At first glance, the trailer looks odd, nestled between the Petro gas station and dilapidated storefronts on Adams Street. While participating in Tallahassee’s version of stop-and-go traffic after five in the evening, it’s hard not to notice the mobile restaurant across the street from Walgreens.
Around the crumbling parking lot, the sight of students and members of the surrounding community waiting on orders, the sound of “I Put on for My City” blasting in the background and the smell of conch fritters and tilapia makes anyone sitting in traffic want to pull over to get a sample. For Damon Moss and Jean-Pierre Knox, this is more than just “selling plates;” this is their hustle.
Culture Cuisine, better known to passer-bys as Sidewalk Café,’ had very “humble beginnings,” said owner, Moss.
The 32-year-old, who has over 10 years of experience as a chef at restaurants such as Governor’s Inn and Chez Pierre, recalls selling plates out of his apartment to make cash on the side. Originally from the Bahamas, Moss said that he always had a passion for cooking because he grew up around food.
Moss initially came to Tallahassee to receive a degree in mechanical engineering at FAMU, but decided to put school on hold when he had two children, now ages seven and five. “I felt like college was preparing me for a job and not a career. I didn’t want to have to clock in for someone all my life; I wanted to be my own boss,” said Moss, as he began grilling pieces of salmon.
No less than a foot away his partner, Jean-Pierre (also known as J.P.) Knox was working on an order of fried okra. The two met in 2002 at the Roadhouse Grill, instantly became friends and shared the same passion for cooking and entrepreneurship.
“We would see how much money the restaurant was making and we were only making about $13 an hour,” said Moss. “Then the managers would say ‘Hey we just made $5,000 this hour!’ and you start comparing the numbers.”
Knox, 25, from Pompano Beach, Fla., is a 2007 FAMU graduate. Knox earned his degree in occupational therapy and wanted to become a personal trainer but found out that life after college was not easy.
“The day I was supposed to be promoted to manager, they announced that Roadhouse Grill was shutting down,” said Knox. “At the time I was frustrated, but everything happens for a reason and God had another plan for me.”
At the same time, Moss had set up across the street from Walgreens with his tent, a grill and hope. Competing with three barbeque stands and a crab broil tent, Moss upgraded within six months with a partner and a trailer.
“We think it’s our niche,” said Moss. “We’re going to have an entire fleet!”
As the men pass a tattered notebook to each other taking orders, they alternate as waiters, janitors and culinary artists. They hope to grow bigger than the three-by-seven tin space they now occupy.
Moss will be back on the campus of FAMU as a construction engineering and technology student in the spring of 2009. He hopes to start a construction company.
“There are no limits to what I can learn to do,” he said.
Knox still has aspirations to pursue his career as a personal trainer but adds that, “Culture Cuisine is my work and my fun.”
Both encourage those interested in starting their own businesses to take it one step at a time. “When you look at us, we started in a tent and now we’re in a trailer,” Moss said, as he stirred a pot of green beans. “You have to take it one step at a time and one day at a time.”
At first glance, the trailer looks odd. Most would keep driving at least another quarter-mile to local franchises. But beyond the bench press, plastic blue tent, lack of parking and used trailer, most would miss out on some of the best grilled tilapia, macaroni and cheese and fried okra this side of Tennessee St.
From noon until midnight, in a trailer across from Walgreen’s and the Petro gas station on Adams St., the sight of young men building a foundation can be seen through the screen-window, the sound of plans being made amid the stirring of a pot or the flipping of a burger, the smell of ambition is mixed with a taste of hustle.