NBA legend Kevin Johnson opening soul food restaurant in Five Points

Kevin Johnson hadn’t planned to open his Denver restaurant, Fixins Soul Kitchen, until 2026.

The former Phoenix Suns point guard and onetime mayor of Sacramento, California, joked that it wasn’t until he made a wager with Mayor Michael Hancock on the Denver Nuggets winning the NBA championship that he changed his mind. (And if they didn’t win, Hancock would have to dress up as the Suns’ team mascot, Go the Gorilla.)

“I thought to myself, ‘First of all, you’re not going to beat Phoenix, let alone win the championship,’” joked Johnson, a three-time NBA all-star.

In late June, Johnson, along with Hancock and former Mayor Wellington Webb, visited the Five Points community and announced Fixins Soul Kitchen’s upcoming opening at 2600 Welton St. on the ground floor of The Hooper apartment complex.

Johnson, who was Sacramento’s mayor from 2008 to 2016, said he wanted to announce the opening of his soul food restaurant before Hancock finishes his mayoral term on July 17. The two have been friends since Hancock was elected in 2011. When Hancock visited a Fixins’ location in Los Angeles, he fell in love with the food and convinced Johnson that Five Points should be at the top of his list for the next expansion.

“I grew up in Oak Park, Sacramento, a neighborhood just like Five Points, and I go to bed at night and wake up in the morning trying to figure out how to uplift African American people in our community,” Johnson said. “I want to be a part of the Five Points renaissance and keep building on the great success that’s already been here.”

Fixins Soul Kitchen, which Johnson opened in Sacramento with his wife Michelle in 2019, pays homage to the soul food from his childhood with family recipes like chicken and waffles, oxtails and deep-fried deviled eggs. It also serves the official “soul food drink”: Kool-Aid. The restaurant has two other locations (Los Angeles and Tulsa, Oklahoma), with another one on the way in Detroit and a goal for as many as 50 in the next few years.

Johnson now hopes to open the 6,500-square-foot Denver restaurant, which will be able to seat 190, in February 2024. He estimates it will have 80 employees, and anticipates an initial annual sales revenue of more than $4 million.

“With every new business Denver attracts, it’s always a top priority for us that wherever they locate, they’re a benefit to the community they’re going to call home,” Hancock told The Denver Post. “Fixins has already met with our Denver Workforce Services team to ensure they’re able to recruit and hire local talent to fill all levels of positions at their new Denver location. They’re also looking to partner with a reentry workforce program to train and recruit underemployed populations, as well as reaching out to support local community partners that provide resources and programs to underserved communities.”

Two soul food restaurants within two blocks

Fixins Soul Kitchen will be located two blocks away from Denver soul food institution Welton Street Cafe’s new spot at 2883 Welton St., which is currently under construction. Johnson said he sat down with Fathima Dickerson and her family, who have run the soul food mainstay since 1986, to get their approval before he made his decision to open in The Hooper.

“When I would visit Denver during my basketball days, I would go to Welton Street Cafe,” Johnson said. “We feel so honored to be a part of this community, and we’re proud about what we can bring. We want to be a good neighbor and make sure the businesses that are here are stronger and better than ever, so we can have two really good soul food restaurants and lift each other up.”

Johnson and Hancock acknowledged Dickerson and Welton Street Cafe’s legacy within the Five Points community many times throughout the June 22 announcement ceremony, and said they hope the two soul food spots can coexist and collaborate.

“We’re all excited for (Welton Street Cafe) to reopen and to have them back in the neighborhood,” Hancock said. “Welton Street is the local community. Fixins wants to support and reflect its new community and its history. We welcome new businesses and celebrate the fact that Welton Street Cafe remains a cultural staple of our historic Five Points neighborhood.”

The mayor’s office has helped Welton Street Cafe with $741,000 in direct and advocated-for financial support and provided technical support through Denver’s Economic Development & Opportunity office since 2021.

Dickerson told The Post she agrees that the two soul food spots can coexist, but she wants to make sure these promises of collaboration and improvements within the community aren’t empty.

“As a city, we don’t really need other outside people or celebrities to come in and validate Denver,” Dickerson said. “We are Denver. What Kevin is bringing is not homegrown, and that’s fine. But we just want to make sure that that same excitement and presence is rooting for the homegrown brands that have been a part of Denver’s ups and downs, celebrations and mayoral runs.”

Five Points’ fears

This isn’t the first time that The Hooper’s owner Palisade Partners and a former NBA star have announced big plans for a new restaurant in the Five Points neighborhood.

In April 2018, Denver native and one-time Nuggets point guard Chauncey Billups told a crowded room in the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library that he was going to be involved in the remodel of the historic Rossonian hotel. Palisade, which purchased the property the year before, had unveiled plans to reopen it as a 41-room hotel, with a jazz club and ground-floor restaurant set to be named after Billups.

But Billups pulled out of the project in 2019, the same year that Denver-based equity firm The Flyfisher Group became an investor in the Rossonian redevelopment. Construction has yet to begin on the project, and Palisade Partners told The Post that there are no new updates, but they’re still working toward the same overall vision.

“It’s been a challenge, but we’re still working on bringing the historic Rossonian back to life, and we feel like it will help bring some more activity to Five Points,” said Palisade Partners’ development manager Tim Welland. “In the meantime, Fixins is an amazing first step.”

The Flyfisher Group, which is still a partner on the Rossonian, is led by CEO Matthew Burkett. The firm, which originally had plans to help revitalize Five Points, faced a tenant rebellion last year after suing multiple businesses, including the now-closed Coffee at the Point. Burkett previously told BusinessDen that the lawsuits were a last resort and standard fare after contract terms are broken. In April, Coffee at the Point owner Ryan Cobbins was ordered to pay $45,000 to the Five Points Plaza landlord.

Flyfisher also was Welton Street Cafe’s old landlord at its original location, which the family ultimately decided to move out of after not being able to reach an agreement with the firm.

With all that, the community is feeling a bit cautious, according to Houran Cowans, chair of the Five Points Business Improvement District, who previously worked for Flyfisher and has also participated in multiple efforts to get the historic Rossonian up and running again.

“Announcements are great, but the follow-through is what’s important,” Cowans said. “There can always be good intentions, but there has to be action, too.”

Johnson said he’s aware the Five Points community is in a fragile state, and he plans to use his mayoral experience to listen to what the community needs and wants and find ways to collaborate, like helping find a tenant for the Coffee at the Point space or teaming up with Welton Street Cafe for local events.

He also plans to spend significant time integrating himself within the community over the next six months, as well as hire someone who can attend community meetings and start building relationships to find opportunities for improvement within the Five Points community.

“I know the neighborhood is a little gun-shy and they’ve been burned a little bit, and we have to flip that on its head,” Johnson said. “We have to start mending and building bridges and help this community return to its former luster.”

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