By Allison Law
Northwest Alabama is home to an eclectic mix of good restaurants (and we’ve featured several of them in Alabama Living magazine). The upscale, fine dining at Odette and George’s Steak Pit; the unparalleled views at the 360 Grille; the relaxed vibe under the rock at the Rattlesnake Saloon – each offers a unique culinary experience, either with food or atmosphere (or both).
Add Superhero Chefs to the list.
The Tuscumbia restaurant, a colorful addition to the historic building facades you’d expect in a downtown area, opened in 2019 to great fanfare in the “quad cities” area. Its unique name and concept – urban, eclectic fare with a Southern twist, with decor and entree names that pay tribute to some of America’s most beloved comic book characters – set it apart from just about anything else.
Its atmosphere and concept (built around a breakfast menu) are untraditional, as are some of the offerings: The Sub Zero Pancakes (blueberry hotcakes with lemon mascarpone sauce between) are a top seller; The Juggernaut is a red waffle sandwich with fried chicken, egg over hard, pepperjack cheese, “candy’d” bacon and honey.
About as untraditional as its founder, executive chef Darnell Ferguson, who brought the concept from his home base of Louisville, Kentucky, to Tuscumbia, population 8,400, which some might consider an unlikely spot to grow the franchise.
‘Good guy with a good story’
But for owner and entrepreneur Larry Lewis, Superhero Chefs is a perfect fit for his hometown.
Lewis is the CEO of BizTech, Huntsville’s oldest business incubator. A client wanted Lewis to meet this chef from Louisville who wanted to open a restaurant in Huntsville. Lewis wasn’t interested in restaurants at the time “because restaurants don’t make money.”
But a visit from Ferguson changed Lewis’ mind. Ferguson came to Huntsville and did a tasting, to which Lewis and his wife, Kim, were invited. “My wife fell in love with the food. He’s a good guy, with a good story.”
Originally from Ohio, Ferguson developed a love for cooking as a teenager, and was inspired by celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse, who were able to fuse their culinary talents with big personalities to create TV magic. Ferguson went to culinary school in Kentucky and was hand-picked to travel to Beijing, China, to cook for Team USA at the 2008 Summer Olympics. The skills he showcased there earned him the nickname “Superchef” from his fellow student chefs.
But back in the U.S., a series of bad decisions threatened a promising career. He went to jail several times for selling drugs, was evicted and homeless for a time, and was unemployed for a year. Eventually, he resolved to focus on his food, start going to church and get serious about his life path.
He started doing pop-up breakfasts in the kitchens of Louisville restaurants that served lunch and dinner; the success of those breakfasts earned him some attention and led to his first Superhero Chefs restaurant in Louisville. Ferguson’s unique style for combining foods and flavors, his attention to detail in food presentation and his big smile have made for a successful combo and multiple restaurants.
That success earned notice from some of the heavy hitters in the culinary TV world: He’s been featured on “The Rachael Ray Show” (where he met Lagasse), “Guy’s Grocery Games,” “Beat Bobby Flay” and most recently, on two seasons of Food Network’s “Tournament of Champions,” a head-to-head competition show featuring some of the country’s best chefs. He’s produced his own cooking videos and is eager to continue developing the TV side of his career.
Home in the Shoals
Businessman Lewis knew Ferguson’s concept would work in north Alabama. Though Lewis is based in Huntsville, his hometown is Tuscumbia, and he still has a home there. “I said (to Ferguson), hey, you’re going to be one of 20 restaurants opening in Huntsville in 2019,” Lewis says now, referring to the booming growth in the Rocket City. “But if you come down to the Shoals area, you will stand out. So we convinced him to come to the Shoals to look around.”
Ferguson did a tasting at the Rattlesnake Saloon for area leaders and toured the area. The historic building that now houses Superhero Chefs in downtown Tuscumbia had been vacant for a couple of years, but everyone involved saw potential.
“There was a definite vibe. I love the people there, love them to death. It’s a good place with good people,” Ferguson told al.com in 2019. Lewis bought the building in April 2019, and Ferguson brought a team of people down to completely renovate the space and hire and develop the staff. Superhero Chefs was open by the summer. “It was extremely fast! It was crazy!” Lewis says today.
Ferguson actually relocated his family to the Shoals area for the first year the restaurant was open, getting to know the area and the residents. Everything was going well until March 2020, when COVID-19 forced all restaurants to change their way of doing business. Like other places, Superhero Chefs pared back the staff and went to carryout only, but not at nearly the volume they were expecting (and needed) for a busy summer tourist season.
With community support, the restaurant was able to stay open until restrictions on in-person dining were lifted. The restaurant’s booths, each with a different superhero icon, as well as the villain-themed bar (even the drinks are named for the bad guys), are once again filled. There’s a back patio space that can accommodate live music.
But the big draw is the food. Operations manager Jaelin Kinnaird says Ferguson’s approach is fine dining at an affordable price in a family-friendly environment where “the food looks as good as it tastes.”
Besides the extensive breakfast menu, the lunch/dinner menu features a variety of specialties, burgers and sandwiches and salads. Kinnaird says the best seller is the War Eagle Burger, with sweet onion jam, smoked gouda cheese, sweet habanero pickles and “candy’d” bacon. (Not to worry, Bama fans: The Roll Tide Burger is topped with hot crab spread and pulled pork with a sweet and sour glaze.) The go-to appetizers are the Southern Egg Rolls, stuffed with mac and cheese, housemade greens, fried chicken and sweet potato sauce.
Kinnaird says for those who are overwhelmed by the menu, he first asks, “Are you sweet or savory? Because we offer the best of both worlds.”
Lewis and others hope this investment in downtown Tuscumbia will lead to others, and he and other partners have ideas in the works. “The whole idea is to try to generate traffic (here,)” Lewis says. “It’s a beautiful downtown. You’ve got the nice part at the end of Main Street here. … It just needs business and entertainment to draw people in.”
104 S. Main St.
Tuscumbia, AL 35674
Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday