Skip to main content

Counter Service and Community Building: Yo’ Mama’s Recipe for Success

Season 2: Episode 41


Listen here

Crystal Peterson, owner of Yo’ Mama’s, has kept service at the forefront of her strategy from day one. Located in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, the family-run comfort food restaurant targets the city’s busy visitors and workers during lunch hour with quick and friendly counter service. Reviewer Delia S. shares how her first experience in Yo’ Mama’s welcoming community space made the restaurant a staple in her rotation.

On the Yelp Blog: Discover the power of using market research to attract your target audience.

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Behind the Review features conversations with business owners and customers who wrote one of their Yelp reviews. In our discussions, we talk about lessons they’ve learned that can be used by other small businesses to improve their own reviews…and their bottom line.

This week, I’m talking with Crystal Peterson, owner of Yo’ Mama’s, a popular Birmingham comfort food destination. A family-run operation, Yo’ Mama’s is known for their fast-paced and friendly service, along with their delicious chicken and waffles. In nearly a decade of business, the restaurant has built up a flourishing customer base of travelers and locals alike.

We’ll also hear from reviewer Delia S. As a Yelp Elite, Delia is an expert at using Yelp to both find and share hidden gems in her community, which is how she came across Yo’ Mama’s.

DELIA: I was fortunate to find Yo Mama’s through actually the Yelp community. I was supposed to be meeting a friend for breakfast one day and I was like, Ooh, where should we go? And I saw Yo Mama’s. And many Elites had said that it was good. And so I said, we should go here, friend. Let’s do it.

DELIA: So this particular restaurant is located in the downtown area of Birmingham. And it just so happens that I was unfamiliar with this place. But upon entering, it is a walk up line, and you’re immediately greeted by the vivacious and energetic employees that were there. And you walk up to the counter and you order. And what I liked about this was that the name of the restaurant, you know, it was Yo’ Mama’s and it really feels like this space where your mamas would be. I mean it really lives up to its name.

EMILY: The rest of Delia’s dining experience lived up to this favorable first impression. Let’s give her review a listen.

DELIA: Yum, yum, yum. How did I not know that this wonderful Black-owned restaurant existed? Apparently it’s been around for five years nestled in a convenient part of downtown – next door to Urban Standard. This establishment does not disappoint. I went around nine on a Monday and it wasn’t crowded. I hear it can get quite busy.

The woman who took our order was so friendly and practically walked us through the menu. My friend and I both opted for the chicken and pancakes. She got lemon pepper wings and I got regular. The pancakes were phenomenal. They are thick, but not like Popeye’s Biscuit thick, and they have a scrumptious, buttery, crispy outside, which was to die for.

Those lemon pepper wings were the bomb, although those plain wings were good and crispy, the lemon pepper definitely won, hands down, in terms of flavor. You gotta try their special syrup on either the pancakes or the waffles. You won’t be disappointed.

EMILY: Delia is one of many faithful customers that Crystal and her family have earned since they started. Let’s hear about how they turned a side gig selling food at jazz festivals into a thriving brick-and-mortar operation.

CRYSTAL: Me and my mom started this business really back in 2011. We started going to different jazz concerts down in Florida, and we would take our entire family and we were working just the food side. A lot of people got so, they loved our food so much because some of the people that went down to the concert were actually locals. They were from Birmingham, and they were like, y’all should put this in Birmingham.  We went for like 3 years before we even actually pushed forward. Cause my mom was actually still working in Bell South, it was still Bell South at the time. So she couldn’t ever be off long enough to actually start a business.

We eventually got into a brick and mortar in 2014. I started doing all this stuff cause I went to UAB for marketing with a concentration in management. I’ve never worked in a restaurant, we’ve never owned a restaurant. My mom used to work in a restaurant when she was younger. It was a place in Birmingham called Fish and Chips, and that might’ve given her a little bit of wanting to own a restaurant. When you have kids, your dreams kind of get put on hold, because she had three, and she was being a mother versus before she was being Denise.

We started in 2014 after I graduated from UAB. My sister, she does everything UX UI. She’s a developer. So she did our logo, she does our website. She does most of our social media. I may put the content, but she creates the image.

Everybody came together as a family. My dad did finance. So he does all the financials for the restaurant and my mother does all the recipes. I do all the relations. I’m really more the relationship marketing, customer relations, and my sister does everything again, UX UI, and we just all came together and created a brand that turned around and created a business.

EMILY: One thing that helped the Peterson family business grow from the start is their focus on gluten-free food. Having a niche can make your business a huge attraction for groups with needs that they can’t fulfill just anywhere. It also provides a key element of surprise for customers who don’t come in looking for allergen-friendly food but leave satisfied with their delicious meal.

