HFC alumnus Chef Greg Beard re-creates Detroit’s famous Boogaloo sandwich, with a twist
While Detroit is known for its coney dogs, another signature food item that has been picking up steam in the last several years is the Boogaloo Wonderland sandwich, available at HFC alumnus Greg Beard‘s carry-out restaurant called Chef Greg’s Soul ‘N’ The Wall.
“This is Detroit’s sandwich,” said Beard. “It’s so uniquely Detroit.”
Bringing back the Boogaloo
The famous and very messy sandwich – consisting of seasoned ground beef (customers can substitute grilled chicken, ribeye steak, or vegetables), caramelized onions, and melted cheese on a grilled 8-inch sub bun smothered in the special “Sauce of the Islands” – was created by Jean Johnson. She co-owned Brother’s Bar-B-Que with her husband Barney in the 1960s. Originally, it was called the Boogaloo sandwich, named after the 1960s funk dance. Today, Beard’s restaurant occupies the same space Brother’s once did at 10009 Curtis St. (at Wyoming) in Detroit.
When Beard, a native Detroiter, opened his restaurant – which serves soul food, chicken wraps, burgers, sandwiches, steak, salads, and spaghetti – on June 26, 2006, customers asked him about the Boogaloo sandwich.
“The Boogaloo sandwich disappeared around 1996 when Brother’s closed,” he recalled. “I brought it back, but it took a few customers to convince me to do it. I remember telling the first customer who asked me for it, ‘We don’t do that here.’ Then another customer asked me for it, and I realized I had to listen. I knew I had to find a way to bring it back.”
“I’m not telling you the recipe, and I’m not selling you the recipe”
So Beard experimented, working to recreate the famous “Sauce of the Island.” It took some time with trial and error, but Beard managed to recreate it and make the sandwich his own.
“I thought about what Jean could have used to make the sauce. I grabbed things I had on the shelf, blended things together until I got what I wanted,” said Beard. “I’m not telling you the recipe, and I’m not selling you the recipe. It’s a multi-part recipe, consisting of 14 herbs, seasonings, and spices.”
He’s not selling the recipe, but Beard is selling the sauce. Customers can buy it at Market Fresh Fine Foods at 31201 Southfield Road in Beverly Hills and Market Square at 1964 Southfield Road in Birmingham.
“I hope to be selling it across the entire Metro Detroit area,” said Beard. “Plans are underway to advertise soon.”
“Boogie Wonderland” inspires sandwich’s new name, honoring late friend
The late Grammy-winning and Emmy-winning singer/songwriter Allee Willis – who wrote music for the Pointer Sisters; Earth, Wind & Fire; and the Rembrandts – was a regular at Soul and a close friend of Beard’s. They met in 2011.
“I went with Allee to Los Angeles a couple of times,” recalled Beard. “We served the Boogaloo sandwich at two of her shows and it was a hit!”
Beard renamed the sandwich the Boogaloo Wonderland sandwich after the hit EW&F song “Boogie Wonderland,” which Willis co-wrote, to honor his late friend.
“I miss her tremendously,” said Beard. “There’s a lot of history – a lot of meat and potatoes – to the story about this sandwich, and it’s been going strong ever since. This is the opportunity to honor Brother’s Bar-B-Que and the culture this sandwich created in Detroit. I’m proud to be a part of that.”
Bringing the community together through food
Beard runs his restaurant with his older brother Floyd and his son Greg Jr. His son joined the family business in 2020 during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We never closed during the pandemic because we’re a carryout restaurant,” explained Beard. “There were 2-3 hour waits to fill people’s orders. Through fate, diligence, and consistency, we persevered through the pandemic.”
Beard is a big believer in giving back to the community. He provides approximately 200 discounted meals to senior citizens five days per week at the Northwest Activities Center in Detroit, where he is also teaching a 14-week cooking class to children. Meals that remain unsold are donated to the homeless. He has also given free Boogaloo Wonderland sandwiches to the Detroit Fire Department.
“This is my way of thanking them for what they do. The job they do is dangerous. I just want to say thank you as a member of the community. It’s giving my respect to the hard-working men and women of the DFD,” he said.
Beard knows that food brings people together.
“Everyone has to eat,” he said. “Opening my restaurant was my way to bring better soul food to the city. I think of soul food as American cuisine. At my restaurant, we cook to order. I enjoy the interaction with the people who come in. I know the names of the regulars and what they want to order. It’s not just about food, it’s about the people you meet and the relationships you build. People like the camaraderie when they come here. We’re like Cheers – you want to go where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came. That’s what I bring to the table.”
47 years of experience in the food industry
Beard, an alumnus of Henry Ford High School in Detroit, has been in the restaurant business since 1976. He began as a teenager working for his father’s restaurant called Sunset Inn at Elmhurst and Livernois in Detroit.
Throughout his career in the hospitality industry, Beard has worked as a chef for several renowned hotel chains, retirement homes, nursing homes, and the Meals on Wheels program in Detroit.
“I worked for Meal on Wheels for 7½ years and served anywhere from 3,200 to 4,000 meals a night from Monday through Friday,” recalled Beard. “Meals on Wheels taught me a lot about cooking large quantities of food.”
Beard’s goal had always been opening his own restaurant.
“I always had that in the back of my mind,” said Beard. “I went to HFC (then called Henry Ford Community College) in the late 1990s because I wanted to open my own restaurant. I knew I needed the education to do it.”
Culinary school expanded his skills and knowledge base
At HFC, culinary instructors Richard Teeple and Dennis Konarski – both retired – were his mentors.
“Even though I had a lot of practical knowledge before I got to HFC, the College was a great experience,” explained Beard. “I learned a lot of things that I didn’t see before. It improved my ability to cook, which was a great thing. I took what I knew and shared it with my classmates, even my teachers. The greatest compliment was when Chef Konarski asked me if I had ever considered being an instructor. I was flattered. I told him I just wanted to open my own restaurant and I was there to learn.”
Beard was one of two HFC students to be honored for their academic work in culinary arts by the National Restaurant Association in Chicago. Nominated by Konarski, they were two of 100 students nationwide to be honored.
“I was probably one of the oldest students there,” he recalled. “My whole reason for going to school was to say I did it. Experience is what you need to grow. I met some great people along the way at HFC. It was a great time.”
Beard has recommended HFC’s renowned culinary arts program to people who wish to work in the restaurant industry.
“I send people over there,” he said. “HFC has excellent instructors. I tell them, ‘You will learn a lot and you will be glad you went.’ I know I did. It’s part of my foundation. I achieved high expectations of success at HFC.”