For the electric blue storefront on the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Lincoln Road, the front matches what’s in store: enough fish, stewed meats, breads and sweets (and laid-back vibes from the staff) to stave off the Monday blues. Bottles of Mauby syrup, Claytons Kola tonic and Pinehill juice, all Barbadian products, line the top of the bakery display signal.
Behind the counter, owner Winston Lewis works alongside his employees. They wear a black top and baseball cap; he sports a bright yellow polo shirt and cap to match the Barbados flag flanking the register.
Lewis, who migrated from the island in 1966, started Culpepper’s 25 years ago in Lefferts Garden, Brooklyn. At the time, there were other well-established Bajan spots in the neighborhood, some owned by family and friends. Among them was Nick’s Bakery, run by a cousin of Lewis, the iconic Cock’s Restaurant, and Bajan Cafe, which, along with the other longtime businesses, recently shuttered.
But before the closures, in this milieu of Caribbean cuisine, where competitors sold “basically the same type of food,” Lewis said they had to “encourage people to at least try your food to see how it matches up with others. If they liked it, then we gained a customer here and there.”
To further distinguish itself, Culpepper’s started focusing on the traditional dishes of Barbados, serving the national dish, flying fish and cou-cou, instead of just snacks.“That really took off with us,” Lewis said.
One longtime Culpepper’s customer said as much: “I love going to this restaurant for a dish called cou-cou because no other island or country makes it like the people of Barbados,” East Flatbush resident Kazimierz Gomez told Epicenter.
A local entrepreneur who started a magazine for people of Panamanian descent, “La Pollera,” was struck by a sign for cou-cou outside the Culpepper’s storefront. He approached Lewis about advertising in his publication. At first, Lewis declined.
“But afterwards I went home and I started thinking, ‘Wait a minute, there’s a connection here,’” Lewis said. The entrepreneur, Luis Vaz, went back and forth between the Caribbean communities of Crown Heights, Flatbush and surrounding areas of Brooklyn and his home in Panama. Lewis knew firsthand there was a big Panamanian community in Barbados; his own grandmother was involved in the building of the Panama Canal. Many children of Barbadian heritage living in Panama grew up knowing about cou-cou. Once they saw the Culpepper’s menu in an ad in “La Pollera,” business really took off.
Lewis takes pride in Culpepper’s’ role as a cultural ambassador, and as a place where people from the Caribbean diaspora can connect with their homeland or home cooking.
The name for his restaurant was borne out of a chapter in Barbados’ history: Culpepper’s harkens back to an English reverend who started a plantation in Barbados in the late 1600’s, eventually giving his family name to a nearby islet, Culpepper Island. “I just had this feeling that this was the right name,” he said. “It has a strong history of Barbados, and the name has been a word that is based on food: pepper.”
Lewis has had to defend himself from challenges to the name itself. When he first opened Culpepper’s, an attorney called him up and threatened to sue him for using the same name as the caller’s law firm.
“I said, ‘oh, you can do whatever you want; I’m gonna use this name,’ “ said Lewis. “I am born in Barbados, all the people who work here were born in Barbados, and we’re selling Barbadian food.”
Lewis never heard from him again. But that challenge drove him to look further into the origins of Culpepper’s, diving into rabbit holes online. The name was so much more than a smart marketing move; he said he needed to have a firm grounding in this particular history so he could educate anyone willing and interested to learn. Sometimes these calls for conversations come from unexpected places.
Two years ago, Lewis recalls a white man stood by the entrance for a long while. Any time Lewis would ask the man for his order, he would say he wasn’t ready yet. Finally, when all other customers left, the man approached Lewis at the counter.
“He said, ‘Excuse me, I was on the bus going home, and I’ve lived in New York for 20 years, and I just looked up, and I saw this name, and I got off at the next stop to get some answers,’” Lewis told Epicenter. “‘Where did you get this name from?’ I told him. He said, ‘I’m a Culpepper. When I saw this name, I started to sweat, because I’ve never seen this name before.’”
Lewis and the man proceeded to have a “long, intelligent conversation” about the history of the name, and its popularity in Scotland, Ireland and in some families residing in the United States. Many Black families in Guyana and Barbados also carry the name Culpepper, passed down through their slave master, Lewis explained.
Lewis, at 81, has been serving up bites of Barbados history alongside meals with his staff for the past quarter-century — it’s important for him to interact with customers himself, not just run things from afar, he said. And he hopes to continue for as long as he can. He credits his family’s work ethic, particularly that of his father, who ran his own restaurant back home. And Lewis also looks back to his days on the first Olympic basketball team representing Barbados, mentioning the discipline it taught him as a teen.
Just the other month, he received a package in the mail that flooded him with emotion: a marble plaque from the Barbados Olympic Association recognizing his legacy. His voice shook with pride as he lifted it up to a small table in the back of the restaurant. More than 60 years later, his community back home had never forgotten him, it seemed, just as he’d never forgotten the country — and cooking — that had made Lewis who he is.