by Ray Linville
A collard sandwich is not the typical attraction to establish a regional reputation. But it is for Chef Kenneth Collins and his UPro restaurant in Aberdeen, NC, where he has developed an extensive following of appreciative customers.
The star attraction of his business begins with fresh, hand-cut collards. The greens are cooked for an hour with a little fat and a special blend of seasonings and then packed between two round fried pieces of cornbread. Strips of bacon are added over the cut collards for additional flavor and sweetness.
The farmers markets in the Sandhills that just opened this month thrive on providing local fresh produce, collards being on one of several choices. In this area, collards are celebrated at festivals (such as the one in Maxton), on family tables, and on the menu by chefs such as Collins. The collard sandwich made by Collins is legendary, well appreciated by local as well as regional customers.
Although UPro has expanded well beyond its early limitations of being an in-home catering service, it has not changed its name that stands for “you provide, we cook.” After building success as a caterer, Collins opened a small eatery with only two booths in a modest storefront in the historic downtown area of Aberdeen. As his reputation grew, so did the business, and the limited eat-in space propelled his take-out orders. With his business firmly established, he recently relocated to another spot in Aberdeen, this time on N.C. Highway 211 as it exits the town toward Raeford in Hoke County.
Collins, who had been cooking for 20 years before opening his own business five years ago, exhibits a love and passion for cooking and satisfying customers that is a family tradition. In addition to his wife Sherrill, who serves as his business partner, their three sons also help with the growing business.
Family traditions clearly influence the menu at Upro. For example, both Kenneth and Sherrill grew up in Moore County eating traditional dishes that have guided their menu decisions at UPro. In fact, Sherrill’s mother, Ruth McRae, is a renowned cook in her own right and joins in the family business each year on Soul Food Day, a special annual celebration at Upro.
Although UPro is known as the home of the collard sandwich every day, it expands its menu one weekend each April for a “Soul Food” celebration. The kitchen literally swells beyond its physical limitations for Soul Food Day as the menu more than triples.
Imagine having three chicken options: fried, barbecued, and baked herb. Then having to consider other entree items such as stew beef, fried fish, chitterlings (or chitlins as many Southerners say), chicken and dumplings, cube steak, and pork chop.
The sides are very popular. Starches include potato salad, rice, macaroni and cheese, yams, and mashed potatoes. Vegetables include steamed cabbage, collard greens, green beans, field peas, stewed tomatoes, and green lima beans.
Peach cobbler, strawberry cake, and sweet potato pie tempt anyone who saves room for dessert.
Soul Food Day is a bustling time at UPro, and many menu choices sell out before mid-afternoon. In fact, even though Soul Food Day is a delightful experience, many customers appreciate the more laid-back atmosphere at other times during the year and being able to enjoy a well-crafted collard sandwich.
Ray Linville is an associate professor of English and humanities at Sandhills Community College in Pinehurst, NC, and serves on the board of the N.C. Folklore Society. Read more about Ray’s ramblings at his blog: Sights, Sounds and Tastes of the American South.