A SEAT AT THE TABLE: Walking Tall Wilmington partners with local restaurateurs for community meals

Wayfarer Delicatessen & Bistro closed its doors for the final time earlier in June. However, the space has quietly reopened last week with new tenants Promised Land Kitchen. On the lunch menu last Tuesday was teriyaki chicken with veggies, with coconut steamed rice. But the air filled with more than aromatic herbs and spices upon entering. Friendly chatter could be heard from table to table. Though a normal scene for a downtown eatery at lunchtime, service here was a bit different. Chef Jules DeBord was catering to roughly 30 Wilmingtonians without a permanent home or experiencing extreme poverty.

Folks gather at Promised Land Kitchen in downtown Wilmington for Tuesday lunch and community building with Walking Tall Wilmington. Photo by Shannon Rae Gentry
A PROMISE-FULL BITE: Folks gather at Promised Land Kitchen in downtown Wilmington for Tuesday lunch and community building with Walking Tall Wilmington. Photo by Shannon Rae Gentry

The scene was reminiscent from encore’s visit to The Hope Center, located in the basement at Fifth Avenue United Methodist Church, last year. People were settling in for a hot cup of coffee or bowl of chili. Founder Randy Evans was building a community and culture of respect, love and compassion—of which he continues to do with his mobile outreach organization, Walking Tall Wilmington, today.

Evans has been coordinating community meals for years, but Tuesday lunches with DeBord began just a couple of months ago with her Ramen a Go Go food truck. Chef DeBord, also founder of Lunchbox Pickles and Port City Farmers Market, started setting up her food truck at central places in downtown ILM and Evans brought his Walking Tall family.

“She’s been a big advocate for Walking Tall and the community,” Evans says. “She walks the walk and talks the talk. . . .  She knew I was doing meals and had talked about having a food truck she was going to start. When it hit she wanted to do meals for our friends in poverty.”

Other restaurants are setting tables, too, so to speak. Catch the Food Truck now serves lunch twice a month on Thursdays, with Soulful Twist and others in rotation as well. The real issues come with losing space due to city parking and zoning laws—particularly problematic for a primarily mobile nonprofit—and when inclement weather hits.

“Then individuals in poverty have to decide whether or not they want to stay dry or go hungry,”  Evans explains. “And that’s a decision you should never have to make.”

Having to move around from location to location also makes it difficult to keep folks informed on where they can find mobile meals. Evans uses word of mouth, usually walking around to find people at the public library or the like. “Having [Promised Land Kitchen] is going to be good because everyone will know where it’s at,” he observes.

Though she hasn’t bought the building yet, DeBord’s plan for her lease is to simply make food all folks can enjoy, together. Aside from hosting Walking Tall lunches on Tuesdays (and anyone is welcome to attend), normal hours are eventually going to be Sundays through Thursdays, 8 a.m. – midnight, and Fridays and Saturdays from 8 a.m. – 3 a.m.

“I’m trying to fill some of the voids that downtown has with food,” DeBord explains. “Number one being quick grab-and-go breakfast, and then late-night food that’s something other than pizza or fried stuff. We can do a trimmed down menu . . . and just have real honest street food.”

Meanwhile, their hours will vary until all kitchen resources come in, and they’re fully staffed and organized. She’s using this time to get her bearings and fulfill a large part of her business model: giving back.

To feed 25 to 30 people, DeBord estimates a cost of about $50 or $60 a week in product. While she tries to stretch the money, it’s all fresh food, and she doesn’t cut corners on quality. She never serves anything she wouldn’t eat herself or serve paying customers.

“We also have stuff we’ve done for a long time, so it’s just easy to do things we know how to make and I know we can keep the cost down,” she continues. “I think every restaurant should do this, I don’t see why they can’t. We did it with the food truck, we’re doing it here; it’s just a matter of choice.”

DeBord wants to challenge other restaurateurs and chefs to help people who really need it, especially during soft-opening periods. “The result is the same at the end: everybody loves what they got,” she says. “But the purpose of the soft opening is to perfect your process, so why not give it to someone who needs it as opposed to anyone who can afford a meal anytime.”

Walking Tall has given Evans the opportunity to be even more community-oriented in ways, because of having to be on the move—even more so now that he’s bringing people together at the dinner table. While there are other places around town providing meals, like churches, this is one of few opportunities some Walking Tall patrons have to dine on fish tacos from award-winning Chef Keith Rhodes, or Cajun chicken wings from Soulful Twist, or simply eat side-by-side with friends in a restaurant.

This is Paul Bress’s second time at a Tuesday lunch, but his first sitting inside what is now Promised Land. Tony Nicholson has been coming to the lunches since they started in June, with DeBord’s Asian-inspired cuisines being her favorites so far. Nicholson was also a model for the recent portrait series, “Faces of Courage” by Sharon Wozniak-Spencer (encore’s cover story two weeks ago).

“I was ‘Blue Eyes,’” she tells me with a broad smile from across the table. Like others, Nicholson gets many of her dinners and breakfasts from local churches. However, lunch is often in question.

“Wilmington has some pretty good places to go and eat,” she says. “It’s a blessing, really.”

Living in poverty, for whatever reason, takes its toll mentally, spiritually and physically. Just like The Hope Center, Walking Tall acts as a stepping stone toward regaining self worth and dignity.

“They’re human beings,” Evans reminds. “They’re not invisible. They’re flesh and blood, souls, hearts, and minds. And Jules is offering that dignity through food.”

Walking Tall lunches are about more than simply feeding people, which is why Evans never envisioned setting up a row of steam tables, manned with volunteers and serving spoons. It’s about sitting down side-by-side with the rest of the Wilmington community, which is what he hopes to see more of now that Promised Land Kitchen is open.

“It’s very relational, and it’s very engaging,” he explains. “Folks might think: ‘Well, what have I really done by just having a meal?’ But they’ve done leaps and bounds.”

Evans hopes to eventually expand Walking Tall to other cities. For now, he has the opportunity for a Walking Tall home base in a fixer upper on Grace Street (just in time before winter).

Anyone who wishes to get involved with Walking Tall Wilmington can visit their website or follow them on Facebook for weekly lunch times and meet ups. Evans and company also will be at the HOW Fest on August 31 and Port City Pride Block Party on September 2.

Folks can learn more about Promised Land Kitchen on their Facebook page.

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