Turkey Legs, Hookah and Building a Black Empire in Gentrified Dallas

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Turkey Legs, Hookah and Building a Black Empire in Gentrified Dallas

On a Saturday afternoon in sunny Downtown Dallas, hookah smoke and the delectable scent of roasted turkey legs punctuate the air. Grey clouds are exhaled from soft, pink lips, slinking between Black and brown bodies swaying to the sounds of dirty South rap. At Whole Foods across the street, white people stop and stare. Karens begin whispering into their phones. Tenets in the gentrified beige towers slam their windows shut. There seems to be something about Black and brown people having a good time that pisses off the sterile, pale surrounding businesses and apartment complexes. But the people just trying to pursue pleasure at Turkey D.A.M. are largely unaffected. Most would welcome any of the Karens over, invite them to sit and pass them the hookah.

The overwhelming hospitality of Turkey D.A.M. is fostered by African-American entrepreneur David Singh, who is helping return the Uptown neighborhood of Downtown Dallas to a safe neighborhood for Black businesses. His restaurant and hookah establishment, Turkey D.A.M., is one of the Black-owned businesses he owns on McKinney Avenue, the main throughway of Uptown. Singh is the only Black business owner on McKinney. Unfortunately, the history of thriving Black businesses in the area has been so whitewashed that even influential movers and shakers like Singh weren’t aware of its legacy. He only knew that starting a Black-owned business in a hyper-gentrified neighborhood would be challenging but worth it.

“Coming into it was scary. We have a hard enough time, as African-Americans, due to a lack of knowledge,” Singh said. “When you’re starting a business, we don’t have, culturally, 10 years of ancestry doing this, to come in and give us the way. That’s not their fault or our fault. It’s kids raising kids. We weren’t raised to own businesses. Now my family was. My dad was a patriarch. He’s done a lot for Dallas. But a lot of people in normal situations don’t know what direction to go.”

Freedman’s Town, as it was known to its African-American citizens during the post-Civil War period, was founded by freed slaves as a sanctuary from racial violence. Due to segregation, the neighborhood became self-sufficient with Black-owned and operated churches, stores and schools. All that came to a crashing halt when the city built U.S. Highway 75 in the 1940s, splitting the African American community and demolishing homes in the process. This was the beginning of the end of Freedman’s Town. Singh is trying to bring the neighborhood back to a place where Black and brown people can feel comfortable again.

“After we opened, we had a lot of people come and tell us they were happy we gave them something they can call their own,” he said.

His entrepreneurial background has come in handy. His father, David Price, created 30 clubs and restaurants in 30 years in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, building urban culture across Dallas for everyone. One of his father’s spots is the iconic South Dallas Cafe.

“For Turkey D.A.M., we came to Uptown and wanted to find a spot where we could bring the culture,” he said, “to show we could intermingle with the gentrification across the street and show them the culture without them seeing it in a negative light. We welcome all people.”

The outside patio at Turkey D.A.M. is regularly a mixture of all races. Singh welcomes everyone and has put in a lot of work to hire the right kind of staff that embodies his high standards toward customer service. His staff is all Black, which helps the African-American community who frequents his restaurants feel welcome. He is building a community around great food and hookah, which is a communal experience in itself, as users pass around the hookah hose for everyone to share and enjoy. Singh is already looking at San Antonio, Las Vegas and Miami to expand the Turkey D.A.M. brand.

Singh also came up with the cheese sauce for the restaurant’s signature turkey legs, smoked in house. “I play around in the kitchen myself. You have to get in the kitchen by trial and error.” The menu also has vegan options. But for Singh and his business partners, his brother David Kyles and friend Rudy Moreno, it’s also about creating a space where all cultures can come and intermingle.

“While this is a Black-owned business, we are not just focused on that,” he said. “Because on the weekends we have urban customers, other people might not think they are welcome here. But we are not a place focused on Black and Black only. Culture is mixing cultures and having them understand who we are, who they are, whether you come from Oak Cliff or Plano.”

Trying to build a mecca for all people is challenging enough. Doing it in a historically racially segregated neighborhood is even more challenging.

“I’m not one to hide behind being African American,” he said. “Just because I’m African American, I don’t want different rules. I just wanted to be held to the same standards as everyone else. It wasn’t the trouble of getting in here.” Singh said people began to have an issue with his business once they saw large groups of Black people having a good time on his patio on the weekends. “It was shocking to them. Not because they don’t accept it, but because they don’t understand that these people can be sophisticated too.”

Turkey D.A.M. opened right before COVID, when confusion around the city’s inconsistent codes of compliance made matters more complicated.

“We caught a lot of issues during COVID, based on opinion,” he said. “People would call the police from the backside of that building (the apartment complex above Whole Foods) saying they heard noises. The police would drive by, and we were already closed. There was a lot of hate. I don’t blame them because that’s how they were raised. We have to show them something different.”

He has gone out of his way to integrate within the neighborhood by meeting with city council members to introduce himself and spread his vision for positive entrepreneurship. He chose to close at 11 p.m. on the weekdays to show respect for the surrounding apartment buildings. Even though he is losing prime sales during those hours, was it enough? During COVID, Turkey D.A.M. was visited 256 times by the fire marshall, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and code compliance. After talking to neighboring businesses, Singh found that the city had visited other businesses in the area an average of 10 times during the same stretch. Through it all, Singh remains unfazed.

“A lot of what governs this area is people’s opinions,” he said. “I have to come to the realization it’s not going to be a fair battle, but it’s one I’m going to fight.”

And fight he has. In December of 2021, Turkey D.A.M. was attacked in the middle of the night by two arsonists who tried to set the bar on fire by dousing the patio in lighter fluid. Singh and his employees were hanging out after hours in the back of the bar when it happened and were able to immediately call the police and put out the flames. The entire crew stayed overnight, cleaning up and repairing the damage. They were open for business the next day, undeterred, ready to sling Fireball shots.

“We had to replace the doors, rebuild the tables,” he said. “The publicity was crazy. People came, saying, ‘What’s wrong?’ We worked from six in the morning to 11 o’clock. We weren’t going to let it hold us down. No insurance claim, no GoFundMe, we just rolled our sleeves up and kept going.”

This kind of tenacity is the attitude that’s helping Singh expand. He just bought a shuttered bar around the corner from Turkey D.A.M. and his restaurant TEN01 Bistro. This will give him three businesses on one corner, unheard of for a person of color in a whitewashed neighborhood. “To be able to have this much property on McKinney and Routh Street, it’s prime real estate,” he said.

“I don’t want you to support me just because I’m Black and you’re Black. We are here to stay. We are not a fly-by-night place. I work hard every day to change their opinions.”