Herman and Beverly Jenkins call their business a “mom-and-pop” operation, but 30 years ago, when they opened what is now Main Street Cafe & Catering, they hardly fit the stereotype.
Early in 1982, Beverly and Herman, then 24 and 31 respectively, had been married a little over a year, lived in a $65-a-month garage apartment and had jobs they didn’t like. Both artists at heart, they chafed at the rigidity of 9-to-5.
Definitely not “mom and pop” but more like two “crazy kids” with nothing to lose, they decided to go into business for themselves.
Beverly, who “loves all things cooking,” wanted to open a kitchen gadget store. Herman thought that one over and suggested they include a sandwich bar to boost cash flow.
“Oh, great, now I have to cook,” Beverly said, but saw the wisdom in it.
With a $3,000 loan co-signed by Herman’s father, the Jenkins made plans for their new business.
“Going into debt? We were scared to death,” Beverly said. Learning they were expecting their first child just as they stepped out on that proverbial limb heightened the excitement and fear.
They rented a small space at the corner of Main and Spring streets in Jonesborough where The Dining Room is now. Herman renovated and painted it and made the four original tables, still in use today. In one area, they had racks for Beverly’s kitchen gadgets.
The Village Cupboard, as they called it, opened May 6, 1982.
“Our very first customer was named Tim Hicks. He said, “Give me a roast beef sandwich on a white roll,” Herman said.
The menu wasn’t extensive. Beverly and employee, Tammy Kellar, learned to operate within the limitations of the space.
“We didn’t have a grill back then,” Beverly said. “It was just sandwiches, soups and salads. I’d make my version of Texas chili and different soups. It was amazing to me that people ate soup in the summertime.
“I made two different kinds of sweets — brownies and chocolate chip cookies or blondies and Snickerdoodles.”
At most they had 20 seats inside and four seats outside in good weather, but the business took off.
It didn’t take long to realize the kitchen gadgets were going nowhere and the sandwich shop was where the future lay. The name Village Cupboard no longer fit the business.
Herman told Jimmy Neil Smith they were looking for a new name for the cafe. “Every small town has a Main Street Cafe,” Smith offered, and Herman said, “OK, that sounds good.”
That October, 9 months pregnant, Beverly sat on a stool while she took order after order from customers during the National Storytelling Festival. Daughter Breelyn was born Oct. 13, 1982.
By 1987, Main Street Cafe had outgrown its space. Customers and friends told them, “You can’t move. It’s so quaint; it’s so cozy,” but the Jenkins were ready for the next step and then some.
Instead of renting, they bought the building at 117 W. Main St., where the cafe is located today. The larger space allowed them to expand their menu, buy more equipment, serve more customers.
And then there was catering. It was a natural progression, Beverly said. “Someone called and said, ‘Do you guys do catering trays?,” and she said, “Yes.”
It began with trays of sandwiches, veggies, fruit, cheese and brownies. “I made thousands and thousands of mints back in the day,” she remembered.
Then the catering business, like the cafe, prospered.
In 1988, their son, Zachary, was born during the filming of “Goodbye Miss Fourth of July.” They were catering for the film crew.
Two years later, they bought the Old Quarters Building in Jonesborough. “Herman said, ‘You’ve got to come see this. It’s the prettiest building in town,’ ” Beverly said.
They use Old Quarters for banquets, parties and receptions they cater.
They were running a cafe, a catering business and a banquet facility, but Beverly had no catering kitchen. She worked above the restaurant, carrying food and supplies up and down 22 stairs.
“It was expand or die because I couldn’t take it any more,” she said.
So, in 1998, they rented kitchen space in the Jonesborough train yard. “It was awesome,” she said, her relief evident.
Though the business has been a success, Herman admits, “We flew by the seat of our pants. It was trial-and-error for the first 10 years.”
It was also hard work and their reliance on a core staff, including Kellar who has worked for the Jenkins in some capacity for 29 years.
And there were the Jenkins’ individual talents.
“Herman always said there are two reasons the business has succeeded — me and Herman,” Beverly said. “I knew how to cook; Herman had the business sense.”
So, the two young newlyweds traded 9-to-5 for 24/7, raising two kids in the process. It wasn’t easy.
“One minute the phone would ring with a catering job. What are we going to do with the kids? It was a juggling act,” Beverly said. “We rarely said ‘no.’ We’d figure it out.
“If I had a dollar for every time someone said, ‘I don’t know how you do it, Beverly,’ I would be rich,” she said and laughed.
Thirty years into it, Herman and Beverly are taking some time. They went to South America for a month in the spring, and, Beverly said, they have been “absentee owners” of the cafe for the past five years as they’ve focused more on catering.
Breelyn and husband Alex Bomba are part of the family business, and will be opening an Italian restaurant in Jonesborough soon. Zach will finish cooking school in France in August and will work at the cafe.
Herman and Beverly aren’t turning the businesses over to the next generation just yet, but 30 years of incredibly hard work has rich dividends.
“We’ve laid the foundation, and they can take it from there,” Herman said. “I never thought I would move to small-town America, raise my family and have a small business, but Jonesborough is definitely the place to make that happen.”