Anchored in Frenchtown
Owner comes full circle with grand opening of Ms. Dee’s Kitchen
By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer
Surrounded by friends, family and a handful of government officials, Deborah Holton could hardly believe what she was experiencing.
Eleven months after opening her restaurant, Ms. Dee’s Kitchen, it was officially christened with a ribbon cutting and grand opening ceremony.
“It was just a great feeling knowing that I had accomplished a milestone and to the place in a historic community,” Holton said, following the ceremony last Saturday morning. “It’s just an amazing feeling.”
Holton, who built her reputation as a “soul food” cook at several mom-and-pop restaurants, said the move into the building where Ferrell’s restaurant was located was an epiphany. Several years of working in spots that included service stations brought her to the point that she decided to get into a full-fledge restaurant.
“At that point, I realized if I can work for someone else I can work for myself,” she said.
Having Ms. Dee’s in the spot at 717 Old Bainbridge Road will bring back a tradition lost to the community that once flourished, said Darryl Jones, deputy director of the Office of Economic Vitality.
“There is nothing like coming together at the dinner table,” said Jones, whose relationship with Holton goes back to his days before he was a student at FAMU. “In this community, Dee’s Kitchen is Frenchtown/Springfield’s dinner table. As you look across this neighborhood, there are no other sit-down restaurants that are minority-owned if you think about it.”
Opening the restaurant is destiny that was prompted by struggles that Holton was having with owners of the last service station where she operated, Jones said.
“God had been speaking to her for a long time and used those types of circumstances to trust him more and step out on faith,” he said. “Had the person not raised the lease, she may have stayed where she was because she was comfortable.”
Holton said that at age 60 she hopes to motivate someone else who might be considering becoming a late bloomer in business.
“I would like to inspire people to let them know it’s not too late for your dream to come true,” she said.
Holton’s decision to move on as an entrepreneur should inspire others, said Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor. She runs the restaurant with help from her daughter, Abeer Lovett, and two other relatives.
“This reinvigorate the life pulse of the community and it quickens the heart of entrepreneurship,” Proctor said, “coming from an African American entrepreneur.
“We tip our hat to sister Dee for putting it all on the line; all of her life savings, her family and what they’re sacrificing to give this community another chance to maintain a business.”
Her menu is colloquial with fares such as turkey legs, chitterlings and ox tail. That’s for lunch after the restaurant opens with the traditional Southern breakfast.
The restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. It’s closed on the second Saturday of each month.
“Sometimes you have to step back and breathe a little bit,” said Holton, who is the first in the kitchen at 5 a.m. each day.
Another longtime friendship with realtor Terrence Hinson was helpful in the beginning stage of getting the business started. The two had met several years before Holton called on him to help her search for the right spot.
It turned out that the Ferrell spot was available a few years after it closed. When the negotiations was done, Rev. Ernest Ferrell decided to leave the furniture and kitchen intact for Holton.
“It was a lot of work but it was like a perfect storm for him and her,” Hinson said. “It wasn’t an overnight thing, but we worked to see it through.”
Holton’s resume as a cook is an impressive one, going back to when she started at Chandler’s Burger as a 16-year-old growing up in Quincy. Later, she was a part time cook at Ma Mary’s Kitchen near FAMU’s campus in the early 1980’s.
Holton also made stops at Miss Sophie’s restaurant near Saxon Street and Orange Avenue. She remained there through two name changes, the last being Southside Diner. That 13-year stint was followed by working at FAMU’s Cafeteria, where she was a supervisor.
Hinson suspect that Holton has what it takes to sustain in a community that had lost the last two family-owned restaurants.
“A lot of people, if they don’t have the passion, they find it very difficult to sustain themselves in those hard times,” Hinson said. “Dee has the passion for what she does. That’s going to sustain her for a long time when those tough times come. ”