CRYSTAL:  My sister’s best friend was a celiac and because they lived together, my sister started eating gluten free herself. And so my mom would change the recipes when she was coming into town just so she would feel included without not being able to get dressing, not being able to get something fried, and not having to change what she’s eating. She could eat with everyone. And nobody ever knew that it was gluten free.

That’s when we realized that, Hey, we can really have a restaurant like this, because if we market that we’re gluten free, it will run people away. If we put ourselves on every platform that is regarding gluten free, as in ‘find me gluten free’ or any type of thing, just put it as a check mark, they will come. And it’s true!

After you get a few people coming in and they start giving you 100% ratings or thumbing up and saying, ‘I am highly sensitive, gluten free, and I had the best chicken and waffles I’ve ever had in my life since my diagnosis.’ And some people say this is the best chicken I’ve ever had in my life, regardless if it was gluten free or not.

And few people know that there’s only certain things that you need to do to make it not gluten free. And the funny thing about people that come in and be like, what’s the GF mean? I’m like, ‘Oh, good food.’ You know because if you’re a celiac you automatically know that gluten free is gluten free.

EMILY: With nearly ten years of business under her belt, Crystal’s restaurant has become a staple in her neighborhood. She planted the seeds for success by doing market research early on to inform her business model and strategy. She knew she needed to fill gaps in her community, and focus on specific customer targets, to succeed.

CRYSTAL: You just have to know what is out there because the most thing I did was actually eat at every single restaurant I could think of that could be comparable to me. And when I ate at all those places that were comparable to me, I was looking at what was missing from it.

Was it the customer service aspect? Was it the food aspect? Was it the portion size? Was it the flavor? Researching my area, it helped us create the recipes that matter for us. It didn’t really matter if it’s for someone that’s coming from California, because what you know about travelers is that you automatically love something even more simply because you’re on vacation. You already have a different positive attitude about what you’re going into because you’re on vacation. And the other part of my customer base was lunch people that hate their jobs.  And sometimes what we try to do in our space is give you a midday getaway where you don’t really think about being at work. You don’t really think about being at home. You don’t really think about going back to work. You just, in that moment, live in that moment and live in that plate.

EMILY: One crucial aspect of this “midday getaway” is Yo’ Mama’s hands-on service. Instead of waiting for someone to bring over a menu, customers order at the counter, where they are guided by one of Yo’ Mama’s own menu experts. A strategy that came out of her initial market research, Crystal made this decision to maximize contact with her customers, while keeping waiting time at a minimum.

CRYSTAL: The reason we did counter service instead of a menu is because in my research, most people would spend 30 minutes or waste 30 minutes trying to pick out their menu items. The easiest way for me to turn my table is to get rid of those 30 minutes. If I already get my money from you from the beginning, you have no reason to already try to complain to not have to pay, because you’ve already paid. I don’t have to waste the time on trying to see if you’re going to try to skip the bill. It’s like I take away all the angst that I could get as an owner to then now provide the customer service that I can without having to worry about the dot dot dots.

EMILY: This engaging and quick service stood out to Delia as a hallmark of her experience at Yo’ Mama’s. New restaurants can be overwhelming environments for first-timers, and customers appreciate when employees not only acknowledge their presence right away, but walk up and help find what they’re looking for. Simple interactions like these can go a long way in keeping customers – and their family and friends – coming back to your business.

DELIA: For me as a consumer, I am especially drawn to the entire experience of a restaurant. The food can be great, but for me, if the service is slow or if the service staff seems like they’re uninterested that I am there as a customer, then, it’s not going to get as high of a review for me.

But when I walked into Yo’ Mama’s – and I remember this because even though it was years ago, I was greeted. It was like as soon as I walked in, my presence was not only known, but appreciated. And that made me feel welcome. I was just staring at the two monitors at the front counter and the employee there was like, the service staff said,

‘This must be your first time here. Huh?’ I said, How’d you know? She said, ‘cause you’re looking a little lost, but let me help you walk through what you like. And she said, what do you like? And I was talking to her about what I like. She said, so you should get the pancakes. And that happened not only the first time that I was there, but actually I just recently went again a couple of months ago.

And it, I promise you not, it was the consistent experience where I went in and I was met enthusiastically by the front counter service and she was again making jokes with me, told me about the specials, helped me decide. And then brought out our food. And so I just remember the interpersonal contact that this restaurant does on a consistent basis.  The vibe I got was, we’re excited that you’re here. We appreciate your business. And we also want to make this a establishment where you will continue to visit, not just one time, but you will continue to visit and you will tell other people about it, which I did.

