RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) -
It's a Richmond hot spot, known far and wide for good southern cooking and cakes. When people visit Richmond from all walks of life, Mama J's Kitchen is on their list of must-visit places.
The restaurant serves a bigger purpose than just delivering great food: the owners are changing lives, one person at a time.
Walk into Mama J's on any day during lunch and it's busy, busy, busy...but well worth the wait.
Just five years ago, Velma Johnson's son opened the restaurant for her, off North First Street. Mama J's Kitchen has been serving up soul food ever since.
People sitting in the restaurant enjoying delectable desserts may never guess what's going on in the kitchen: Mama J does much of the baking herself.
"That's our strawberry cake. There is a secret ingredient to all my food," says Ms. Johnson.
It's a family affair at Mama J's: Ms. Johnson's sister, Paulette, also works there. And even the people who aren't blood are like family. People like chef Richie Cannady, who, just a few years ago, was in jail. "When I came out, it was almost impossible for me to get a job," Richie says. "Nobody would touch me, even though I had the experience."
Although he was quiet when 8News Reporter Ava-joye Burnett first walked into the kitchen, he opened up to talk about the people who gave him a second chance. "Over 150...I can't even tell you how many resumes," says Richie. "I kept a log everyday I went out: where I went, who I talked to. Whether I left a resume, whether they were hiring or not, when would they be hiring."
Mama J's was one of those 150+ restaurants where he tried to get work. Landing the job at Mama J's wasn't a walk in the park...but Velma Johnson was willing to give him a chance.
"I don't know what he was in jail for, I don't know how many years he was in jail," Ms. Johnson says, "but I know when he came in here he was sincere, he was clean, he was polite and he wanted a job. He wanted us to give him a job and we did. And he turned out to be one of our best employees."
Mama J used to work for the Richmond City Jail as a Sheriff's Deputy. She's a tough lady but has a soft spot for people in need. At the end of each shift, leftovers don't go to the workers, like at many other restaurants.
"We give it maybe to some shelter, or I will take it to Monroe Park," explains Ms. Johnson. "We don't throw anything away."
Mama J's customers might not know all that happens in the kitchen, but one thing is for sure: their loyalty is helping Mama J help others.
Do you know someone making a positive difference in Central Virginia or their community? ABC 8News Anchor Ava-joye Burnett wants to hear from you: post on her Facebook wall or tweet her your ideas.