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VOL. 40 | NO. 47 | Friday, November 18, 2016

Kingdom Café serves second chances at life

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Mark Osborne, left, who says he “never had a felony, but my record is not decent,” and co-manager Howard E Jones III are two of many getting chance to improve their lives at the restaurant.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

The reformed felon-turned-missionary who uses meatloaf and fried chicken to decorate his pulpit climbs from his chair as Fannie Holmes stops to talk with him.

“This is really nice,” says Fannie, a retired HCA mailroom supervisor as she leans into the lingering hug proffered by Howard E. Jones III, who is beaming with joy and gratitude at her comments.

“You know what I like about it? They give you whole beans, real greens and cornbread,” says Fannie, who admits she came by Kingdom Café & Grill on her way home from Bible study at a nearby church.

“I had the meatloaf,” she adds, noting that she decided to test out this new Jefferson Street establishment before getting her girlfriends – they often lunch together – to pile in the car and come visit Howard’s Kingdom.

“I passed it. I stopped. I love it. The fish. Greens. Sweet potatoes. The CORN BREAD.

“Pray to God. Bless you. Keep it going.”

The lingering hug turns to quick pecks on the cheeks shared by the two, and Fannie steps out of Kingdom Café & Grill, at 2610 Jefferson Street, and disappears into the fleeting afternoon sun and out onto this historic stretch of North Nashville.

“This is my church,” Howard allows. And he smiles. “Really is.”

A part of the reason Fannie wanted to try it is, of course, is that it’s in her neighborhood. She also realizes this restaurant – an extension of the love provided by Fairfield Missionary Baptist Church over on Dickerson Road in Goodlettsville – is all about second chances, resurrection.

Howard, one of the founders and bosses at this new establishment, shrugs off his co-manager title. “I really don’t need that. All I need for people to know is that I’m a guy who comes in here and works hard to make this place work.”

One of the missions of this restaurant, operated by Fairfield Church, is to give reformed criminals new starts on life, second – or even third chances – to live the American dream of working hard, getting a fair wage and abandoning the street life.

“This really was my grandfather’s vision because he instilled in my father the idea of coming back to Jefferson Street and giving back.” His pop took the vision from there.

Grandpa Howard Jones Sr., Howard III notes, died long before his son, the Rev. Howard Jones Jr. – the senior pastor of the church over on Dickerson Road – and his benevolent and faithful congregation opened Kingdom Cafe & Grill about six months ago.

“The mission of our church is to use this business to give a second chance to felons who find it hard to find honest work when they have straightened out their lives,” the youngest Howard says.

“They can come here and learn food prep, customer service and other things that will help them get a new start when they leave here.

“Our motivation is the rebirth of human beings,” he explains.

This affable young fellow who accurately admits to being “spunky,” looks up. “I’m a felon. So I know what it’s like to be seeking work.

“There’s no way we could be policemen, firemen or mailmen, anything where we could make a steady $40,000 income.”

Periodically the men and women who work here interrupt the conversation to ask him questions about the business, what they need to do next.

“I understand them,” he says. “Now I try to live positive. To be a bright spot in people’s days.”

It’s not a halfway house, but Kingdom Café has the goal of giving men and women the chance to learn some skills, build their resumes and learn how to smile. Howard emphasizes the smile: “You keep that serious look on your face and it won’t get you anywhere. You gotta smile.”

He waits for this semi-reformed daily newspaper editor to smile.

I do, as I look across the table to Howard while three widescreen TVs preside over the room and offer up images of Obama, Hillary, Trump crying, crowing or eating crow (not necessarily in that order) about the just-passed presidential election.

While the TVs focus on the recent world shakeup, they are all muted (thank God) while the room’s soundtrack blossoms with full-on Southern black gospel music, much more suited to this “church” with its tasty aroma caused by pies being baked while meat and veggies cook or are served.

Howard gently declines to elaborate on his time as an outlaw. “I was convicted back in 2009, seven years ago. I’ve had some ups and downs in m life.

“I wasn’t a bad guy, but I was doing some stuff I probably never thought I’d do. Six year’s probation. So I know about second chances. I understand.”

Not that all of his previous existence was spent on the wrong side of the law. He has been “the owner of a Laundromat and a car salesman.”

He also has spent a lot of time with his father. “I am fortunate because I have a good father who will help me.”

His father, the Fairfield Missionary Baptist pulpit-master, also serves as assistant principal at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Antioch.

But he makes time for his son. “He’s busy doing his pastor and principal thing, but I’ve seen him come in here in his suit and start cleaning up, working.

“I’ve got to get him a pair of overalls and some non-slip shoes if he keeps doing that.”

It was during their regular father-son/preacher-felon meetings that they stumbled into this mission and business opportunity, this savory-salvation opportunity they could offer to the church.

Howard explains that “me and my father would come in here and patronize it when it was Harper’s, before it closed.”

They would come in for conversations with state Sen. Thelma and Paul Harper – owners of Harper’s Soul Food Restaurant – just being friendly and involved in the neighborhood.

“When we found out it was going to close, we wanted to get it for the church, for my father’s vision of establishing this mission here.” The principal wanted to fulfill his own father’s wishes for the family to give back to the neighborhood.

The sale didn’t take long, after they told the Harpers of their plans. “We wanted to get this building back in rotation,” says Howard.

Kingdom Café & Grill is an answer to prayers for hungry Jefferson Street patrons as well as convicted felons looking for an opportunity to prove they can again be productive citizens.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

“My father wanted it to be a restaurant and we wanted to save this historic building from being torn down for condos (yes, IT City condo fever has gotten a foothold even on Jefferson Street).

“Everybody can’t afford $200,000 for a high-rise condo. But everybody can afford a $10 plate of food,” Howard reasons.

