Amid D.C. Squabbles, A Look At Life At A Restaurant
ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. Members of Congress are out in their districts talking with constituents this week and NPR's Andrea Seabrook has also left the Capitol. Her assignment is to listen. And last night, she was listening in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, at a local spot called Sweet Potatoes.
ANDREA SEABROOK: There's something about the atmosphere at Sweet Potatoes that's like a juke joint. It's not fancy, but it's packed. The light is low, candles flicker and it's all brought together by the jazz.
STEPHANIE TYSON: We opened Sweet Potatoes about eight and a half years ago by the seat of our pants, and used a lot of credit cards and loans from the city.
SEABROOK: Chef, Stephanie Tyson, is in a purple smock, her long dreadlocks wrapped up on her head. Her partner, Vivian Joiner, has an elegant shaved head and dangling earrings.
VIVIAN JOINER: We thought we'd have a few guests and Stephanie would be in the back cooking and I would be out front with maybe one other person and we'd wait tables and bartend.
SEABROOK: But it took off. Now, Tyson and Joiner have some 30 employees, crowds of loyal customers and a line out the door. The reason why is in the kitchen.
Three chefs are a blur of movement, a dance, a tango, says Tyson.
TYSON: Right now, he's doing the trout with cornbread stuffing and crabmeat in greens wrapped in bacon. We got catfish going on over here. We got fried chicken. We got spaghetti right over here.
SEABROOK: It's called spaghetti with a drawl. A customer tells me it's like replacing the Italy in the pasta with Creole.
Yet even for this successful restaurant, times are hard, says Joiner. She feels like she's always working against the system, jumping through hoops just to stay in business. Large corporations don't seem to have this problem, she says. Joiner asks, who took the heat with the bad bank decisions that threw the U.S. economy into the swamp?
JOINER: We got penalized. We got penalized because people couldn't come in our door and buy things. Then we got penalized because we had to pay more for the loan that they gave us. That's not right.
SEABROOK: And then there's all the talk in Washington, says Joiner, about politicians helping small businesses. What they mean by small businesses, Joiner says, is operations making five or ten million dollars a year, not Sweet Potatoes.
JOINER: For the little person that generates the neighborhood job, the city job, the basic job that most people survive off of, there are no tax cuts. We haven't seen it. We haven't felt it.
SEABROOK: Tyler(ph) and Joiner believe Washington is set up right now to serve Wall Street, corporations and big campaign donors. And they're disappointed.
JOINER: When politicians become public servants again and take care of the people they're supposed to serve, then we'll have a better country.
SEABROOK: Back out in the dining room, waiters whisk by with plates of fried green tomatoes, okra and, of course, sweet potato pie. Many of their employees, says Tyler, are people who couldn't find a job anywhere else. They needed a second chance.
TYSON: They learned to wait tables, they learned to bartend, they learned to cook, so even if they don't stay here, they can leave here with something. We've had a lot of people that got out of prison, couldn't find a job, come here, started here and left and gone on to do great things.
SEABROOK: Tyler says how they do business is just as important to them as turning a profit, though that has its risks, says Joiner. She's taken on people who have made mistakes in the past.
JOINER: And when they come in, they make a commitment that they're going to do the right thing. And, once in a while, we'll get burnt by that, but for the most part, we have the challenge and the privilege of taking someone who's kind of lost their way for one reason or another and helping them get their sea legs and strong footing.
SEABROOK: Happy customers chatter at their tables completely unaware there's a social experiment going on around them. They don't need to know, says Joiner. They just need to eat and that's what unites their two missions, say Tyler and Joiner, both parts feed people, belly and soul.
Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
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