EMILY: One reason Crystal’s customer service is so top-tier is because she’s always in the building. Culture is created from the top down, and by being around to build relationships with both her employees and customers, Crystal has created a space that really aligns with her vision. For some business owners, the end goal is to not have to be there yourself. But you want to create an environment where your employees are used to having you around and you’re confident they’ll provide service that is up to your standards.

CRYSTAL: I really try to engage in everyone in their own way because you can kind of tell the new people when they walk in, if they’re new, by how they walk in. I’m a person that looks at body language.

I’m the person that’s at the front counter 90% of the time, because my brand, in a sense, I wanted it to be like Chick fil A, where they require the owner to actually work in the space. If I was to franchise, which I would be looking to do soon, but not too soon, I want the owner to want to be able to, to work in the space as well. Because what I’ve known is that workers work better when the owner’s in the building,  and you get a better product when the owner’s in the building, so therefore the customer is more satisfied simply because the owner is in the building.

EMILY: With her homemade recipes and customer engagement, Crystal’s goal is to create a space that feels like an extension of home for her diners, especially those who live in the surrounding area. She emphasizes the importance of supporting businesses in the neighborhoods where you live and work.

CRYSTAL: I really believe it just comes from my upbringing. My grandmother was heavy in the community. She was big on going to the neighborhood meetings, the associations, the economics. So I understand economy. If I don’t support the five miles of where I live, who will?  How do I expect my area to grow if I don’t support my area? Because what happens in Birmingham is most people live in Birmingham, but they work everywhere else and they spend their money everywhere else.  So if you don’t spend your money in Birmingham and you don’t work in Birmingham, you only give your city property taxes, which is once a year.

To me, it’s like you have to be a citizen and to be a citizen, it equates all those things. It equates using your money right by your house instead of going to the other side of town, because you may save 50 cents, but you may also cripple your area because you didn’t spend those 50 cents in your area.

EMILY: When people make an effort to support local businesses, they become a valuable source of communion for the entire neighborhood. Delia loves Yo’ Mama’s as a restaurant where she is able to not only enjoy delicious Southern comfort food, but also, time with her friends and family, as they dine in a comfortable, welcoming space.

DELIA: I think as an Elite, just as a consumer in general, and as a person who enjoys the communion that comes with sharing a meal – and generally I’m sharing that meal with friends or family – that the places that we pick to eat can really create a space that can enhance our experience, how we experience each other. And I think that’s why restaurants like Yo’ Mama’s is so important, because it not only provides that space, but it also has good food while you’re enjoying the ambiance.

EMILY: An important part of building a successful community space is prioritizing inclusivity. Thanks to Crystal’s gluten-free niche, Yo’ Mama’s has become a haven for customers with dietary restrictions – and their family and friends.

CRYSTAL: I’ve literally had customers that have come in and cried because their kid has never been able to eat in a restaurant because they are gluten intolerant. And they actually sit there and enjoy a meal with them and their kid is devouring the food and the parent is just enjoying the moment of being able to actually do that instead of having to bring a snack in for them to eat while they were at a restaurant to make them feel included or get food from another restaurant or food from home and bring it to them. Or just not even come and sit in a restaurant because they don’t want their kid to feel not included.

EMILY: By integrating community into her mission from the start, Crystal was able to stay afloat during the pandemic when many Birmingham businesses were forced to shut down. Loyal regulars were determined to continuing supporting Yo’ Mama’s, and in return, Crystal kept her restaurant experience as affordable and safe as she could.

CRYSTAL: The 1st big pivot, I guess, was COVID when it switched from everybody feeling comfortable to come out. The people working downtown were no longer working downtown because they’re all working remote.  So, our customer base changed during COVID because it ended up making more people that were local, that were working from home that may not have  worked downtown, but live closer to downtown. They became new customers. And the people that work downtown usually lived in the suburbs. Some of them came intentionally just to make sure that we stayed open just because they wanted to support – because we were supporting the community at the same time.

Because we are downtown and we are by both, I-20 and 65, a lot of our customers are travelers, that’s without COVID. And during COVID, a lot of the traveling stopped. So we were really literally supported by locals. Some travel was still done because people were still going to the beach, because they were still allowing people that own condos to go down to the beach because as long as you were the homeowner, you could still travel and go. So we still did see some travelers. It was just probably like a 25% reduction.

