Ex-convict turns life around to run restaurant in Alton Park

Ex-convict turns life around to run restaurant in Alton Park

July 14th, 2012 by Joan Garrett McClane in News

Charmane D. Goins, owner and general manager of Bistro at The Beth, mingles with customers during Friday's lunch service inside of the Bethlehem Center at 200 W. 38th St.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

Poverty in South Chattanooga/Alton Park

37408: 21 percent of residents in this ZIP Code live below the poverty line.

37409: In half of this ZIP code, 12 to 21 percent live below the poverty line.

37410: In 90 percent of this ZIP code, more than 21 percent live below the poverty line.

37404, 37406, 37411, 37407 - ZIP codes with the highest number of needs because of poverty.

Source: American Community Survey, United Way


To learn more about programs and events offered by Launch, visit www.launchchattanooga.org or call 423-266-1384, ext. 28.

On a steamy afternoon, Charmane Goins stands on the steps of the community center in the heart of Alton Park and watches his business in action.

A sign is propped above the doorway to the gymnasium at the Bethlehem Center. It reads: "The Bistro at the Beth."

The air smells of fried fish and beef brisket. A teenager stands on the road and wiggles a sign advertising the lunch specials. Cars slow and pull into the parking lot.

Goins' employees squirt tangy barbecue sauce on buns packed high with meat and neatly wrap them.

There are men in ties who pay cash and look like they've come to do business over their barbecue, and young hipsters looking for soul food. Others from the Alton Park neighborhood come for air conditioning. For many it's the closest food in walking distance.

A year ago, Goins didn't imagine he'd be running his own restaurant out of the Bethlehem Center, a faith-based community hub for social services and recreation that sits right across from the Villages at Alton Park on 38th Street.

A year ago he was just getting out of federal prison, finished with a sentence for armed robbery and bank robbery. He'd served 10 years in various Georgia state prisons and five years in federal prison.

But even if he hadn't been a convicted felon, his chances of becoming a entrepreneur were slim.

Goins was a gang member who grew up in Chattanooga's Emma Wheeler homes and moved to Dalton, Ga., where he graduated from high school. He didn't have money or business connections.

Like many young men and women growing up in inner-city Chattanooga, he was more concerned with running the streets than launching a business.

As a gang member, "I was not thinking about consequences. I was living for the moment," he said.

But an intervention happened last year. Just as Goins, 34, was getting out of prison and looking to re-establish himself in Chattanooga, a mentor and close family friend, Lurone Jennings Jr., suggested Goins talk with his father.

"Lurone Jennings Sr. is an icon in this community," Goins said about the man who heads up the Bethlehem Center and was eager to help.

About the same time, a young organization called Launch began working with Bethlehem. The nonprofit organization was training people like Goins to repurpose their street-wise business sense for legitimate purpose.

The co-founder of Launch, Hal Bowling, also hoped a spurt of start-ups would energize community economies like the one in Alton Park and create jobs for those struggling to find minimum-wage work.

"These businesses can provide basic services that these communities desperately need," Bowling said. "That has a great impact. The Bistro is providing food in a food desert. It is the most substantial and healthy food that is in the area."

Now Goins' Bistro is among six businesses nurtured by Launch that have created 26 jobs for residents. The nonprofit has 20 more businesses in the planning phases.

More than 100 people have attended classes through Launch, which is supported by local businesses, foundations and other nonprofits, including the Bethlehem Center, Bowling said.

Graduates have started an elderly care service, a child care service and a catering business. One is making hair care products, while another is making gift items.

Bowling said he is trying to match Launch graduates with the needs of the community. East Chattanooga, for instance, "needs pharmacies and dry cleaners," he said, because many residents don't have easy access to transportation and find it hard to get to such businesses outside the community.

Launch was started in 2010 when a handful of business owners began talking about ways they could nudge more low-income Chattanoogans to self sufficiency. Founders wanted to offer affordable and accessible business start-up classes. They also wanted to find people who were willing to offer business services, such as legal work, printing and accounting, at a discount rate.

Bowling told participants that Launch could help shoulder some of the costs, but the individual business owner had to match it with savings. And the model seems to be effective, he said.

This year Launch will expand to offer entrepreneurial training in East Chattanooga at the Glass House Collective, at North Side Neighborhood House and a Spanish group at La Paz.

Seventy percent of those who have taken the classes in Alton Park have been women, so Bowling plans to offer some classes geared to single mothers with child care.

Goins, who has been one of the loudest voices for Launch in the community, said he hopes people who come to the program can learn that they can leave the dangers of the street behind. Gang membership doesn't have to be for life, and you don't have to die to get out, he said, but you do have to start fresh.

"The same way you made a decision to get in, you can make a decision to get out," he said. "And that choice can affect the rest of your life."

Goins' 16-year-old son, Demetrius, is working alongside his father at the Bistro after being apart from him for most of his life. He said his father's transformation is miraculous. He sees that people respect his father now and his own friends look up to his dad.

Willie Long, who works the register at the Bistro 20 hours a week, said community members look at what's happening through Launch and the Bethlehem Center and wonder if they, too, could find work or create their own.

"A lot of guys who hang out at the corner now. ... I talk with them," Long said. "They say, 'Mr. Long, anybody got a job? Mr. Long, anybody hiring? I don't want to be on the corner, but that's all I got.'"