Juan and Gee Smalls are on a mission to change how small businesses give back to their communities. Five years ago, the husbands and entrepreneurs opened Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen & Bar, located in downtown College Park just outside Atlanta. Named after Gee’s late father, Virgil F. Smalls, the chic eatery provides customers with more than signature cocktails and soul food. It’s also helping to build community and combat stigma.
Their nonprofit, The Gentlemen’s Foundation, provides mentorship and support for GBTQ and same-gender-loving men. Juan and Gee, who were the first Black gay couple to appear on HGTV’s House Hunters, also started their own YouTube webseries Love Works, which premiered in September 2013. Next year, they are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Gentlemen’s Ball, a gala that’s been described as a “second chance prom” awarding youth scholarships and honoring community advocates making contributions to Atlanta’s LGBTQ community.
While the restaurateurs understand the importance of giving back, for them, providing food and building community have always gone hand-in-hand. The Advocate recently sat down with the couple at Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen & Bar to discuss the impact of their creation.
Why venture into the notoriously difficult restaurant industry?
JUAN: We are very social people, and we love for people to experience our love. Gee does that through cooking. When we started our event planning company, finding venues was challenging. When we meet a challenge we say, “If [the solution] doesn’t exist, create it.” Gee wanted to spread love through his food….Initially, it was just going to be bar food. But in College Park…your food sales must be more than your bar sales. So we said, “I guess we are opening a restaurant.” Gee went to work developing his family recipes. He was raised in Charleston, S.C.—James Island—which is Gullah culture. We revamped our business model and worked to raise the funds.
How did you decide on the menu?
JUAN: They are all Gee’s family recipes. He wanted to educate people on the Gullah culture. They are a proud folk.
Of course, the name has special meaning as well.
JUAN: Virgil is my father-in-law, Gee’s father who I never met. He died two months before we met. We believe Virgil brought us together and has been guiding our steps ever since. This is our love letter to Virgil.
Opening a restaurant must bring added stress to your relationship. How do you manage that?
JUAN: If we allow each other to be ourselves, we will work well together. We can get through anything if we make the commitment to get through it—when we honor each other’s strengths and weaknesses and are there to pick up the pieces when the other falls….. We are not husbands. We are life partners….. We have worked together for years…[and] have identified our roles…and were very specific. So, we honor and trust one another, which is our recipe for success.
Where did you grow up? And what was your experience coming out?
JUAN: I grew up in South Central Los Angeles. I lived through the riots and I always knew I was different. I felt out of place, like I didn’t belong in my family or in my community. I just felt like an outsider, not knowing why. As I got older, I came to understand it was because of my orientation. Growing up being called “faggot” or “sissy,” that didn’t register with me because I knew I was none of those things. People were labeling me these things and I didn’t know what to make of that. It was in high school when I found my tribe. I found my passion in acting and singing. I was always scholarly, so I used that as my weapon.
When did you decide to move?
JUAN: I moved to Atlanta in 2007. I went to UCLA and I discovered I had never visited north of the I-10 freeway until going to college. So I got to have another set of experiences, which further distanced me from my community and my family, who still lived in Compton. After graduating, I had a group of five friends. Having the time of our lives…[but] I woke up one day and said, “I have to go because I am stagnant, and we were all holding each other back.” A month later, I drove 32 hours straight to Atlanta…. I found an apartment after 30 days of living with my friend, then she moved back to LA.
It was worth it because you met Gee, of course.
JUAN: I met Gee a year after moving to Atlanta. I was producing museum exhibitions and I met Gee at [a gay bar], Joe’s on Juniper…. We locked eyes. He pulled up a chair next to me and said, “I saw you staring at me all night. What is your name? I am Gee.” I initially rejected him and said, “No, I was looking at your friend and not you.” By the end of the night, we exchanged information and had our first date the next day. He lived near the airport and I was going out of town for work for a week and I missed my flight. I texted him and he came to the airport. We had lunch and my flight kept getting delayed, so we had an eight-hour date. We spent a few hours at the airport then we went to his place where we talked, laughed, shared, and had our first kiss. After he dropped me back off at the airport, I remember saying to myself, “I have never experienced a person like this in my life.” We got married a year later in 2009.
What are you most proud of that the two of you have accomplished together?
JUAN: We are most proud of the man Little Gee has become. Gee had a son when we met from a previous relationship. He was 7 years old when we got together, and he is almost 18 years old today. Little Gee is such an intelligent and artistic young man. We see the wisdom we worked to [instill] in him. That’s our greatest achievement. Second to that is how we’ve grown to relate to one another…. I no longer hold him accountable for my happiness and he doesn’t hold me accountable for his. I think it makes life just so much greater when you take responsibility for yourself and you come together with someone who takes responsibility for themselves and you create together…. I want to be liberated and I want my partner to be the same.
Tell me about The Gentlemen’s Foundation. Where did the idea come from?
JUAN: The idea started with the Gentlemen’s Ball. I had been laid off from my job and we decided that I wouldn’t go back to work. I would focus on building our company. So, we started an event planning company and our first event was the Gentlemen’s Ball in 2011. In the planning of that event, deciding the name, the concept, and the program, we always wanted to attach a nonprofit to it so that we could give back to the community. For the first two years, the nonprofits were not using the funding in the ways we wanted them to—a lot of red tape. We wanted to give folks MARTA cards for transportation, the food they needed, and we couldn’t do that. We were like, why raise money for nonprofits when the funds do not go to the communities we want to serve and in the way we wanted? So, we decided to start our own.
What has been the impact of the Foundation so far?
JUAN: The visibility of positive LGBTQ folks is number one. I also must mention our Circle of Trust support group. Sitting in the group and hearing people say for the first time out loud they’re gay and they are 60 years old is life changing. The scholarship program has been extremely beneficial, too. We provide scholarships for LGBTQ students post-high school, and not just college.
You’re seen as an Atlantan “power couple,” how does that make you feel?
GEE: I have always felt it to be a superficial title, so it was one I’d often reject. I don’t do that anymore. It’s not because of the “things” we have achieved together, or the fact that we look fly together—we do!—but it is because of the way we have held each other since meeting over 11 years ago. The power comes from drying away tears and healing old wounds. It comes from feeling secure with one another with only $10 in the bank. It comes from being loved and accepted even on darker days. It is in telling each other the truth, even when it may hurt the other person. It is in loving them even though they hurt you. It is in knowing that shit ain’t 50-50, but 100-100. It is eliminating people from your life that don’t wish the best for your relationship. It is in knowing that the 80-20 rule is real and that your partner cannot be everything to you.
It’s about embracing the ways each other constantly change and express themselves. To be a power couple is to hold each other accountable. It is to challenge one another. It is to forgive repeatedly. It is to ask for forgiveness even more. Power knows that you both deserve everything you desire, and you do everything to ensure each other receives it. The power shows itself when you have released the need to control one another and just allow the person to be. Have you ever loved someone just for who they are and not for the ways in which they accommodate you? That’s power! So nowadays when I hear people call us “the power couple,” I just smile and say, “Thank you for saying that.” It is who we are.