We had to go from, order at the counter to now allowing online ordering. People weren’t sitting in the restaurant during COVID. I had a waiting area, but I wasn’t allowing people to sit. We had to change from doing plates, plated, to doing to-go situations because I was really more focused on not continuing the germs in the building. And we were sanitizing with Clorox bleach just to keep the germs down to make sure that the employees and the customers were both safe.

It was a lot going on. It was a lot of money being spent on just chemicals. The pricing of items,  pretty much when we first started – oil was $17.99 for a 35 pound container of oil. Right now, it’s $35.99 for it, but during COVID, it was $58. So it was like, well, just the grease alone, that’s not even so we were spending a lot of money. And we didn’t really want to put the cost onto the customer because we also knew that they were struggling. So, a lot of that during COVID, we were eating the costs and not raising our prices just to keep our customers still coming in, but also caring about the community because we understood everybody was struggling at that point and we didn’t want to make a long term decision on a short term situation. And once you change your prices like that. I mean, a lot of people understood, but it still made them only be able to come one time a month instead of three times a month. And then you have to then increase your customer base just so you can keep the same amount of money coming in.

EMILY: Though Yo’ Mama’s has a reliable customer stream and a strong Yelp presence, some good businesses lack the support they need from customers to stay alive, especially online. Delia stresses that it’s important to highlight under reviewed places, especially if you had a particularly good experience there.

DELIA: If they have 1,200 reviews, then I may not, I’ll probably not write a review. But let’s say it’s a local restaurant, especially somewhere in Alabama, if it’s a local restaurant and maybe they don’t have a website or they don’t have a large presence on social media. And I feel like because a lot of people look at Yelp, whether or not they specifically go to the website. Even if they go through Google or Bing, Yelp is coming up. Then I feel that I can help this business gain more traction by putting as much up as I can. So if it’s a new restaurant, I’m putting everything I can, including the outside. I’m putting multiple pictures of the atmosphere on the inside. I’m taking pictures of the menu, I’m taking as many photos of the food that I order and I’m writing a more detailed review.

EMILY: In addition to filling gaps across reviews, Delia focuses on the missing pieces of the Yelp page itself when deciding what information she wants to include in her review. Whether you’re uploading photos of the menu that don’t exist on the page or leaving thoughtful tips about something that soured your experience, Delia has found success as a Yelp Elite by being intentional with every review she leaves.

DELIA:  I’ll walk through a little bit about where my logic is on how I review because sometimes it can be a little sporadic, but generally, what I will always do is upload pictures and that is going to be deciding what on the Yelp restaurant’s page is missing. Are there pictures of the menu? Are there pictures of certain foods that are missing? And if I know that I’m going to order that food, then I’m definitely going to take a picture of that dish and upload it to Yelp.

If I don’t have enough time, or, honestly, if the restaurant is let’s say, maybe three or two stars, but I really had a great experience with the service that I got, I will probably choose not to review it sometimes. And then I would just leave a tip. I would just say, Okay, when you’re here, try out this meal, but know that service might be slow. Or, you know, I’ll add some tips in there because I think it does help restaurants. But if there is a restaurant that I know, especially because I know this is people’s livelihood and I take that seriously, when I am writing a review that I don’t just indiscriminately give one stars or five stars or three stars. I actually really think about that. And if I have a superb experience or if I have a incredibly negative experience, I try to wait until I’m less attached to it emotionally, and then I can write more of a fair review. I try to write a fair review as possible.

EMILY: The intentionality of reviews is something Crystal also keeps in mind as she monitors her Yelp page. While some 1 star reviews are a valuable window into the dissatisfaction of a customer, not all critical reviews are helpful or require a change in your business. It’s important to differentiate between these instances if you want to use customer reviews to improve your business.

CRYSTAL: When I look at negative reviews, first, I look at the reviewer. I’ll click the reviewer and see if they’re just the only time they post is negative things.

So if all they post are negative reviews, that means the only time they ever review is when they’re mad. So that means they won’t even review me if they’re happy.  So I just kind of take that review as they might have had a bad day and I had nothing to do with it.

If it’s price sensitive, I have nothing to do with that. I understand that everybody doesn’t have the disposable income to come to me, and I’m okay with that because that’s not my customer base. And I’m okay with that. I have some people that are coming to my restaurant because they have fixed income. So I only expect to see them on the 1st, the 15th, the 3rd Wednesday of the month because they have fixed income. I don’t spend money to obtain these customers, but I give customer service to these customers. So it’s like as a business owner, you have to navigate and know who is your actual customer that you’re trying to obtain and who is the customer that just clearly walks through the door from word of mouth.

