Open Cafe: An oasis of great food, opportunity in East Tampa

From great hospitality to fair prices to the scent of yams and fried chicken that permeates the air, Open Cafe is one of the best soul food restaurants in Tampa.

And it's not just because the cooks know what they are doing; this gritty urban oasis at 3222 N. 34th St. is also a home for second chances.

“Their turkey wings with the yellow rice and the sweet yams are the best thing I ever tasted,” says Marcus Johnson, a loyal customer. “I literally try to stop myself from coming here, but I always crave it.”

A community treasure in East Tampa that has been operating for 12 years, Open Cafe employs men and women who have been recently incarcerated and have interests in working in the culinary field. It provides a productive and successful way for former inmates to transition back into society, earn wages, and gradually become self-sufficient.

The concept was the brainchild of the late Bishop Eddie Newkirk, Jr. of St. John’s Cathedral who initially envisioned a place that could help people who were homeless and struggling with drug abuse by giving them a place to stay and a chance to turn their lives around. Later, he added to the mission helping those who recently got out of prison.

Carrying on the mission

Current Director Tony Parker and Assistant Director Florence Gainer have carried Newkirk's vision forward since his passing in 2015, including Noah Community Outreach Inc., a nonprofit organization that Newkirk created over 30 years ago. The church now owns eight houses designed for the recently incarcerated who have nowhere else to go.

“We are not a halfway house. We are a ministry dedicated to giving men and women a way back into society. You have to have a good heart in helping people get back on track. I always tell them the goal is to not stay here forever,” says Gainer.

Noah Community Outreach is an outpatient treatment center providing post release substance abuse. Services include re-entry assistance, relapse prevention skills, and employment assistance. They also partner with Abe Brown Ministries, which has a similar organization to help people stay out of prison and avoid homelessness.

Gainer explains that when men and women come to the program, they are in need of basic necessities. So, the program gives out medicine to those who have ailments and clothes and bedsheets to accommodate their stay.

“They come off the street with nothing,” she says. “We are prepared to give them the basic essentials, to ease their troubles and prepare them with the next steps in life.”

The Outreach contracts with the state of Florida to carry out its mission; the license renews in August.

Providing a step up

Open Cafe has a separate catering license, which gives employees a chance to network and possibly gain job experience that will help further their culinary aspirations.

Parker and Gainer teach the employees how to budget their earnings and how to save their money. When the employees have saved enough money, they pay a small stipend every month to the Noah Community Outreach. The creation of a payment system is a priority to give the employees responsibilities and accountability for their finances.

In addition to the Open Cafe and Noah Community Outreach, employees can also access HOPE 4 2DAY Ministries run by husband and wife Johnny Branham and Shontiá Branham.

The Branhams teach life skills classes every Tuesday ranging from personal finances and banking to civics and voting. The classes are designed to empower attendees and show them how they can make changes by taking action and using their voices.

“I always encourage them to talk and speak their minds,” says Johnny Branham. “Because I am also learning so much about them from the stories they share from their time inside prison. We want to be able to give them that voice so they do not feel like they are not being heard.”

This story is the latest in an ongoing East Tampa storytelling project led by the team of journalists at 83 Degrees Media in collaboration with instructors and students at USF's Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications to help lift up solutions and solution makers. The 6-month-long storytelling project is supported by a grant from the Walmart Foundation to the Solutions Journalism Fund at the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay. Readers are invited to follow the above referenced Fund link to make individual contributions to help ensure additional Solutions Journalism reporting.
 

Read more articles by Zachary Wooten.

USF student Zachary Wooten was born and raised in Tampa. He shares, “My goals are to graduate this semester and start my YouTube channel. My major is in mass communications focusing on broadcast and production. I love listening to music and I am a huge sports fan. I am motivated to graduate since I will be the last of my siblings to get a bachelor’s degree.”
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