Chatter Box Cafe on Shallowford Road sells hope (and barbecue) by the pound

Brandon Ellis and his 2-year-old daughter, Harper, are pictured by Ellis' Chatter Box barbecue truck. / Staff Photo by Mark Kennedy

Fourteen years ago, Brandon Ellis hit rock bottom.

Ellis, then in his early 20s, was facing felony drug charges, he said, with the possibility of spending significant time behind bars. The Kentucky native said he started selling drugs after he dropped out of college.

"For some people, like it or not, that's their reality," said Ellis, 36. "You wake up, sell drugs, make money and survive. Until you are taken out of it, you can't really see it for what it is."

After only a few months in jail, Ellis got a second chance. He was released into a faith-based program called Adult & Teen Challenge that provided structure, mentors and a path to independence.

Now, more than a decade later, Ellis is a small business owner. His Chatter Box Cafe at 6801 Shallowford Road is home base for his food truck and catering business. You may see him on Signal Mountain Road this week selling barbecue from one of his trucks.

He specializes in cooking pulled-pork barbecue, ribs and beef brisket along with side dishes such as potato salad and smoked macaroni and cheese. Some days his 2-year-old daughter, Harper, hangs out with him. It's Ellis' dream to build the business so he can attend Harper's after-school activities in a few years.

"I just want to be able to cook enough to pay my bills and live," he said.

Ellis believes that his work ethic, honed as a child in the tobacco fields of Kentucky, will help him make it as an entrepreneur. Growing up near Franklin, Kentucky, population 9,010, Ellis said, he was working for his grandfather planting tobacco by the time he was 8 years old.

"My grandfather showed me that if I wanted anything all I had to do was be willing to work," Ellis said. "If I wanted a BB gun and it cost $100, I needed to make $100."

photo Staff Photo by Angela Lewis Foster / Brandon Ellis takes jerk chicken out of the smoker Friday, Feb. 3 2017 at Chatter Box BBQ.

Meanwhile, Ellis said that when he was a child his mother worked two jobs and his father was not always around.

At age 15, Ellis, who is Black, moved to Forsyth County, Georgia, to live with an uncle. There, he learned how to navigate in a largely white environment, he said - the county's population is less than 3 percent Black. He returned to Kentucky for his final year of high school and then briefly attended Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Kentucky, before dropping out.

"I wasn't serious about it, and [I] was just wasting time and money," he said. "I ended up coming back to Franklin. That's where the twists and turns came into play."

Back home, Ellis worked several lower-paying jobs before yielding to the temptation of the streets, he said.

"I ended up getting into trafficking drugs - trafficking cocaine, marijuana, pills," he said.

Once out of prison he used the Adult & Teen Challenge program to redirect his life.

"Building relationships in Chattanooga [through Adult & Teen Challenge] helped me," he said. "I had a support system at church and mentors. I wasn't just having to figure out my own."

Here in Chattanooga, he started a commercial cleaning business that grew to involve about 30 clients - including the Lookout Mountain Club and the Manker Patten Tennis Club - and a dozen employees.

Eventually, Ellis handed the cleaning business off to an aunt and decided to try something new. Soon, he began booking events and using a concessions truck - a converted horse trailer - to grow a small barbecue cooking business.

Earlier this year, he took over the lease of a produce store on Shallowford Road near Lee Highway and began to serve take-out barbecue dishes to a growing customer base. There is a patio at the property that he hopes will come alive with guests once the COVID-19 pandemic is over.

He said he has managed to build the business without taking on debt. He has received small-business grants from the Community Foundation, Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union and the city of Chattanooga through a Community Reinvestment Grant.

Ellis said he hopes to soon deploy a new 52-foot food truck with a commercial kitchen that will become the beating heart of his food operation.

"My goal is to continue busting my butt," he said. "I want to have the flexibility to be a very active father."

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photo Staff Photo by Angela Lewis Foster / Brandon Ellis stands Friday, Feb. 3 2017, in his restaurant, Chatter Box BBQ.