“And we wanted to keep it as a friendly place where families can bring their kids.

“My father always had this vision of having a restaurant where people could go and congregate after church, a nice place.

“We wanted it to continue being a part of this neighborhood,” Howard adds.

A lovely young woman catches his eye as she walks past us while he talks of his pastor pop and his church’s vision of establishing this as an outpost for second chances for felons and a place where nearby Tennessee State University students can get part-time work or “come in here and have a latte and use our WiFi.”

“Excuse me,” he whispers to me as he begins talking with Olivia – the only name the young woman volunteers – who carries her to-go cup of “our deliciously cooked iced tea” toward the front door.

Howard’s not going to let this woman vanish so easily.

“I know you, don’t I?” he asks. “I know you from somewhere.”

The bright ebony face of the young woman breaks into one of those smiles that Howard preaches about as he follows her out into the parking lot in search of conversation.

He returns to this table and his chair with a big smile himself – after spending an afternoon with him, it’s pretty clear that his face generally is decorated with his joy – and says “I know her from somewhere.”

“Sorry I left you like that,” he says.

“A guy’s got to take care of business,” I say, mirroring his smile.

“Yeah, I was takin’ care of business,” he repeats, holding up his right hand so we could swap happy high-fives.

At just 29, Howard has never married – “not at this point, anyway” – but family life is on his mind. “I keep on trying to find ‘the one.’”

In the meantime, he’s devoted to revitalizing both this building and the neighborhood. He’s pretty sure this building was a part of the R&B club scene back in the 1960s.

Which makes sense. The building right next door is the Elk’s Lodge, formerly Club Baron, a rich-in-history watering hole best-remembered as the place a young former Fort Campbell paratrooper – Jimmy (before he became Jimi) Hendrix had his guitar duel with Johnny Jones, perhaps the best blues and R&B guitarist Nashville has known. Both men are now dead, but to hear people tell it – and in North Nashville it is a near-mythical, magical and multi-generational tale – Jones came out the victor.

(Fact is, I knew and liked Jones, who in a non-boastful fashion would admit to whipping the young man who would become a rock ‘n’ roll deity before his life was snuffed in the purple haze of excess.)

“After the church bought this building we began remodeling. We remodeled in every square inch of this place,” Howard says. But it wasn’t just him and his dad at work here.

Church people also leaped in to help the two Howards. They were on a mission from God.

James Howse, 60, who has spent time as an R&B tenor – “I also sang falsetto” – has come from the kitchen where he’s been cooking meatloaf to give his own testimony about this place and its mission.

He admits he committed a felony, but won’t go into details. “It’s not one of the bad ones … sorta, kinda, sorta.”

While he says he “always was able to get my hustle on,” he did find it difficult, with his “kinda-sorta” criminal past, to find work.

Then he found out about Kingdom Café & Grill. “That was a blessing within itself. This place has been a big help to everybody,” says James, noting that his likely is the best meatloaf in Nashville.

A few minutes later – while touring the restaurant, including the large rooms for the a la cart grill part of the establishment (“you can order a hamburger here,” Howard tells me) and the café, where folks enjoy good old Southern cooking offered up, cafeteria-style – I meet Mark Osborne, 25.

The cashier has been working here two or three months. Like so many of the folks in this mission house, his has not had a spotless existence.

“I never had a felony, but my record is not decent and it’s hindered me from getting a job.” Here he is building his resume and earning a solid, non-judgmental wage.

An older woman has entered the café part of the establishment, reporting for work. She’s not quite as forthcoming about what drew her here.

“This place is a blessing,” she says, declining to reveal her name for print. “Here I feel like somebody. And I got this job because I was just passing through here one day and I just gave them my resume.”

She says it was her honesty on that resume that got her this job. No, she won’t reveal details from her own past, but adds again: “I got this job because I was honest” when applying.

Course not everyone working here has a checkered past.

“Some of the old ladies back in the kitchen, well they can really throw down, making great food, bake, cook our marvelous teas and our marvelous deserts,” Howard says.

“I’m trying to talk some of them into starting their own businesses inside this business. Maybe run a bakery.”

And he wouldn’t mind it if someone set up “a temp service for felons” to rely upon when the job rejections keep piling up.

“Hopefully, we can birth some things here for people,” spark them toward achieving dreams like his own.

“Everybody wants a white picket fence, a yard and a family,” Howard adds. “If you think that’s not true, you gotta be crazy.”

He has those dreams. So do members of his staff. So do the people who come in here and eat, repeatedly. “If you treat people right, they’ll always come back,” says Howard, noting business is gaining ground.

“I can see it growing,” says Howard. “I see it as a blessing. I want it to become a cornerstone for this community, always with a taste of Nashville.”

It will continue to be a place where warmth of spirit as well as welcoming smiles bring people in off the street to dine or to work toward redemptions.

“People always need food, shelter, clothes and love,” he says, echoing the mantra that guided him and his father to encourage the church to establish this missionary outpost in an oft-forgot, sometimes feared part of town.

As I prepare to leave, I notice that hanging on the wall is a piece of wood with significant words painted on it: “Grace isn’t a little prayer you say before receiving a meal. It’s a way to live.”

“We just want to promote good, healthy lives in a good, healthy building,” Howard says, noting that this is a spotless and quite modern facility that Howard, his pop and the church folks built inside the shell that was Harper’s restaurant. “You aren’t going to see too many businesses being this clean and nice, especially on Jefferson Street. I hate to say that.”

He is rightfully proud of what his pop’s church is accomplishing by giving him and some of his comrades dignified work.

“If you plant good seed, you’ll reap good fruit,” Howard says.

Then he casts one of those bright smiles. “Our food has no prejudice. If you have a mouth, tongue and teeth, we welcome you to come in and eat.”

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