Back in 2016 I met my good friend the Reverend Harold Middlebrook for lunch at a new soul food restaurant called Jackie’s Dream, which is about a half mile from my house in East Knoxville. Thus started my patronage of this very good restaurant which specializes in “hot chicken” and other soul foods, including collard greens, fried okra, and my favorite- fried green tomatoes.
Jackie’s dream has a very diverse clientele with folks from all over Knoxville coming to visit. I’ll often place my favorite order of fried green tomatoes a little before 7 pm and upon arriving I’ll see UT students dressed in tank tops and sandals and other families dressed in church clothes- all sitting down to enjoy the experience of Jackie’s Dream.
Jackie’s Dream is a great success story for East Knoxville. In an environment where historically very few businesses succeed, Jackie’s Dream is proving the exception and thriving.
I sat down with Jackie Griffin, co-owner of Jackie’s Dream, to get a little bit of her personal story and the origins of the restaurant.
Jackie comes from Oak Ridge, where she described growing up in very strong, close knit community. Food was at the center of her family and community there.
Her family loved to cook and grew many different types of vegetables on their family farm, which they would can and eventually eat in the winter time. Jackie’s father raised her and her brothers on his own for a period of her childhood, which led her to taking the lead in cooking for her family. This led to her love of cooking and of serving others.
Prior to starting Jackie’s Dream, Jackie worked in a variety of different restaurants in the area, including Buddies Barbeque, Sawyer’s, Red Lobster, and the Crown and Goose. She describes some of the work environments as being less than friendly to her, but the thing that kept her going was her love of preparing food for people.
Jackie eventually quit her last job and took the plunge into becoming an entrepreneur and starting her own restaurant.
The process of starting her own business began literally with Jackie selling plates of chicken wings, meatloaf, white beans and cole slaw out of her house to friends and family members in the community. She discovered the success of her product one weekend when she sold $500 worth of plates in just three hours.
George Pelcher, who would become her business partner in Jackie’s Dream, approached her about a location for a restaurant. He said that his uncle had a building on McCalla in East Knoxville that was becoming available. They checked it out and decided to open Jackie’s Dream there. Using her tax return money and money that George had saved, together they pooled their resources and started the business.
Opening day was March 6, 2015. Business started out slowly, but eventually picked up and took off to become hugely successful.
Jackie explains where the name for the restaurant came from. Jackie’s cousin pointed out to her that her “dream” was always to have her own restaurant. Thus the name “Jackie’s Dream.”
The credit for the success of Jackie’s Dream, according to Jackie, has been their loyal customer base. With a zero-advertising budget, news about the restaurant has been spread about the restaurant largely by word of mouth and customers’ social media platforms. Jackie points out the fact that many restaurants in the first 3-5 years are upside down. Additionally, the fact that Jackie’s Dream has no corporate sponsors or outside funding makes its success stand out even further.
Her customer base is something that she definitely doesn’t take for granted. Jackie explains that she wants every customer who enters the restaurant to be treated with dignity, respect, and just like they were a member of her own family. Jackie explains, “We get commended on our service being exceptionally good, which is very unusual for a restaurant of this nature. When I go out to spend my money at a restaurant or anywhere in the public, you better act like you appreciate me or respect me or know that I worked hard for my money. I want top notch service no matter the establishment. Treat people like people. Everybody is somebody. Every customer when they come in here we treat them like they are a customer for the first time.”
As far as most popular foods, Jackie is unequivocal that it is the hot chicken, which comes from George Pelcher’s recipe. Her cousin’s meatloaf is also very popular, as well as the collard greens, fried okra, and fried green tomatoes. She also points out that people are shocked that the yams contain no cinnamon or brown sugar!
Jackie describes her major influencer as her father. Jackie explains, “As far as me being the person I am, I have to give that to my dad. My mom has a lot to do with my cooking background. But as far as me being a hard-working person, knowing you have to work for a living, and doing everything over the top, never short-cutting, I have to give my dad credit for that. He just retired from a job that he was on for 41 years, and prior to that he worked for the Oak Ridge School system in the janitorial department for about 6 or 7 years- basically he’s got about 50 years in and he’s only 66 years old.”
I asked Jackie what advice she’d give aspiring entrepreneurs.
“The biggest thing about entrepreneurship or any job is that you have to find something that you love or something that you love doing and finding a job that revolves around that. You have to love what you do.”
Like her father, Jackie also stresses the importance of hard work:
“Starting off a business means long hours and hard work. I do get tired working 6 days a week,12,13, sometimes 14 hours a day and then sometimes not even off on Mondays because you still got to order up and get ready for the work week. When times are tough, you can’t give up and you can’t get discouraged. It won’t be great all the time. You have to stay focused and like what you do.”
Jackie sums up her keys to success, while acknowledging that not all businesses succeed:
“Those are the key things- liking what you are doing, knowing that it’s going to come with work- and it’s not easy work either. And there are going to be ups and downs but believe me in the end the goods will outweigh the bads. And then sometimes folks don’t succeed at starting a business. If it doesn’t work, don’t stay in it. Like I tell people about the restaurant business, I’ve seen where people have tried it and it wasn’t for them. In the end, you have to find something you like and be willing to work for it.”
Give Jackie’s Dream a visit- I promise you not only won’t be disappointed, you’ll be coming back for future visits!
Jackie’s Dream is located at 2223 McCalla Avenue, Knoxville, TN 37915. Hours are normally Tuesday through Sunday from 11 Am to 8 pm. Phone number is 865-219-5789. Like on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/JackiesDream2223McCallaAve/