Where'd the soul food go?

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Those who know soul food in Cape Girardeau know Rick and the Big Cat.

They sound like a pair from a Hollywood buddy comedy and might even look the part, too.

Rick Bond is the tall, silver-tongued smooth talker and Big Cat -- J.T. Green -- is, well, big, the soft-spoken, kind-hearted muscle of the duo.

Some may remember their "Southern cookin'" restaurant: Big Cat's at 435 Morgan Oak St.

They served pork chops, hot dogs, barbecue made-to-order. It was hot, fresh, fast and, to hear it from Rick (a great self-promoter), "delicious -- the best in town."

Earlier this year the two had an idea. They were making so much on lunch deliveries to local businesses and hospitals, why not invest in a mobile unit that could go where the customers are?

It made sense, the two thought. They could set up by the riverfront during summer days or outside of bars on weekend nights.

So they bought what they affectionately call a "roach truck" and set about equipping it with freezers, deep-friers... the works. The whole project cost $12,500, but they were sure they'd make back that and more once things got sizzling.

But a funny thing happened on the way to a profit.

Even though the two were licensed by the city to operate a mobile unit, and even though they passed health and safety inspections, they couldn't seem to find a spot to sell their wares.

By their own account, they asked 100 area businesses for permission to set up on parking lots or other areas and were refused by all but three. (One is owned by Bond's brother.)

Trying to find a public spot proved equally frustrating. After setting up on Main Street one July day, they say a downtown jeweler told them "we don't want you here," and called the police.

Another summer night outside a local bar where they had the owner's permission to sell food, police showed up and issued them a citation. Their court date is later this month.

The two came before the Cape Girardeau City Council, where they have had ample time to state their case, and were notified that selling wares on Cape Girardeau city streets violates an ordinance against "peddlers, hawksters, hucksters, vendors" and the like.

Apparently the ordinance extends to people operating from parking spaces if they create congestion or inconvenience.

So the two decided to run up the white flag. They closed down their vehicle and have since been working in construction.

But their case is an interesting contrast to that of another young entrepreneur.

In the summer of 2005, Charles McGinty, of the family of jewelers, opened up a similar food stand. "Humpdogs Inc." was the name, and he and his business partner sold brats and dogs to the crowd leaving the bars after last call.

And things were conspicuously quiet: No merchants or police ever cited the college-age salesmen on the sidewalk in front of the family store.

And that, for many in town, brings up the red-hot issue of race. Were Rick and Big Cat treated differently because they happen to be black or are outsiders?

It's impossible to say, but the two make a compelling argument that they were.

"I believe if we were white this wouldn't be an issue," Bond said. "It's racism, but it's a different kind. It's the kind that says we don't know you, you aren't like us, we're not letting some small entrepreneur make money in our town."

And he says all he wants now is a chance.

"Look, we're selling food. I'm not out there begging or doing drugs. We're trying to earn an honest living. Will we get rich? No. But can we earn a living? Yes."

TJ Greaney is a staff reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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