words by Rosalie Murphy, photos by Ilenia Pezzaniti
Ann’s Place had been on the corner of South Hawkins Avenue and Vernon Odom Boulevard for decades by the time President Barack Obama stopped by for breakfast, while he was campaigning in Akron in the summer of 2012.
Shortly thereafter, the longtime owner, Josephine Ann Harris, died. By the fall of 2013, the Sherbondy Hill diner had been shuttered.
All the while, Kenny Whitfield was barbecuing in the parking lot across the street.
Kenny, 66, spent about five years barbecuing ribs under a blue tent in a parking lot on Hawkins. One Saturday, he had a vision.
“I was over there working and cooking, and God himself showed me in the spirit — [a restaurant] is going to be yours. I didn’t know how it was going to happen, didn’t have no idea that it was going to happen, but it happened,” Kenny says.
Kenn was friendly with the man who owned the convenience store beside where he used to grill. The owner made Kenny an offer: He’d buy the building that housed Ann’s, and they could open a restaurant together.
According to Summit County property records, they bought the building in the summer of 2014.
“After two years, he came up to me one day and said, ‘I’ve held your hand long enough. I’ll give you 30 days. Get everything in order and you buy the business,’” Kenny says. “He taught me business. You write it all down, staple it to this little book, that’s how you do your taxes… Once you start learning it, you take everything much more seriously, ‘cause you start seeing numbers and start understanding, ‘this is legit now, I ain’t in the streets no more,’ and you have to treat it as that.”
Kenny was born in Alabama to a Native American mother and a Black father and learned to cook in his mother’s kitchen. But the prejudice he encountered as the child of a mixed-race family made him want to leave the South, he says. He moved to Akron about 20 years ago with William Washington, who now works in the kitchen at Ann’s.
“My goal and my ambition at one time was to be a high drug dealer, live a luxurious life. Didn’t get me nowhere,” Kenny admits. “When you’re making money in not the right way, it ain’t gonna come out right. And I know that today.”
It’s been about 12 years since Kenny “transformed,” however. Like Saul on the road to Damascus, he says, he had a powerful conversion.
Today, he wakes up at 3:30 am and arrives at the restaurant by 4:30 am. He drives or walks around the building, thanking God for another day. Then he opens the blinds, starts the first pot of coffee, inventories the food supplies and turns on the TVs. The staff prays together before they unlock the doors at 7 am.
“I’ve never had a boss that prayed every morning at the crack of seven,” says Aaron Thompson, who started working at Ann’s about three months ago. “He knows your heart, he looks at your heart, he doesn’t look at your outside.”
Ann’s has a staff of eight people, but Kenny still does much of the cooking himself — on the “same old beat-up raggedy grills” he used to use across the street.
“You can’t get ahead of what’s been good to you,” Kenny says. “I want to get all the walls out and put a little smoker in [the back], but you don’t get the same taste. ‘Man, why you out there in the cold?’ Because I have to be consistent.”
Ann’s remains the neighborhood diner it was. At 4 pm on a Monday afternoon, there are eight middle-aged folks inside, swapping stories. One pair has a Bible between them. A senior coffee costs 85 cents. I try to order a coffee, but the server insists: “Our ribs are awesome.” She’s right.
The scene at 9 am on a Tuesday is similar, with Kenny and his staff greeting customers, “Hey, neighbor!”
“You could have people coming in and saying, ‘Man, you remember that guy? All he did was roll around, living large, sellings drugs, and now he’s trying to bless the people.’ Folks come in here and need help… they know they can come see Mr. Kenny and get something to eat, because it could be me,” Kenny says. “It could be me sleeping over in the tent city. But God has given me some favor.”
Ann’s Place is at 1604 South Hawkins Avenue in Akron. Open 7 am – 5 pm daily.
This story is part of The Devil Strip’s Akropreneurs series, which is made possible by the Burton D. Morgan Foundation and the Fund for Our Economic Future.
Rosalie Murphy is Editor-in-Chief of The Devil Strip.