Barbara Sims of BJ’s Restaurant remains the heart and soul of a gentrified Beacon

The commotion is on a recent afternoon at BJ’s Restaurant in Beacon, and owner Barbara Sims rakes giant chicken wings through a liner pan before dropping them into a metal basket. The kitchen soon erupts with the unmistakable sound of fried chicken, and a regular customer pokes his head in his domain: “I’ll order fries with that, Miss Barbara.”

“Coming soon,” says the octogenarian Empress of BJ’s, which The Sims opened in 1978 (213 Main Street.).

It’s an institution in a city that has seen a lot of change over the past 44 years. At the time, she recalls, there were only three restaurants in Beacon — BJs, Quinn’s and the Yankee Clipper restaurant — and when she bought the building, it was abandoned except for a few sans -shelters who squatted there. Sims recalls tracking down the owner, who was bankrupt “and he sold it to me very cheaply”.

The Sims have set up the upstairs apartments, which she rents out along with several other units she owns around town, and got to work cooking classic American soul food: ribs, fried fish, fried chicken (with or without waffles), macaroni and cheese, green cabbage, sweet potato pie.

Beacon has changed a lot over the years, but its menu hasn’t changed, except don’t expect to order chitlins these days. “I used to make these,” she says of the fried large intestines of a pig or a cow, “but they stunk the whole place!”

Even though Sims describes herself as retired — the Beacon-born and raised local worked at the New York Veteran’s Home in Montrose until 1991 — she’s in the kitchen seven days a week tending to her tenants’ needs. .

She’s legendary in the city and in old media profiles for filleting hundreds of pounds of fish at a time — porgy, tilapia and whiting are on the menu — which she says she used to buy herself at Hunt’s Point in the Bronx. Today, she uses an outfitter who sources and cleans the fish, “for a very high price,” she says. “At the time, I couldn’t allow anyone else to do it.”

Barbara Sims purchased the building that houses BJ’s Restaurant in Beacon in 1978 and has become a community fixture.

Tom Gogola

When his mother was still alive, she helped run the restaurant while Sims worked day shifts and slowly expanded the business. “When I opened, we were doing maybe $50 a day in sales,” she says. But she had the tenants upstairs to cover her mortgage as she envisioned the day when she could devote her full attention to the kitchen.

The story of BJ’s Soul Food also tells the story of the gentrification that has taken place in Beacon in recent years. Until 2018, says Sims, “my business was 80% black. The majority of my clients who couldn’t afford to stay in Beacon (and) moved to Poughkeepsie or whatever, or they died. Now about 20% of my people are black. I’m not complaining – all the tourists and everyone else wherever they come from, who came to town, it’s fine.

She says some of her best-known clients have included the Reverend Al Sharpton and others associated with the controversial case involving Tawana Brawley of Wappingers Falls in the 1980s. “It was their usual place through it all,” recalls Sims.

Sims comes from a family of seven children; his father worked his whole life at the old Brockway Brickyard, and his mother did housework – and taught the Sims how to cook her tasty, homey meals. She has two children, two grandchildren and two grandchildren; one of his daughters, Brenda, works at the restaurant and will likely take over the business, Sims says, though she is quick to add that she has no plans to quit cooking.

“I retired from my (veteran) job since 1991,” she says. “I’m going to work until I can’t work anymore.” She pauses for effect. “Although I’m a little tired of eating my own food. I haven’t cooked at home in I don’t know how many years.

As for his recipes, they are a well-kept secret. Don’t expect a “Barbara Sims cookbook” anytime soon, she says. “Not at all! When I leave, everything goes with me.

The walls of BJ’s are adorned with Beacon civic awards that highlight Sims’ entrepreneurial spirit and contributions to the community, as well as a poster of Martin Luther King and a Hale Woodruff print from the popular Amistad Mutiny series of the black painter. A bust of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti is adorned with a Black Lives Matter t-shirt, and Rachael Ray’s cooking show airs on the home TV. Frank’s hot sauce is a staple at every table and booth. Places smell of coffee and fried chicken (BJ’s does a quick breakfast) as Sims hold court in the kitchen and at a booth just outside.

She is asked if she can confirm or deny the rumors around Beacon that she is a millionaire. She leans back in the cabin and lets out a high-pitched chuckle. “Oh, I can deny it! Now I have to put this chicken. Want something to eat while you’re here?

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