Crystal and Steven Ashby of Crystal’s Comfort FoodApr 21, 2022 03:37PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
From the time Crystal and Steven Ashby first opened the doors to their Crystal’s Comfort Food in April 2021, the tastes of their influences brought a new sensation of cooking to the Middletown area. The secret? Some regular customers say it’s the award-winning sauces, while others say it’s the “soul” found in each recipe.
Middletown Life recently caught up with Crystal and Steven to learn about their influences, their flavors and the special guests they would like to see around that dinner table.
Middletown Life: Let’s start your story at the beginning. Take the readers of Middletown Life back to the origins of food you were both raised on. Where did you grow up, and what were some of your favorite dishes when you were children?
Steven: I’m from Philadelphia, so the first thing that comes to mind would obviously be cheese steaks. My mother was known for her lasagna, which was a popular dish in my family. My grandmother made a lot of southern-style soul food, like macaroni and cheese, ham and cabbage and collard greens.
Crystal: I grew up just outside of Philadelphia, but all of my family dinners and big family holidays all happened in Philadelphia. My grandmothers and aunts were in the kitchen, and the rule was that you don’t go in the kitchen unless you were cooking. We had the whole set-up: fried chicken, macaroni cheese – all of the things that you should eat every day.
There isn’t a chef alive who doesn’t draw his or her inspiration from someone or somewhere. Who or what has influenced the two of you and what you bring to Crystal’s Comfort Food?
Crystal: My mother was a huge inspiration for me. I looked at everything she did and how she did it, and how she made it work. I used to tell myself that if my mother as a single parent could do it on her own, I could do it as a woman who has been married for 13 years. I imagine myself as “My mother 2.0.”
Steven: My father has worked for SEPTA for 30-plus years, but my mother had three jobs when I was young. She worked at a gas station, a day care and a nightclub, while also taking care of my brother and me. Her work ethic has spearheaded me throughout my life. She always told me, ‘Don’t ever take anything from anyone, and always work for what you want.’ From her, all I have ever known has been to work hard and figure it out on my own, so with my background and how my mother raised me and how Crystal’s mother taught her, we have meshed perfectly together.
In 2013, you both lost your jobs, and moved your family to Delaware. By 2016, you had begun a food catering service. Talk about what led to the formation of that business.
Crystal: That was something that I literally just fell into. When we first moved to Delaware, we lived in my mother’s family room for a month and a half, because we needed to start over. Steven had received unemployment compensation from SEPTA stemming from his injury, but I had lost my job and was also pregnant with our second child. Although we did end up getting jobs, all of the money we were making was going to rent and daycare, so I decided that I needed to stop working.
Being from Philadelphia, cheese steaks and buffalo wings were our favorites, but I could not find great wings anywhere in Delaware, so I went to our kitchen and made them myself, and began to bring my home recipe to every family event. After our third child was born, Steven and I began a cleaning company, and one day I invited a cleaning company colleague to come over to give me advice on the business, and as he was enjoying his dinner, he asked me, ‘Why are you running a cleaning company when you can cook like this?’
The next day, he asked us to cater an event for his fraternity. Within an hour-and-a-half, we created the name “Crystal’s Comfort Food,” we got a license, insurance, put the menu together and sent it to him.
Word-of-mouth put us on the map.
What did the both of you see in Middletown in terms of potential for your business?
Steven: The one thing we began to notice when we first moved to Middletown was that there was very little variety in terms of restaurant food. There were the standard burger joints and a few pizza joints, but there were no places where you could get great wings, and we were wing people.
Crystal: There was no restaurant that I was able to find where I could walk in and get a plate of food that felt like my mother or my grandmother had made it – something that didn’t taste like it came from a restaurant but from a home kitchen. We knew that if we set up a comfort food restaurant in Middletown that it would become a big hit.
Crystal’s Comfort Food opened on April 9, 2021.
Your slogan reads: “It’s soul good.” What does “soul” taste like?
