It started with a makeshift kitchen that relied on plug-in grills, countertop deep fryers and a Suzy Homemaker Oven.
Suzy Homemaker? Dwight Newkirk and Florence Gainer laughed when chef Reginald Bell suggested the trio help start the Open Cafe in February with a toy oven, but it's only a slight exaggeration.
When an east Tampa church decides to convert its social hall into a full-fledged restaurant to boost its outreach ministry, you don't immediately have stainless steel appliances.
What the members of St. John Cathedral didn't possess in state-of-art kitchen equipment, however, they made up for in faith and the vision of its pastor, Bishop Eddie Newkirk.
Since that humble beginning, it has used a unique approach to grow the business and upgrade the kitchen to commercial standards.
"It's been trial and error, but through that you learn," said Dwight Newkirk, the bishop's son. "We've gotten better at what we've been doing."
In the process, the Open Cafe has risen to become a favorite among residents both young and old thanks largely to word of mouth. With a reasonably priced menu rooted in soul food traditions, it attracts seniors, business leaders, churchgoers and teens.
"We're not surprised because we know who's the head of it. God is the head of it," said Gainer, St. John's church administrator. "And we've had great support from the community."
Newkirk teamed with Gainer to help turn his father's vision into a reality. Rentals of the hall declined when the church stopped allowing alcohol.
The building is paid for, and the church supports its general expenses through the tithing of its more than 350 members. However, it needed money to cover taxes, insurance and upkeep of the hall, and the bishop, who still presides at the age of 85, didn't want an idle property.
"The pastor said 'This building is just sitting here, why don't we do something with that? Why don't we utilize what resources God has given us and bring some home-cooked food to the community,' "Gainer said.
They moved toward traditional comfort food after noticing many of the places their members frequented after Sunday service had closed, including Piccadilly Cafeteria and Buddy Freddy's, but they also keep an eye toward health — using turkey instead of pork to flavor some foods.
Staples such as smothered pork chops and baked chicken tend to draw crowds on Sundays, but the Open Cafe also attracts notables on weekdays.
Former Mayor Pam Iorio held a signing for her new book Straightforward: Ways to Live and Lead, at the cafe last month. And you can count Hillsborough Community College president Ken Atwater and Tampa City Council members Frank Reddick and Yoli Capin among those who have visited.
Gainer teases that Bell, classically trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, had to learn a little bit from her about cooking soul food. Bell's experience, however, adds some interesting entrees. Yes, they tend to serve ox tails and occasionally chitterlings, but Bell also has offered blackened salmon, crab cakes, Cornish hens and a Cajun burger.
Red velvet and coconut cake come from nearby Emma's Bakery, but members also do some baking. In fact, Dwight Newkirk, a building contractor by trade, has added his own sweet potato and bread pudding delights, and Bishop Newkirk seldom fails to bake a pound cake.
What impresses most about the Open Cafe, however, is that it's open to people who need a second chance. The restaurant provides culinary training for ex-offenders, largely those convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual crimes.
In exchange for a stipend and housing — the church owns several neighborhood properties — the former prisoners prepare and serve while learning or honing their cooking skills and gaining confidence
"It's been very rewarding and a blessing to be part of a ministry that reaches out," Gainer said.
In an age of prosperity churches focusing within, it's refreshing to find a ministry truly reaching out. We need more of the kind of home cooking being served at the Open Cafe.
There's a reason it's called soul food.
That's all I'm saying.