Owner Javan Martin talks with Gabriel Moore as he splits wood behind Sunset BBQ on Dodson Avenue on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Martin works with neighborhood children to help keep them occupied and teach them work and life skills. He also pays them to help around the restaurant by chopping wood, cleaning grills and doing other odd jobs. Moore says he comes nearly every day.

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Avondale restaurant serves purpose for local youth

Since 1958, Sunset BBQ has been a mainstay on Dodson Avenue; homemade barbecue sauce and the smell of smoke rising from the fire pit keep bringing people back to the family-owned eatery.

For more than 40 years, there had never been any trouble, said Greg Martin, co-owner of the barbecue restuarant. But lately, "it's been crazy," he said.

Last month was the second time the restaurant's HVAC unit, a $6,000 necessity, had been stolen this year said Javan Martin, Greg Martin's son and co-owner. He said it's been one of the most stressful years he's had.

Javan Martin, 34, didn't grow up in the Avondale neighborhood but has spent most of his life there since childhood while his father ran the restaurant. Now, years later, he's the one in charge.

But they do more than just serve barbecue.

Javan Martin is passionate about helping the children in the community.

He takes them in and teaches them different skills, such as how to develop a good work ethic and responsibility.

So that's why it's so disheartening, he said, when his business takes a blow like this year's thefts.

The first time the unit was stolen was in July. Before that, in December 2016, their heater and generator were stolen while they were repairing damage caused by a grease fire. Temperatures dipped to 19 degrees around that time, Javan Martin said.

No one was ever arrested in connection to those thefts, but last month, someone was in custody within hours, thanks to surveillance footage and a suspect's distinct characteristic.

Greg Martin awoke to a notification on his phone telling him the motion sensors around his restaurant were activated just before 6 a.m. on Nov. 14. Two men had pulled into the parking lot with a saw and started to disconnect the large, 5-ton air conditioning unit. They were gone within 20 minutes.

Surveillance footage showed the two men walking by the building, both wearing jeans, a hoodie, sneakers and a beanie. One man had a very pronounced limp and walked with a crutch under his right arm.

An employee was able to identify the suspect as Vincent Kennedy from the video. Police found and arrested the man. He was wearing the same outfit as was in the camera footage, an incident report states.

"From what I saw on the video, I noticed the way he walks," said Matthew Madden, the worker who recognized Kennedy. "He had a particular walk, and he comes here to the restaurant. I actually helped him take his food out to the car."

Kennedy, 35, was charged with theft over $5,000. The other man has not been identified or found.

"It's messed up that they would do something like this to someone who's trying to be a benefit to the community," Martin said. " I don't have a lot of funds and things that I can give [children], but I try to give them some of my time."

Many neighborhood children come to the restaurant to help chop some wood or break down boxes or other odd jobs to make a few extra dollars after school. Most of them are anywhere from 7 to 17 years old, and there is an equal balance of girls and boys.

Javan Martin said he always tries to offer them something to do, especially during the summer when school is out and there isn't much to keep them busy.

"Before, my dad said, 'Any child who wanted to work, there was somewhere for them to work,'" he said. "Now it's not like that. Now the kids are out here walking around looking for something to do."

He said children don't get into trouble because they're bad. "It's just the 'idle mind is the devil's workshop.'"

"They just need something to do," Javan Martin said. "If you teach them a skill, they'll appreciate that. They just feel neglected like nobody cares about them. All they need is something to focus on."

He tries to be a safe haven for them when they're feeling sad or lonely or need to talk.

Recently, one boy was having a panic attack when he stopped by the restaurant because he was close to one of the victims of last year's deadly Woodmore Elementary school bus crash.

"I didn't know what to do, like what do you say to that? I just told him we could talk," Javan Martin said.

Others who stop by come from single-parent homes, occasionally leaving them without a ride to school because the parent is at work and the child has missed the school bus. They'll stop by the restaurant and ask if someone can give them a ride to school, he said.

Some children just need someone to tell them things aren't that bad, he said. He tries to teach them to see things differently and to always look for opportunities to further their education and attain success.

"The more educated you are, the richer you are," he said.

When he sees children who stand out and are diligent at what they do, he likes to bring them into the restaurant to teach them more about the business.

"If they learn how to start running their own business, they won't have to do illegal things to make money," he said. "It's just trying to teach the kids around here to change their mindset about things."

But it will take the entire community uniting to truly make a difference in the children's lives, Javan Martin said.

"We don't need to be out here having parties for children with hot dogs and things," he said. "We need to be out here and really talk about how to help stop the crime."

Greg Martin, 64, said he's lived in the area since he was a boy.

"I used to play in the woods back there," he said. "And I used to sit out in lawn chairs with my parents and laugh and enjoy the night while the business was going, and there was no threats." But that has changed, he said.

Javan Martin said neighbors need to come together and talk to each other about what's going on in the community.

"So if someone is stealing, we're all on the lookout," he said. "The police can only do so much. It's the people in the community who really have to make the community better. I feel like if I'm helping the next man protect their things, they can help me protect mine."

Having seen how the neighborhood has changed over the years, how violence has grown, Greg Martin said, it makes him sad. He said the community culture changed when apartments replaced homes, and tenants replaced homeowners.

"We need a more together community," he said.

Javan Martin said that's what he tries to teach the children. "This is your community. You need to clean it up."

At one point, a few smaller things were being stolen, and some of the children came back and offered to help figure out who was stealing the items.

"They're beginning to see that I don't want anything from them," he said. "I just want to see them do well. I have love for them just because I see myself in them."

Inside the restaurant, a Frederick Douglass quote hangs on a wall behind the counter.

"It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men," a reminder of how important Javan Martin's work is.

Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.