Some people will be in a city and they will come in from word of mouth, from either the airport, or they went to the Civil Rights Museum, or they are just downtown and they hit the best places near me. And when they come in, it’s like, yeah, you may say that this price is $15 for chicken and waffle, $15.35 when taxes included. But if you compare mine to anybody else’s, I kill theirs and I’m $3 cheaper. When you have that, you set a standard, you give a product, you give quality, and you stick to it. Because again, if you’re price sensitive, you’re not my customer.

EMILY: Crystal has a key ability to manage her emotions when reacting to criticism. And focus her energy on customer targets. She finds it’s important to bring this flexible, level-headed demeanor to her in-person operations as well, to keep customer interactions and experiences as positive as they can be.

CRYSTAL: What I’ve known is if I can manage my emotions, I can manage your emotions. Because most of the time, again, if you walk in the door and I can tell that you’re angry because you’re on the phone and you’re talking about something. What I’m going to try to do is change how you feel at the counter. Because then I can give everybody else a chance to capitalize and actually win this customer.

Because every person coming in is looking, some of them are coming in looking to lose. Some, again, some of the problems that people have don’t even include me. If they had problems before they came and they just, I didn’t change their problems. So it’s like now they’re mad because I may have said, no ma’am, but they read my tone is, no ma’am, you know what I’m saying?

So if I can control my emotions to change your emotions, then maybe we can win this, this off. And then you can actually enjoy the experience because you came in looking to not enjoy the experience.

EMILY: Another important reason to review is to highlight minority owned businesses and educate other reviewers about what they offer. Delia strives to not only invest in the Black community through Yelp but challenge stereotypes about what these businesses look like and how they operate.

DELIA: ​​Any town that I go to in the US, I am going to actively seek out Black-owned and or minority owned restaurants because doing so helps increase the visibility of these restaurants. Birmingham is a city that is actually quite diverse in terms of its food, but I feel that with a lot of Black-owned restaurants, a lot of times, they can be held to a standard that is only one type of food.

Birmingham is becoming much more of a foodie city, if you will, over the past, I would say 10, 5 years, even 3 years. Lately, there have been a lot of different types of food that have been offered in this community. I also think that because there is a rich community of Black and minority people who live in Birmingham, that as a member of this community, I think it’s important for us to patronize these places but also offer the same fair criticism that we would offer other restaurants as well. I just think at times, because oftentimes in restaurants, I don’t think the playing field is fair. I feel as a Yelp elite that I am more drawn to trying as many of the smaller, often Black-owned restaurants that our city and actually our region and nation has to offer, especially in the south, because there’s such a large Black community.

But that doesn’t mean that only Black people are eating Black food. When I go into the space of Yo’ Mama’s, restaurants are spaces where I feel that have the ability to traverse across class, traverse across race, region. You go into Yo’ Mama’s and you see diversity of people there. You see old, young, White, Black, Asian, you know, all sorts of people that are gathering around this food that’s comfort food.

EMILY: This melting pot of customers is exactly what Crystal had in mind when she opened the restaurant. She wanted Yo’ Mama’s to be a haven of comfort food for people from all walks of life, and a place that creates and reflects the diverse community that Yo’ Mama’s has been able to serve.

CRYSTAL: We do a lot of high school tours or people that come in from a Civil Rights Institute and they’ll come down and it’s so crazy – the other day we had a group come from Michigan. They came in and they ate and they were literally an all white group. They came in and they ate, but they were literally saying, you know, this is the best food we’ve ever had. But again, to be great is what you want to be. You don’t want to have that attribute of just being Black being the attribute of why you support me. Because if you come in my business at any point, you won’t even be able to tell who the owner is because the crowd is so diverse that you wouldn’t be able to tell if the owner is Black or White or other.

We just try to make sure that when you come in and you see it, you can realize that hard work, consistency, and caring can get you a good business, no matter what your race is.

Grow your business with Yelp

Verify my free listing

Explore further


Serving Salsa With a Smile: How Lisa and Miguel Became Local Food Celebrities

Hear how Lisa and Miguel Segura, owners of Miguel’s Artisan Recipes, leverages customer feedback and engages with the community to serve up beloved culinary creations.
Listen Now

Brewing Community: Nirvana Soul’s Mission of Connection

A vibrant coffee shop in San Jose is fostering community through lively open-mic nights and eclectic art, all while combating loneliness with every cup.
Listen Now

Serving Happiness: Building a Business on Customer Feedback

Learn how Happy Cafe found success by listening to their customers and reviewers, leading to innovative ideas and an expanded range of offerings.
Listen Now