One of the first things you’ll see as you walk into Mom’s Dream Kitchen (formerly Collins’ Dream Kitchen) is a large portrait of a gently smiling woman hung just to the right of the door. This is the founder’s mother, and the portrait now hangs as a reminder of the woman who used to sit just there, to the right of the door, greeting customers with a smile.
“[My mother] would dress up and come down here every Friday,” Ms. Sylvester Collins, founder of the restaurant, tells me. “She said ‘I got so many clothes I never wear out,’ so she’d dress up every Friday, sit right there at that door, and meet everybody that come in.”
She passed away a few years back at the age of 93, but her presence still remains in the strong sense of family and legacy that is the very foundation of Mom’s Dream Kitchen.
The restaurant opened its doors 30 years ago in 1987. It was originally named Collins’ Dream Kitchen, for founder Sylvester Collins and her dream of running her own business feeding the neighborhood the soul food she so loves to cook.
Achieving that dream was a true labor of love for the entire family.
“When I first went into business,” Ms. Collins tells me, “[My mother] mortgaged her house and gave me the money. It wasn’t a whole lot of money, but enough to make the dream come true.” And even after initially opening the doors, help from her parents continued to enable Ms. Collins to keep her dream alive. “I had no refrigerator and my daddy gave me the deep freeze out of their house,” she recalls with a smile.
Beyond the financial assistance, it’s clear that the most important gift Ms. Collins received from her family was their belief in her dream. “[My mother] said, ‘I have confidence in my daughter,” Ms. Collins tells me. “That’s why I’m so thankful and so grateful, because I had parents that cared too.”
That family legacy has carried on through the generations. Collins’ Dream Kitchen is now largely owned and run by Ms. Collins oldest son, a family counselor who now splits his time between his clients and his mother’s business. He re-named the restaurant Mom’s Dream Kitchen to honor her.
“I named it Mom’s Dream Kitchen because even though I’m the person in charge, it’s still hers.” Tim Norris tells me. “This is her kitchen, this is her dream. We just want to carry it on, and on and on.”
Norris took over for his mother about 2 years ago, after a long string of tragedy and heartbreak left her with less energy to care for the administrative details of running a business. In the last 8 years, Ms. Collins lost her youngest son, her mother, her best friend, and her brother. She turned to the dream she’d worked so hard to build for comfort and safety as she grieved.
“As a counselor, I see that all the time.” Norris says. “You find ways to cope, a coping mechanism, and that’s what it was. All she wanted to do was just prepare meals. She didn’t want to do the business side of it. To see her going through all this, I knew I needed to step up.”
Ms. Collins was glad for the help. “Most people sign a will,” she says. “But I said I’m going to give it to you now while I’m still alive. It’s yours. So he carries it on.”
Things are changing as a result of the shift–“the biggest challenge has probably been because I have a different energy I want to bring in,” Norris says, “and she still has her way, you know.”
She’s still there nearly every day, preparing her food from scratch just like she always has. She loves that customers still ask after her when they come in, wanting to know if she’s there and if she personally prepared the dish they want to order. She truly loves this part of her dream, and it shows.
“Soul food is just what it is: soul food.” Her son explains. “It’s from the soul. Food from the soul. You have to love doing what you do. You can tell if somebody is doing it for a profit or if somebody is doing it because they really love it, just by the taste.” Ms. Collins explanation is simpler: “”I love people. I love seeing the smiles on their faces.”
So by and large, the legacy and tradition of the Dream Kitchen runs true. Ms. Collins doesn’t put any meat or drippings into her vegetables, for example, so that vegetarians can eat them. Norris is continuing this practice. And about those new ideas he wants to bring in? “I don’t want to give it out” he laughs. “But you have to keep it soul food because people come here from all over and that’s what they want.”
For Ms. Collins, her hope for her legacy is just as simple and straightforward as the original dream was all those years ago: “The dream was to come in and make sure I put out quality food,” she says. As for legacy? “The main thing is: don’t burn it!”