Steel Magnolia, The Arb at Tappan Promise Community, Good Food in Uncertain Times

After a challenging summer for businesses, two new family-run restaurants with Oberlin roots are opening their doors this fall. The Arb at Tappan Square has been in business since early October and Steel Magnolia is set to open later this month. The owners of the two restaurants have known each other since childhood and hope to provide a positive community space. 

The Arb at Tappan Square offers a variety of healthy food options, including smoothies, wraps, fresh-squeezed juices, and salads. Steel Magnolia will serve internationally-inspired dishes and southern comfort food, with a menu ranging from Caribbean to Latin to Hungarian-style food. Both businesses are Black-owned and seek to increase community between Oberlin residents and the College through their restaurants.

Shontae Jackson, owner of Steel Magnolia, has run her restaurant as a food truck for two years, alongside her daughter and her mother. The food truck initially opened in Lorain and expanded to catering corporate events, weddings, and birthday parties. Now, Jackson is teaching her 18-year-old daughter how to run the truck. 

Steel Magnolia is moving into the building that most recently housed The Corner Joint. Jackson says this spot holds a special place in her heart — when she was 16, Jackson lived in the gray house across the street. At the time, the building was home to a Rax Roast Beef, and she always remarked how it would be an ideal location for a restaurant. When the building went up for rent four weeks ago, she grabbed it immediately.

Steel Magnolia is the beating heart of Jackson’s family, and she has invited them all to work with her at the permanent location — her sister, brother, father, and an old high school friend are joining the team. Her daughter is the accountant and social media marketer, and her 76-year-old mother bakes the desserts, including her signature peach cobbler and sweet potato pie. 

“That’s what I wanted, for everybody to build a legacy for my children,” Jackson said. “This is only the beginning. The second beginning — the food truck was the first beginning. Now I can incorporate more love, more people.” 

The name “Steel Magnolia” pays homage to Jackson’s parents and her southern roots. “Steel” represents her father who she always felt bounced back from hardship even stronger than before, and “Magnolia” represents both the southern magnolia flower and her mother. Growing up, Jackson’s parents were always feeding and giving to their community. 

Henry and Morgan Smith, the father-daughter pair at the helm of the Arb at Tappan, also hold strong community values. The Smiths founded the restaurant with the goal of creating a shared space where College students and City residents can mix and get to know each other.

“We wanted to do something for the community because there is a huge divide between the College and townspeople when it comes to business, housing, land, money,” Morgan said. “We wanted to do away with that completely by having a space that is completely neutral, where people can come hang out, enjoy good food, work, relax, and be themselves.”

For Morgan, the goal of bringing together separate parts of the community goes hand-in-hand with the restaurant’s role as a Black-owned business.

“We take tremendous pride in being one of few Black-owned businesses in downtown Oberlin, no matter the time!” Morgan wrote in a message to the Review. “We are a business that is community driven and being able to expose Black faces and Black dollars to downtown Oberlin means the world to us! We owe it to Oberlin to provide this platform, especially given that our mission is to bridge the gap between ‘towns people’ and ‘college people.’”

Although both the Arb and Steel Magnolia are opening during a particularly challenging period for downtown Oberlin due to the COVID-19 pandemic, both sets of owners maintain hope for their burgeoning businesses. 

The limited number of dine-in customers has been a blow to the Smiths’ dream of creating a space for socializing and community, according to Morgan. Still, business has been booming at the Arb, with an even mixture of customers from the town, College, and people outside of Oberlin who learn about the restaurant through Facebook. When public health recommendations relax, the Smiths plan to hold a range of fun events including open mic, spoken word, and trivia nights. 

College first-year Sabrina Hoenig has visited the Arb at Tappan three times already. 

“I’ve tried the Golden Goddess smoothie — it was fire,” Hoenig said. “I also got the chickpea salad wrap — and they can grill the wraps, which is very nice compared to the [DeCafé] wraps. We sat in the back and there was a couch, a jukebox; they had football on. I can imagine it being a great place to get together with friends, listen to music, and eat food.” 

Jackson says opening a business in the middle of the pandemic has been scary with all the unknowns, but the support her family has received has been incredible. 

“People have shown us that this is what they want — one place where they know they can come and find us at,” she says. “We’re going to make it to the other side of this.”

Steel Magnolia will offer a discount menu for all Oberlin College and Conservatory students, as well as a lunch special each day that students can pick up when they’re on the go. 

According to Jackson, the two families have been in touch about their joint endeavors to bring good food and community to Oberlin.

“We’re excited to be two businesses here at the same time that offer two different things but both offer the community hope in the time of COVID,” Jackson said. “It’s just nothing but love.”