Food & Drink

Honoring the History of the Plate Sale

An Athens, Georgia, pop-up restaurant tips its toque to the African American tradition

Photo: Bailey Garrot (center); Caroline Hatchett (2)

Mike and Shyretha Sheats grew up in Athens and Carlton, Georgia, respectively, where if a child couldn’t afford school supplies or the church needed new choir robes, Black folks came together and hosted plate sales to raise money—a Southern tradition that has spanned generations. These collective efforts often took place in someone’s backyard, and the homecooked menus were simple: an entrée, sides, and maybe a dessert, all for one set price. Diners got a great deal on a delicious meal as the community mobilized to support its members. 

The Sheatses looked to this past as inspiration for the Plate Sale, their pop-up concept, which originated in Atlanta, and is now based in Athens. Since 2016, they’ve hosted more than twenty events, cooking up offerings ranging from plated lunches of fried quail and braised turnips at Lotta Mae’s Supply Co., a former shop in Athens, to multi-course dinners of Tuskegee soup and McIntosh & Son oysters at restaurants such as B’s Cracklin’ BBQ and Five and Ten. The couple had planned on opening a brick-and-mortar space, but the global pandemic forced them to reevaluate in light of a fragile and flawed restaurant industry. 

Mike cooked as a child, but after college, he worked in manufacturing until deciding to pivot to attend culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Atlanta. From there, he stayed in the city, doing eight hundred covers a night at Ruth’s Chris and paying his dues at Muss and Turner’s before making his way to Charleston, South Carolina, for stints at the Glass Onion and McCrady’s. Mike credits this period in his career with shaping his cooking style: For the first time, he had access to an abundance of fresh seafood, and he was introduced to the impact of the Gullah Geechee on the cuisine and culture of the Lowcountry. “It changed everything for me,” he says.

After getting laid off from an unfulfilling corporate career, Shyretha joined Mike in Charleston, taking an apprenticeship at a farm north of the city. To supplement her income, she worked her way through the ranks at the Gin Joint cocktail bar, from hosting to ultimately managing the front of house. Her business background and farm experience would be critical in guiding their culinary concept. 

After returning to Atlanta, a chef friend convinced the couple that it was time to debut their style of food to the city. In 2016, the Sheatses hosted their very first pop up at Octopus Bar, an event so successful, they knew they couldn’t stop there—the Plate Sale was born. The couple continued to host dining experiences around Atlanta until Shyretha had their daughter, Luna, and the family relocated to Athens in late 2017. In 2020, they moved to a farm once owned by Shyretha’s grandmother. No one had lived on the property since 2012, but the Sheatses saw its incredible potential—a place that could allow the Plate Sale to be more than just a restaurant. “This is a way to build community,” Shyretha says of their plans for the farm. “We’re crowdsourcing funds for equipment and machinery. We’ll hire people in the area to help with the harvest and other projects. Our home and our farm were built on a communal way of living.”

That’s befitting the history of the plate sale, one rooted in the necessity of collaboration as a means of survival. “After emancipation, those who were newly free needed to use any tactic at their disposal to earn income,” says Thérèse Nelson, the founder of Black Culinary History. “The plate economy was born out of people and spaces that had the power of culinary expertise and used it to subvert traditional modes of operating in everyday life.”

Skirting the traditional restaurant model in that way inspires the Sheatses, too. While a permanent Plate Sale location is on hold, the couple knows they won’t run it under the current system, one broken by unreasonably long hours and low pay without benefits like health insurance. Instead, they envision creating a collective of businesses with similar missions, where people can stop by, work, and learn. “We’re getting back to the old ways,” Shyretha says. 

Currently, the Sheatses are operating the Plate Sale at Hendershot’s, a music venue and coffee shop in Athens, Tuesdays through Saturday, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., with a menu that changes daily to reflect what’s in season and highlights goods from local farmers and purveyors—dishes include the likes of a biscuit piled high with fried shrimp and red pepper jam, and potato doughnuts with salted caramel. Soon, they will expand their hours to include dinner service, but in the meantime, Mike and Shyretha are using this period to crystallize their vision—one for a place built on history, that will mobilize a community and support and nourish its members.