the Hillman City side of its border with Columbia City. From crispy fried chicken to brisket to tender pulled pork and ribs smothered in smoky, tangy, sweet BBQ sauce—seasoned to perfection—to coleslaw, collard greens and sweet potato pie, Emma’s has all of your comfort cravings covered.
Vegetarians also have reason to rejoice as while Momma Emma herself was a meat enthusiast, her husband Albert Thomas Sr. didn’t eat meat. So for those who BBQ joints often have little to offer, Valerie Evans in the front of the house assures us that they do mac and cheese, vegetarian collards, saucy baked beans, sweet yams, and—of course—fluffy, buttery corn bread. Tess says to give her a heads up (a day or two) if you have special requests, like vegan or gluten-free versions of their popular dishes. She’s happy to oblige. They can even do vegetarian catering orders.
Momma Emma Thomas raised ten children, and today her daughter Tess runs Emma’s BBQ along with the big beautiful family that is Momma Emma’s legacy, as is the restaurant itself. The restaurant was originally on Bremerton Island and was run by Momma Emma herself, opening in 1986. Today, a mural adorns Dr. Martin Luther King Way in Bremerton that highlights some area points of interest, like the ferry dock, and features the likeness of Momma Emma Thomas standing in front of the original Emma’s BBQ. The mural was created with the help of her great-granddaughter Miceala, Tess’s eldest granddaughter.
Momma Emma was originally from Arkansas and her recipes are a little bit Arkansas, and a little bit Memphis, according to Tess Thomas, who lived in Hillman City for over 30 years before realizing her nearly life-long dream of opening her own restaurant. During that time, Tess and her husband kept busy focused on another dream: Thomas House. They opened their home to hundreds of foster children, all boys, over the years. You can read about Tess and her work with Thomas House and related programs, honors she’s received, and more at Emma’s. You’ll also find a laminated story about Momma Emma Thomas on every table.
The past is honored all over the walls at Emma’s BBQ. Along with the original business license for Emma’s BBQ in Bremerton, you’ll find pictures of prominent talents of the Black community, like Martin Luther King Jr. and B.B. King, the latter of whom Tess Thomas—also an accomplished vocalist—once opened shows for (along with Tina Turner and others). A picture of a younger Tess belting out a song sits on a counter near the register. Several framed newspaper clippings about other family restaurants also hang on the wall.
Family is a key ingredient at Emma’s. In the past, Tess often found herself helping family members establish and run their own restaurants, there have been eight total in the family. So to finally open her own in 2016, a continuation of the original Emma’s BBQ—this time in Hillman City—at over 70 years old was a huge and long-anticipated accomplishment. Loved ones came through in helping her to establish the restaurant. Many of the sons she raised during her foster parenting years have helped out at Emma’s and continue to along with her daughters, granddaughters, nephews, and other family. Tess hopes the younger generations will take over one day.
The Thomas family embraces hard work and Tess Thomas says it’s important for the community, young people especially—and particularly youth of color—to see black people working hard doing what they love and being successful at it. “My dad always said, hard work never killed anyone but hardly working will,” says Tess, which she says means to have something you’re passionate about that you like to do and do it. She subscribes to the notion that working hard, especially doing something you love, brings vitality and longevity to your life.
Tess says when she’s bedridden someday she’ll have plenty of time to read the mounds of books she’s collected over the years. She loves to read, but says there’s not much time for it now. But that’s ok. She gives them to family and tells them not to give the stories or endings away, just to tell her if they’re good so she can keep them for when she has more time to read. She says she wants an Emma’s BBQ in every community, but while she’d love to see locations sprout up across Seattle and beyond, her priority is—and always will be—on the integrity and quality of her food and service, so that’s where she keeps her focus.
Tess Thomas thrives on providing the community with excellence on every level. “From the time I pick up the phone,” she says, “I don’t know who’s on the other end of that line. They could be Bill Gates, a super star, whomever…” she says. Whoever comes through the door, they’re treated like they’re your best friend, “‘Cause that’s how my mother was. She didn’t care who you were or where you came from. Money didn’t matter to her. It was the kindness people presented to her and the way you treat people.” And, Tess says, “If you have a good product—those elements of a good product and excellent public relations will carry you.”
Get takeout, get it catered, or ensure a great experience by stopping to dine in and visit the Thomas family in their warm, charming little spot right on Rainier Ave. And if you’re ever craving a cold draft beer with a larger group, you can order Emma’s and eat it next door at Hill City Tap House. They have an adorable kids’ area in the back where the littles can safely entertain themselves too. The two restaurants have a great relationship and enjoy sharing customers and meeting their needs.
Emma’s is located at 5303 Rainier Ave S. They’re open Monday-Thursday 12–7 p.m., Friday and Saturday 12–8 p.m. Call them at 206-413-1523 to place an order or inquire about catering. More information can be found here.
However you decide to order and indulge in Emma’s BBQ, you’ll be glad you did. The Thomas family and the delicious tastes of Momma Emma’s kitchen eagerly await.
Featured image: Tess Thomas by Chloe Collyer