As you walk through the door of Mama J’s, you can’t miss the restaurant’s mantra, “Welcome home.” It’s a phrase that’s not only woven throughout the restaurant’s decor, but lived by the entire team.
On this Tuesday at 2 p.m. plenty of tables are still full after the lunch rush has wrapped at most other spots. Velma Johnson, the restaurant’s matriarch and namesake, steps out of the kitchen, spreads hugs, steps behind the bar to greet a customer and gets them a place setting. You’re definitely at home here.
General manager Kelli Lemon has been a family friend of the Johnsons for years and joined the team when they opened the restaurant, which recently celebrated five years.
“When you’re inviting someone into your home, you’re basically inviting them into every part of your world,” Kelli said. “We want the restaurant to feel like you’re sitting in grandma’s kitchen. When you come in here, we want you to feel, whether from the waitstaff, to the cooks, to the people you sit beside that they could be a friend or family member from way back.”
Mama J’s prepares dishes on the daily from pan-fried catfish to candied yams, homemade cakes (that cake!) to cobblers. Being part of the rebirth of Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood has been a big part of the restaurant’s growth according to Kelli.
“I think people are supporting us because we are part of the neighborhood,” she said. “And we brighten the street a little. We want to make sure that people are comfortable from our Jackson Ward residents to those that are traveling here internationally to those that put on a suit and tie everyday downtown.
“No one gets special treatment here… In our opinion, everyone is a celebrity.”
Kelli emphasizes the importance of making sure each and every customer is taken care of during their dining experience. The management team built a point system to reward the team when they get a great compliment on review sites like Yelp or TripAdvisor.
These review sites, Kelli said, make it even more important to take care of the guest while they are in the restaurant.
“Our job is satisfaction. When our customers walk out the door and are satisfied -- that’s a very big deal for us,” she said. “If someone hasn’t eaten their greens at the table...were they full?...did they not like the greens? We’re going to find out why so we can take care of it.”
It's the love in the food and warmth of the staff that makes Mama J's stand out.
“I think Mama J’s is that place where all walks of life of Richmond can sit down and eat good. Classic, simple, good food,” Kelli said. “The fact that you can have a good conversation, meet someone new that you’ve never talked to is a plus."