Chef, Restaurateur, and All-Around "Boss Lady" Coleen Speaks Cultivates Good Vibes at Raleigh's Hummingbird | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Chef, Restaurateur, and All-Around "Boss Lady" Coleen Speaks Cultivates Good Vibes at Raleigh's Hummingbird 

Coleen Speaks

Photo by Caitlin Penna

Coleen Speaks

I'm perched on a bright yellow stool, cupping a mug of coffee and admiring the sunlight spilling onto the white marble bar, when I hear a voice behind me.

"Are you hungry?" asks Coleen Speaks, the chef and owner of Hummingbird, a café and cocktail bar that opened last November at Dock 1053 in Raleigh.

"I haven't eaten yet. Do you eat everything? Let me put in an order for a few things," she says.

Our order includes the daytime-only sticky bun, whose tender dough and heady butterscotch sauce is everything I dreamed it would be. Noticing my obvious delight, Speaks says that to her, there's nothing better than serving someone food and making them happy.

And it's all the sweeter now that she's fulfilled her lifelong dream of owning a restaurant. It's what inspired her first job bussing tables at Massa's, an Italian joint in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, and to move to New Orleans to pursue a degree in accounting at Loyola University, knowing that it would serve her well as a future business owner. After graduation, Speaks interviewed at three Big Six accounting firms but quickly realized that her interests lay elsewhere. She returned to restaurant life, honing her chef chops at restaurants like Emeril Lagasse's NOLA and Bluebird Café.

After a decade in New Orleans, Speaks decided the Big Easy wasn't so easy. In 2001 she moved to Raleigh, where her sister lived. Speaks worked at places like Bloomsbury Bistro and under chef Ashley Christensen at Enoteca Vin, catering dinner parties on the side. Speaks's personal life took off, too; she met and married her husband, bought a house, and started a family. As her family grew, so did her catering business. She rented a kitchen behind the restaurant Finch's and, five months pregnant with her second child, officially launched PoshNosh Catering in 2007. Over the last decade, Speaks has earned a reputation as one of the most sought-after chef-caterers in the Triangle, but her dream of owning a restaurant was always simmering.

"With catering, it's just the food and the service," she explains. "With a restaurant, you're creating an experience with the aesthetic, the lighting, the vibe of the place ... To me, that's so important."

Timing is everything. In 2014, when the North Carolina Department of Transportation told Speaks that they were demolishing Finch's to redo the Capital Boulevard bridge, they promised to either move PoshNosh or build her a new kitchen. When plans for a new catering kitchen at Dock 1053 became a reality, she seized the opportunity to lease neighboring property for an event space, Whitaker & Atlantic, and her long-dreamed-of restaurant, Hummingbird.

With Hummingbird, Speaks has created a unique experience, but there are echoes of her PoshNosh philosophy throughout. Everything on the stepped-up bar food menu must be as pretty as it is delicious, highlighting seasonal ingredients and local businesses like Locals Seafood and Boulted Bread. It's in the design details, too. Speaks spent several trips to New Orleans collecting the vintage glassware that elevates the signature cocktails and scouring flea markets for the portraits lining the dining room wall, which represent a broad variety of people.

"As I was selecting them and shopping for them, I would find a white male eighty percent of the time," she says. "You really had to dig for the diverse ones."

The wall's diverse cast of characters reflects the "all are welcome" vibe that Speaks hopes to create, which is particularly relevant considering that Hummingbird's bar and kitchen were formerly a segregated trucker bathroom for A&P grocery's regional distribution center. The bathroom for African Americans had a separate entrance on the bar side, while the white bathroom was where the kitchen now stands.

The procession of portraits ends with a serious-looking woman who Speaks has nicknamed "boss lady." With twenty-five employees spanning Posh Nosh, Hummingbird, and Whitaker & Atlantic, Speaks is serious about her own role as boss lady.

"It's something I work on daily," she says. "To me, the most important part of being in charge is leading by example. I work hard around here; I want people working for me to notice that. And I want them to be happy. Happiness to me is the key to everything—not just work."

Speaks cultivates happiness by example, too. She's quick to joke, gets animated talking about her Mardi Gras bash, and banters with her staff while refilling our coffee cups. As we chat, regulars like Louis St. Lewis, who works out of neighboring studio Glas, asks to Instagram our breakfast spread. Speaks obliges and insists on feeding him a bite of sticky bun, then smiles contentedly when it elicits a look of pure pleasure.

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