November 8, 2018 at 12:58 pm EDT | by Evan Caplan
Mason Dixie prides itself on Southern comfort food with real ingredients
Mason Dixie, gay news, Washington Blade

Biscuits, gravy, butter and fried chicken are heavy on the menu at Mason Dixie. (Photo by Evan Caplan)

It’s the holy grail of the biscuit: flaky and fluffy and coyly flaxen. It’s redolent of butter, adorably asymmetrical as it puffs in the oven. And in the case of Mason Dixie Biscuit Co., the pillows of dough are just as much (politically) rainbow as they are golden.

That’s thanks to the three co-owners, who opened the company’s brick-and-mortar location in Shaw last month (1817 7th St., N.W.). Two gay men and a woman of color are at the helm, disrupting the concept of Southern food.

“We’re out and proud business owners,” says co-owner and founder Ayeshah Abuelhiga, “and excited to change the paradigm within the restaurant business.”

Not only does Mason Dixie have its shop, it also sells its biscuits at 2400 locations around the country — biscuits that are preservative-, GMO- and hormone-free, and made from real butter and buttermilk.

But before it became a big biscuit business, Mason Dixie had humble beginnings.

Coming from a hospitality background and having grown up around Southern food, Abuelhiga saw a gap in the fast-casual boom in 2014 (looking at you, shuttered Taylor Gourmet), envisioning an affordable lunchtime fried chicken space. Shopping around her idea, she connected with co-owner Jason Gehring, a celebrated D.C. pastry chef who had recently managed the opening of Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken.

After successfully navigating a Kickstarter campaign, they secured a pop-up in Dolcezza’s gelateria workshop in Northeast a few months later. Gehring formulated a biscuit recipe almost overnight and on opening day, the line stretched for blocks. The biscuits were going like hotcakes.

Soon after, Mason Dixie moved into one of the original stalls in Union Market, selling out of sandwiches early each morning. But customers kept requesting the biscuits themselves.

That’s when Ross Perkins comes in, the third co-owner. Boasting a background in the Peace Corps and in finance, he brought the business acumen to craft a strategy to run an award-winning national frozen biscuits company.

After shuttering the stand in Union Market in 2016 and operating a short-lived drive-thru, the trio wanted to take the biscuits to the community that supported them and found the new space in Shaw.

The slim menu focuses on buttermilk-brined fried chicken. Mornings bring egg sandwiches and afternoons offer pulled-pork sandwiches and all-vegetarian sides.

The ruler of the roost, however, is the Classic Fried Chicken biscuit sandwich, a mouthful of a dish, topped with bacon, smothered and dripping in honey and hot sauce.

As dedicated as Mason Dixie is to crafting homey Southern food, the restaurant’s website displays its dedication to diversity, claiming to sell “biscuits for misfits.”

Both Gehring and Perkins are gay and say half the staff identify as LGBT.

“While the likes of other gay-owned or supportive bars continue to open in Shaw, we are bringing a gay-owned restaurant to the neighborhood and are excited to be a part of that,” Abuelhiga says.

Perkins is on the board of Capital Pride; the business donates food and hours to organizations like SMYAL and HRC.

“The restaurant and larger foodservice industry is still heteronormative and dominated by straight white male culture,” Abuelhiga says, “and we feel there are times that we can’t be as open about who we are.”

Running a Southern food store, they expected to be met with some resistance. But one look at the humming brunchtime business and it’s clear that hasn’t been the case.

On Sundays, “groups of gay men and ladies coming from church sit side by side,” Abuelhiga says.

Most customers don’t realize Mason Dixie, slinging fried chicken, is a gay-owned business. “This leads to interesting conversations, about what that means and how that may affect the store,” she says.

But by making the food approachable and the atmosphere inclusive, it’s become a community space.

The restaurant itself is bright and airy, featuring murals from local artists group No Kings Collective, in bold shades of blue and pink, including a ceiling painting stating, “BUTTER.”

Retro, diner-style stools and booths line the walls, and a hand-spun milkshake machine whirs behind the coffee bar. The space also hosts a test kitchen for Gehring to churn out new biscuit flavors.

In some ways, the shop is a microcosm of Shaw, a traditionally African-American neighborhood with a growing gay community. Even though it’s a new business, “it’s not another corporate-owned franchise cashing in on the changing demographics,” Abuelhiga says.

Beyond serving biscuits and gravy, theirs is a story “at a time when we could use more gay power and inspiration,” Perkins says.

“It’s chicken with a mission,” Abuelhiga says.

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