New cafe owner plants all-American roots in Pahokee

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Pahokee’s Town Center Cafe, 129 Lake Ave., is under new management in its high-traffic location smack dab on the main tourist route through town.

PAHOKEE — The former owner of the Town Center Cafe was thinking about possibly closing the restaurant after almost two years in business when Lateresa Jones moved here from Ocala with her husband, Richard, a few months ago.

The Joneses came because she wanted to live in the congressional district represented by Congressman Alcee Hastings out of Miami. She intends to be the Republican opponent for his seat in next November’s election.

A native of “Detroit-ville” as she called it, Mrs. Jones explained: “I fell in love with this little bitty city that has so much life. It has so much potential. It just takes the right people to come in here and want to help it to grow.”

She believes that God put her in exactly the right place at just the right time when she met Celecia Gaynor (who’d opened the eatery back in 2018).

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Lateresa and Richard Jones, a retired PBSO deputy, have bought the business and are in the process of buying the building.

“For me, when the opportunity came up — she was going to close it — I prayed about it and I figured we would be able to make something happen between her and I. So I says, ‘OK, God, I’ve never been in the restaurant business before, but I want to be able to provide opportunity for the community.’”

Her prayer apparently was heard, because “since I’ve been here, I’ve found a lot of high school kids coming in applying for jobs, and that’s because they don’t have any other options,” Mrs. Jones stated.

She seized this opportunity she hadn’t been expecting because it’s allowing her to help a community that sorely needs more employment options for its youth.

“So now I’m gearing the people that we employ toward the high school kids that could do, like, the floors, the tables, busing tables and doing our dishes. We use our dishes — don’t have a dishwasher — so it’s old school. And I think it teaches value. But I have parents that come in here with their kids, and they say, ‘My kid needs a job, too’.”

Now she makes it a point to listen when working parents come in for breakfast, brunch or lunch and talk about their children. “That means a parent cares, and they know where their children are. And when the kid comes, I talk with them, and that lets me know their motivation, ambition, and that they need other things to do as well. And I think that’s the good part.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Mr. and Mrs. Jones stand behind the counter at their restaurant.

“So I’m going to try to really implement that, and work with the school system because we have so many children here.” Mrs. Jones has hired several already for part-time positions. Just recently she had the Pahokee Chamber of Commerce director in to give the youths some coaching in customer service and etiquette.

The Joneses will need to hire a few other adults soon, too — her husband, Richard, does some kitchen prep and cooking — because the Town Center Cafe’s hours have been extended this month for the first time to serve dinner crowds as well. Their new hours are 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. They recently brought aboard a young man, native of Pahokee, as their head chef, known simply as “Chef D.”

She has kept a few of the staples on the menu that were popular when Ms. Gaynor ran the place, but has juggled it up some to provide healthier options and also to emphasize local products and produce.

They vary their breakfast, brunch and soup-and-sandwich specials just about every day, depending on what kinds of fresh vegetables, meats and fish her local buyers and suppliers have available. Only this month they started offering dinner specials as well.

The prices are more than reasonable, with most all the breakfast, brunch or lunchtime combo plates set at $4.99, $5.99 or $6.99. Dinners range from $8.99 on up, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything overpriced; portions are most generous. They offer homemade breads, cakes, cornbread, desserts, waffles, pastries, muffins, rolls, pies, salads, smoothies, soups, milkshakes, coffees and — soon — beer and wine as well. That’s when they’ll be hiring a few more adults to staff the diner in the evening.

Mrs. Jones said she’s had a great response from Pahokeeans. “I think that with this community, we can do so much, but it takes the community to make this work. Because I’m the only business to start up here — well, Nana’s (Cuban Cafe) is still here, there’s several other businesses that are still here — but we have to stick together and keep them going here as long as we possibly can,” she said.

“I saw an opportunity to open a restaurant and do something I’ve never done before and help the community at the same time. It almost takes my breath away because I’m a believer, and I just know this happened for a reason, for us to be coming here. The support from the community is outstanding, especially all of the business owners and a lot of the people that come, and they all support us,” added Mrs. Jones. She practices the mutual support she preaches, going by Nana’s for cafe con leche almost every morning.

And her customers, many of whom are already regulars, are really enjoying the food, too. Rave reviews have been appearing regularly on the Town Center Cafe’s social media pages.

She knows the importance of using the best ingredients. She and her husband farmed a few acres for years in the Ocala area, growing sweet potatoes, collard greens and the like, and she has an agricultural education background.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Courtesy of Town Center Cafe
Town Center staff are ready to welcome all diners. “Our team has completed four hours of customer service training,” owner Lateresa Jones posted on their Facebook page Dec. 7. “Thank you to Regina Bohlen for supporting the vision of growth. We’re happy to provide jobs to our young people.” In a team training exercise the weekend before the town’s Christmas parade Dec. 9, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Regina Bohlen conducted a session to teach them etiquette and customer service pointers.

Finishing a lunch of grilled Lake O speckled perch and mixed veggies, I asked if farm- and lake-to-table dishes were going to be her focus. Mrs. Jones nodded, saying, “I see the movement is, people like quick foods, they like fast foods, but because of my age, I also like healthy foods. So I want to be able to offer the best fresh salads, just a variety on the menu that’s not too much, but at the same time … almost like a ‘mood food’!” She plans the menu herself as a way of controlling costs.

“We do a lot of salads, grilled chicken salads. We’re pushing our menu to about half grilled or baked and half fried foods, we’ll maintain our American hamburger because they go over well. That’s what I’m trying to do is pull it all together, because we’ve got all-American roots.”

A couple of weeks ago she’d been wondering if she should just walk away … “but God just threw me a hand. And then he showed me signs. Then I got approved for my financing and things like that. That means it’s time to stay. I’m staying and I expect the community to stay here as well.”

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