ORLANDO – His name is Eddie James, but most people in this city are probably more likely to know him as Chef Eddie.
That’s the name, after all, of the restaurant that he runs with his wife Bessie, at 3214 Orange Center Boulevard. Chef Eddie’s Restaurant is a place where patrons can get Eddie’s popular Jalapeno Muffin – “They go by those muffins in droves,” he said – or where they can get some soul food – “Ham hocks, pig tails, fried chicken, stuff like that,” he added – without it actually being a Soul Food restaurant, since Chef Eddie’s serves so much more.
“We do your steaks and your seafood, snow crabs, things like that,” he said. “We do a much wider variety than just soul food.”
It’s a place where Eddie James goes out of his way to make sure his customers are satisfied – by greeting them in person.
“I go out to every table,” he said. “I talk to the guests. I ask questions. I make it my personal business to build a relationship with them.”
That courtesy lasts right up until they’re heading back to their car.
“I make sure everyone who walks out the door is happy,” he said.
Most importantly, Chef Eddie’s Restaurant, and the man behind it, are a success story in a city where the economy has been battered by the collapse of the housing market and the credit crunch. Although the James’ opened their restaurant in 2009, at the height of the recession, they’ve been able to keep their doors open and continue to offer this city an upscale dining experience.
“That was very difficult,” James said of his decision to open a restaurant just as the economy was at its worst.
“But I felt we put out a quality product and quality service, and it was going to be okay,” he said.
Eddie James grew up in Fort Lauderdale, where he learned to do two things: cook, and develop a passion for the restaurant industry.
”It’s the only thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “Since I was 12 years old, I’ve been in this business. I love cooking for people. I love seeing the look on people’s faces as they’re eating.”
He and his wife both developed key experience in the restaurant industry by working for some very high profile names – Eddie as a chef at Charley’s Steakhouse in Orlando for 16 years, and Bessie at Darden’s Restaurant. Her experience was within management, his inside the kitchen.
“She did mostly front of the house stuff, and I did mostly back of the house stuff,” he said.
When an opportunity arose to open their own restaurant, they decided to jump at it. The James’ had arranged a meal for a Christmas event hosted by the charitable organization Soldiers of Scholar, which assists veterans. The coordinator of the event was so impressed by the food they provided that he offered them a business opportunity: the chance to take over the restaurant he owns at Orange Center Boulevard that used to be called Queen Bee’s. The James’ saw a great opportunity there.
“He offered to let me take over this place,” he said.
Eddie James had actually opened a restaurant once before, in 1993 in Orlando, called Soul Bay, and he drew on that experience – in which he admits that he learned from his mistakes.
“I lasted about a year, a year and a half,” he said. “I didn’t have the maturity level then. I had the knowledge, but I wasn’t ready maturity-wise.”
One thing he decided to do differently this time around with Chef Eddie’s was to make it something special, a place that people would remember, that stood out.
“I wanted to do an upscale sit-down restaurant, where people come in and get that same level of service as if they went to International Drive,” he said.
There are white linen clothes on the tables, the menu is diverse and offers a wide variety of options, and, of course, the owner greets people at the table and checks to be sure they’re enjoying the meal.
That’s actually helped quite a bit, he said, as word of mouth advertising from those satisfied customers has enabled him to build up a larger and steady customer base.
“They sent other people to us, and slowly but surely we started to grow,” he said.
He even got a visit recently from the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
“Two weeks ago, he was doing a speaking engagement at a local church,” James said. The pastor of that church, a regular customer, decided to bring Jackson to Chef Eddie’s. James said he had an opportunity to do what he always does: visit their table and speak to the guests, including Jackson.
“He loved everything,” James said.
Asked what advice he would have for others who want to either open a restaurant or start their own business, James laughed and said, “Don’t do it!” Then he added that if that truly is their dream, there’s one key component to making it happen.
“Make sure that whatever it is you’re going to do, you have that level of passion about it,” he said.
To learn more about Chef Eddie’s Restaurant, call 407-826-1731.
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