Crystal: It starts with the seasonings you put in it. You have to be specific on what you put in your food to make it taste the way it tastes. It’s a thought process that begins by taking your time and really caring about how you approach each dish.
We don’t measure when it comes to soul food. We mix until it tastes good. It’s also the environment in which we cook. I have my music blasting really loud when I cook. We hear dancing and singing – everything working as one -- like when you wake up on Christmas morning and your mother is making breakfast in the kitchen and you know it’s about to be a great day. That’s how I feel when I walk into my kitchen and turn on my sound system.
No matter how challenging the day has been, when I begin to cook, it opens my soul, and I translate that to my food.
There is a video that circulated in 2021 that celebrated the opening of Crystal’s Comfort Food, in which three young chefs – your sons – are seen wearing chef’s hats and mixing up ingredients. At the end of the video, your fourth son is being held by Crystal’s brother as they enter the restaurant.
Your customers will get a chance to see these young men grow up. Have any of them expressed an early interest in following in Mom and Dad’s footsteps?
Crystal: They talk about being business owners and taking over the restaurant, but they haven’t yet started to say that they want to become a chef like me.
Steven: Children tend to mimic their parents. If your parents are real estate owners, you are likely to say, ‘I could do that.’ Our sons look at us less as chefs and more as entrepreneurs. Four years ago, our oldest son and some of his classmates started a young entrepreneur group, and last summer, he opened up his own water ice stand here. We told him, ‘That is on you.’
The customer reviews for Crystal’s Comfort Food have been amazing. Talk about the additional ways your happy customers can order and pick up your food.
Crystal: We recently linked in with Door Dash. In addition to having the restaurant, we also have a line of our sauces that are available online on our website and a new frozen food line called FROCO – is scheduled to be available this summer online, on Insta Cart, on Door Dash, and hopefully in supermarkets.
In less than one year – and despite a pandemic -- you have built up a steady and consistent customer base. You have received rave reviews. You have been featured on the Food Network. You are developing innovative methods of distribution and pursuing new markets. Paint the future of Crystal’s Comfort Food for the readers of Middletown Life.
Crystal: The next step I see is a stand-alone location with a drive-thru. If KFC can do it, CCF can do it, because it would open up a new method for customers to access soul food. I am thinking bigger in terms of our exposure – I want to be in the malls, with drive-thru capability and at additional single-standing restaurants.
Steven: You ever see these movies where business people come to a restaurant after work and have a drink and relax while great jazz music plays in the background? That is the type of destination we want to build – a place where people can not only enjoy their company, live jazz music, but also a limited menu of Crystal’s Comfort Food. Our biggest concern, however, is our reluctance to franchise our business, because we feel that it would take away the same tastes and quality that we have made here.
What is your favorite place in Middletown?
Steven: Our home! When we drop our sons off with their grandmother, our home becomes the best place in the world!
The two of you host a dinner party and can invite anyone – famous or not, living or not – to enjoy your food. Who will sit around that table?
Steven: My mother is no longer here, so I would definitely love to see her again.
Crystal: The comedian Dave Chappelle, and here is why. I love how unapologetic he is. He loves everyone, and no matter what people say about him, he doesn’t care. He puts everything he feels out there, and asks people to take it or leave it. That’s how I feel about myself. This is who I am, take it or leave it. When people give me suggestions about my menu or the restaurant’s color scheme or about whom I hire, my answer is always, ‘Why? I just want to be Crystal.’ Chappelle said, ‘It’s just jokes. I just want to make people laugh.’ Similarly, it’s just food and I just want to feed people.
What food or beverage can always be found in your refrigerator at home?
Crystal: You can always find a bottle of our sauce there. There is always some kind of Crystal’s Comfort Food there, as well.
Crystal’s Comfort Food is located at 426 East Main Street in Middletown. To learn more, see the menu or to place an order, visit www.CrystalsComfortFood.com.
~Richard L. Gaw