116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS - Jerome and Briana Smallwood had to cancel a Philly sandwich research trip to Philadelphia due to the pandemic, but that didn't stop them from going ahead with plans to open their latest venture, Vivian's Express Grill, and making Phillys front and center on the menu.
'For a good Philly, the first thing is the hoagie bread, and using real rib eye,” Jerome Smallwood said. 'We wanted to duplicate what you get in Philadelphia, but here in Iowa ... Steak, cheese, onions, bell peppers, all on one sandwich - it's a great thing.”
He went so far as to track down a Philadelphia bread supplier and getting their hoagies to make his sandwiches as authentic as possible.
The couple opened Vivian's Soul Food on Cedar Rapids southwest side in 2017. Since then, community enthusiasm for their food and business has propelled them to first move to a bigger location at 2925 Williams Parkway SW and, now, to open a spinoff restaurant, Vivian's Express Grill, in the Fountains on the northeast side of town. The new location opened in mid-February.
With a few favorite dishes from Vivian's main location and burgers, Phillys, po'boys, wraps and salads, the new concept focuses on quick service food and adding some new fare to the Vivian's repertoire.
'Soul food is heavy,” Jerome Smallwood said. 'We said, ‘Let's do something a little lighter.”
The goal is for food to be in customer's hands in 12 minutes or less, Briana Smallwood said. But they still have an emphasis on fresh and made-to-order food, she added.
Jerome Smallwood said he always wanted to open a Philly sandwich shop. He initially wanted to name it Iowa House of Phillys, aka IHOP, but Briana intervened, afraid they could get sued for using the IHOP moniker. She also thought it was important to keep the Vivian's name that Cedar Rapids diners have come to know.
'We took the heart with fork and knife logo from Vivian's and used it as the ‘X' of Express,” she said. 'It's already branded, it's already recognized.”
Jerome Smallwood said they've heard from fans who live in the northern part of town that they're glad for a chance to get Vivian's food closer to home.
That was part of the reason for choosing the Fountains, as was the continued growth of the business district.
Despite challenges of the pandemic making the business environment uncertain, they said they were sure this was the right time to branch out.
'Business has been up and down - we've had good months and bad months, but we wanted to take this opportunity,” Jerome Smallwood said. 'It's definitely a bit of a gamble that we're taking, but people didn't stop eating because of COVID.”
The restaurant has a few seats inside, with every other table marked off for social distancing. They weren't partnering with any delivery services when they opened but were considering adding GrubHub.
A carryout-focused, quick service restaurant was the perfect fit for the moment, he said, and he anticipates the model will remain popular.
'I see the industry going that way,” he said. 'Even with the vaccine, a lot of people still aren't going to be comfortable coming to sit inside a restaurant.”
The Smallwoods hope this isn't their last expansion, and they hope to open a third location by the end of 2021.
Eventually they'd like to franchise, and Vivian's Express Grill offers an ideal format for that idea, they said.
The last few years since first opening Vivian's Soul Food and watching it's popularity rise have been somewhat of an emotional roller coaster, Jerome Smallwood said.
Community support, especially during the pandemic, has sustained them and made the long days and hard work feel worth it.
'It's been a journey, lots of ups and downs,” he said. 'You have your days of, ‘Ooh, I'm going to take over the world,' and days when you say, ‘What have I gotten myself into.' ... I didn't go into this thinking we'd get the type of response we did, but Cedar Rapids really stood behind us.”
Briana Smallwood said when they started the restaurant, they had a mission statement: to bring all types of people together over soul food.
'To be able to create that and see it come to fruition has been very impactful,” she said.
Ultimately, they're doing this for their children and for the community around them, she said. They want to inspire young people, especially young people of color, to pursue their dreams.
'We want to create something big and lead by example,” she said. 'If you want to build something, you can make it happen.”
If you go
Vivian's Express Grill
5300 Fountains Dr. NE #104, Cedar Rapids
11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday